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Why leaders personal lives do matter

Question: Given the nature of the allegations and his past history, could Dominique Strauss-Kahn recover the credibility necessary to lead the IMF, or run for president of France, even if he were found innocent of last weekend’s sexual assault charges?

I’ve been disgusted this week to read about the heinous allegations of sexual assault against IMF President Dominique Strauss-Kahn. If true, he should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s revelation that he had a child with another woman (a week after his wife bore another son), while apparently consensual, is also quite troubling. Add Newt Gingrich’s bumpy entry into the presidential campaign, where he has described his own infidelities as a result of his patriotism and work ethic, and it’s disturbing to see how often powerful men abuse that power and disregard the women in their lives.

Many people say that “whatever they do in their personal lives doesn’t matter. I care about what they do in office.” They point to history and the infidelities of many great leaders over time. While at times I have sympathized with this point of view, upon further reflection I reject it on three counts.

First, we are living in current times. Women’s equality was unfortunately not an expectation in past eras, and our society often served the interests and needs of men, not women. I recently read Robert Dallek’s biography of JFK, which led me to see the TV show Mad Men as more credible and less exaggerated than I had thought. Today, equality is the expectation at work and at home and should be honored and demonstrated by all leaders.

Second, values matter in a leader. When leaders are known to womanize or cheat, they demonstrate disloyalty and dishonesty – two values that are a leadership killer. It creates an impression that the leader is untrustworthy and creates distance and gossip with those they work with and lead. These are not qualities that inspire people, and even if people are inspired by the leader’s vision or work, that inspiration has a giant asterisk affixed to it.

Third, leaders need to be able to draw on diverse talent to be effective. Placing limits on that talent, engagement and creativity will hurt the effectiveness of any endeavor. A known womanizer or adulterer will not be able to be as inclusive. Women may wonder if he will hit on them if they get too close, gossip and distrust will infect the team, and people will be suspicious of his agenda. When I began leading an organization that empowered diverse young leaders, I made a decision that I would never hit on or date anyone who was involved in my organization, because I feared that such a reputation could prevent young women leaders from coming to me for advice or support. I think it is a pretty good rule and demonstrates respect for women’s talent and contributions in the workplace.

All of these cases are about men in powerful leadership roles, and we could easily expand the list. Ron Heifetz in Leadership on the Line has written about how the vice of sex can be seductive to a leader facing extreme stress and continual adulation. But as I wrote here, values matter and leaders should be able to place values above vices – and most do.

This brings me to my final, and perhaps most important, point. We need more women leaders. It is outrageous that we still have tremendous gender disparities in leadership. Even in the nonprofit sector, the sector that should be most inclusive as it works to improve our communities and quality of life, there is a glass ceiling and gaps in leadership and pay at the top. Among FORTUNE 1000 companies, about 3 percent of the CEOs are women, and among members of Congress 17 percent are women. How can this be when, for example, 57 percent of college graduates are women?

If male leaders had to spend much more time surrounded by and working with women leaders as equals instead of doing business on the golf course with cigars and dirty jokes, it would lead to better and more inclusive organizations, institutions and policies. If a male leader collaborated actively with a team of mostly women, he would have to step up his respect. Strauss-Kahn should be convicted, if guilty, in the court of law. Schwarzenegger and Gingrich should be convicted in the court of public opinion. They do not deserve to lead. They should be replaced by women.

This piece is part of a discussion with our On Leadership panel of experts about the IMF’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and whether his credibility is recoverable.

Click here to see our full discussion page, or dive straight into another expert’s perspective by following one of the links below:

Michael Maccoby: Servants not seducers

Michael Useem: Character shattered is career ending

John Baldoni: Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the price of hubris

Warren Bennis: An extraordinary exception to the French media's typical languor

Marshall Goldsmith: DSK should never be an elected leader in France

Slade Gorton: Rehabilitation is nearly impossible for Strauss-Kahn

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Paul Schmitz  | May 13, 2011 11:45 AM

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