The difference between you and me and Congressman Weiner, John Edwards and the other notables reflects an important price of power: intense public scrutiny and visibility. Not too many people care about my dinner companions, which was not the case for former HP CEO Mark Hurd. The first lesson for leaders is that people not only look to you, they look at you. Leaders are always on stage and being watched, even when they think they aren’t. Being in a senior, very visible leadership role requires that you think constantly about how what you are doing and saying would look if it were on the front page of a major newspaper, to use the apt phrase of former Stanford Graduate School of Business dean and president of Ford Arjay Miller. That’s a focus of attention and discipline that seemingly taxes mere mortals.
But since this observation about public scrutiny is scarcely new, the question becomes why do so many people seem to ignore it? I think the answer has to do with a toxic interplay of the media and contemporary culture. Three facts. First, the level of narcissism among college students has been increasing for a while, and some of those folks have now graduated and ascended to important roles. Second, celebrity misbehavior sells—and not just newspapers, magazines and page views. It helps turn otherwise undistinguished individuals into marketable (and rich) celebrities. The “me, me, me” culture of narcissistic personalities is fed by a scandal- and celebrity-obsessed culture that spends more time worrying about who Snooki is sleeping with than it does about the number of Americans who don’t have a place to sleep.
And third, to at least this observer, there don’t seem to be any real consequences for misbehavior that does not draw a prison term, and maybe not even that much for misbehavior that lands one in jail. Elliott Spitzer is back on the tube, Martha Stewart is too, and many prominent executives and board members who presided over the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression seem none the worse for the experience. They show up at prestigious conferences and face little or none of the social ostracism that would signal that society actually cares about what they did and the toll they exacted on others. Yes, people do deserve a second chance, but it’s not that we have a culture of forgiveness—it’s that we suffer from a collective amnesia that facilitates the same mistakes made by similar sorts of people over and over.
Which leads to a second lesson about leadership: Getting to the top is hard, but contrary to what you may hear and want to believe, getting thrown out of the elite circle is also difficult. Board members support incompetent executives they have hired. Athletic directors stand behind scandal-plagued football and basketball coaches. This is possibly the result of escalating commitment to previously made decisions, personal ties with people who misbehave, and the desire to be associated with success and not ask too many questions about how it is achieved. But these factors tend to ensure little permanent damage to most people who make “news” in the wrong way and for the wrong thing. Mel Gibson is back in the movies, and so too will be California’s ex-governor.
And thus we come to our third, and most important, lesson in leadership: There are ironic effects when someone comes to think of him or herself as particularly moral. Described and studied by social psychologist Benoit Monin, “moral licensing” happens when people who have engaged in moral behavior or who have impeccable moral credentials believe they have the license or freedom to break the rules. All the “tsk, tsk”-ing just provides them with the liberty to engage in their own indiscretions.
We live not only in a celebrity- and media-saturated world but in a world of seeming moral certitude that, in its own way, produces immoral behavior. Perhaps the wisest guidance comes from the late Jack Valenti, who would often quote an old Texas saying: “Give me the company of those who are seeking the truth, but please spare me the company of those who think they’ve found it.”