The Question

A Higher Standard?

  Enlarge Photo    
Sunday, July 5, 2009

The Mark Sanford scandal is the latest reminder that Americans are quick to disqualify from top leadership positions people who haven't lived by the highest moral standards. In this insistence of sexual probity, are we denying ourselves the benefit of too many otherwise talented leaders in politics, business and religion? Or is marital fidelity a good predictor of overall character and leadership talent?

George E. Reed, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is an associate professor in the department of leadership studies at the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego.

Leaders are often described as living in the fishbowl. Because of the power and responsibility that we grant them and our high expectations, every aspect of their lives is subject to scrutiny and evaluation.

Despite our preference that leaders meet almost puritanical standards of behavior, all human beings are beset with passions, desires, impulses and temptations. If we were to limit leadership positions to those that have not transgressed, we would have to work from a short and inadequate list of candidates. An examination of our most respected historical leaders reveals some extraordinary flaws, especially when it comes to marital fidelity. Regrettable as they were, such infidelities did not erase their extraordinary contributions.

Montgomery C. Meigs, a retired U.S. Army general, has commanded U.S. and NATO forces overseas and is a visiting professor at Georgetown University.

Marital fidelity is not the most important issue here. Politicians have strayed and made comebacks. One only hopes that the governor can rebuild his marriage. But with his dalliance in Argentina, he abandoned his office and the executive responsibilities inherent in it.

While he was out of the country and out of communications, what if an event had occurred that to save lives and property required his leadership and his authority to enact emergency measures? Similar dereliction of duty by a senior military officer in command would constitute grounds for immediate relief for cause.

Deborah M. Kolb is an author and the Deloitte Ellen Gabriel Professor for Women and Leadership at the Simmons School of Management.

Circumstances matter. Is it infidelity in the workplace or outside of it?

It also matters whether infidelity means showing favoritism in that certain people, not because of merit or talent, get special treatment.

Then there is the issue of judgment apart from these other factors. What does it say about a leader who appears to be so out of control that he abandons his responsibilities for an assignation? I am not sure we lose much in the way of leadership talent when a leader's infidelity falls into one of these three categories.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company