This piece is part of a roundtable with Post columnist Steven Pearlstein and three of our On Leadership expert contributors — Michael Maccoby, Jeffrey Pfeffer and Alaina Love — about the leadership issues surrounding the recent sex scandals of Anthony Weiner, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn. They respond to a simple prompt: “What’s with these guys?”
“Congressman Tweets Photos of Private Parts to Women”, “Senator Indicted for Siphoning Presidential Campaign Funds for Mistress”, “Governor Admits to Fathering Housekeeper’s Child”, “IMF Head Sexually Assaults Hotel Maid”. For the last month supposed leaders in a variety of important positions have generated a rash of boys-behaving-badly fodder for tabloid headlines. Except that these individuals are not drugged-up sitcom stars or self-indulgent Hollywood celebrities. They are men appointed to some of the most influential and powerful leadership positions on the planet.
Schwarzenegger, Edwards and Weiner are elected leaders who were entrusted with constituents’ best interests. Strauss-Kahn was responsible for decisions that affect economic systems around the world. All of these men are fathers or soon to be fathers, all are husbands whose actions have ravaged family relationships, and all are leaders from whom we expected better. Like the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, they’ve left a path of their destruction. And it’s been chronicled by the media in all its sordid detail.
So what would cause these men to stray so far from the path of integrity and trust that we expect them to follow? How did careers that started with such promise deteriorate into seamy caricatures of the best of what each leader could offer, making them the subject of tasteless jokes and tawdry articles? The blame doesn’t rest with social media, as some have suggested. Nor cultural differences. Nor ignorance of the law. The fault lies with an abundance of hubris and stupidity that contributed in large part to each leader’s fall from grace. Hubris and stupidity generated through the intoxication of power.
Let’s pause for a moment and consider what it takes to be a great leader. Critical competencies are the ability to create a vision, define a direction and inspire others to embrace that vision and deliver on its promise. Leaders also demonstrate a willingness to accept accountability and lead by example. The best among them help their employees be better than they thought possible. Yet, the DNA of great leaders also renders them capable of embracing significant risk, it imbues them with a healthy dose of ego and produces a results-driven individual who is fearless in the face of tough challenges. Living the values of honesty and integrity is expected, as these are the admission tickets to the leadership suite. Unfortunately, they are also the very values violated by Schwarzenegger, Edwards, Weiner and Strauss-Kahn.
Somewhere along the way these leaders must have begun to believe their own press releases. Perhaps they internalized the adulation that others showered upon them, which in turn stoked the flame of an ego that was already burning too brightly. Success in navigating past risk may have fueled their belief that the risks they were taking with women could be easily managed. They each partook of the privileges of their positions; finding themselves above the ordinary, and living heady, fast-paced lives with an entourage of staff to support their needs. All four of these apocalyptic leaders made important decisions, mingled with important people, visited important places, touched the lives of many and set the agenda for the future. Somehow as positional power transmuted into personal power, they drank the Kool-Aid and were hooked. Power, like mainlined heroin, imparted a euphoria that left these men wanting more. So the syringe got filled with sex – and their reckless pursuit of it became their undoing.
The solipsistic behavior of these four men is not without precedent. History is littered with examples of the dark side of leadership, from the Roman emperor Commodus who stylized himself as Hercules to the infamous Henry VIII who reigned with terror over both England and his many wives and mistresses. What has changed significantly since ancient times is the public’s increasing demand for a code of ethics among our leaders, in politics and in business. We expect better of them than we’re receiving. By virtue of their leadership roles, we hold them to a higher standard against which their every action is measured. It comes with the territory of leadership. Now add to this set of expectations a modern wired world of almost instant information, and nothing is exempt from wide exposure. The benefit of using media to influence constituents and market economies is the flip side of the same mechanism that revealed their greatest flaws.
Power has a way of testing the edges of the values and convictions of leaders. But, while we expect our leaders to use their values as a guiding compass, we also recognize that they will make mistakes. For the most part, the public is amazingly forgiving – perhaps even more so than a mistreated spouse. What we will not tolerate, however, is a concocted spin on poor behavior that assumes the public is at best naïve or at worst clueless, while positioning the leader as anything other than what they are—just plain wrong.