If we want to understand the values of a society, it can often be found in the media coverage and public reaction to revelations about the private lives of public leaders. While the wall-to-wall coverage of former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fathering a child with a household employee has been inextricably linked to the now-former head of the International Monetary Fund’s Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged sexual assault of a hotel maid, they are two very different acts that reveal much about the people they are and the leaders we choose to head our public institutions. Unfortunately, the question that keeps getting asked, as on the cover of this week’s Time Magazine, is why powerful men act like pigs—when perhaps we ought to be asking why we keep empowering men who behave badly?
Having worked with political leaders for more than 20 years, I would be the first to say that no one is perfect (yours truly at the head of that list) and that holding public officials to unrealistic standards is one of the greatest detriments to enticing qualified individuals from holding public office. That being said, the key to the character question is not about having made mistakes, it is whether a person is conscious enough to acknowledge the mistake and to actually learn from it so that they won’t repeat the same behavior. One of the greatest disservices of the professionalization of the political consultant (of which I have been one) is that the industry makes its money demonizing a candidate’s mistakes and calls him a flip-flop or worse if they acknowledge bad behavior or a change of heart. And that is where our role as an informed electorate comes into play, are we willing to discern the difference between a cad and a person who was simply being human?
Which brings us back to the scandal du jour. When the lives of these two men are examined, is anyone truly shocked that they are involved in these situations? Both have histories of behaving badly toward women and of exhibiting macho behavior smacking of entitlement based on their perception of their uber masculinity and power. So my question is not did their power make them behave badly, it is what were “we” thinking when we “hired” them into positions of power? The truth is that we love the illusion of the handsome, debonair and powerful man who will lead our public institutions with grit and strength, keeping us safe from harm—and no one loves that illusion more than woman who have been taught that this the formula for the perfect man. The truth is that the character issue that comes up around these events is not just a discussion for the men involved, it is a societal challenge for us to evaluate what constitutes an effective leader and indeed a man of character.
Ultimately this behavior reveals men who are disconnected from themselves and fearful of being who they truly are, so they resort to various levels of “bad” behavior to prove to themselves that they really are the powerful attractive man they wish to be. Men (and women) who own their power don’t feel the need to engage in such behavior because to do so is the antithesis of true power and self-respect. The challenge for society is that these types of leaders are not the most titillating—they are not throwing themselves in front of cameras, making grand claims and pumping themselves up. These are the quietly self-assured who know that they can lead and do it—without fanfare and without scandal.
If we want an end to sex scandals, then it is time for us to re-evaluate who it is that we are putting in positions of power. Are we going to value the sizzle factor or are we willing to turn our attention to those that know who they are and are willing to serve out of a desire to use their talents to uplift society, rather than simply enhance their ego? It is fun to watch others live out our fantasies of power, fame and love, especially in our political leaders, and if we want leaders who are ready to address the issues before us, perhaps we should shift our notion of what the ideal leader looks like—and then perhaps we will find him or her!