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What Private Lives Tell Us About Public Leaders

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!

Views: 17

Tags: Schwarzenegger, behavior, choice, leaders, leadership, miscellaneous


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Comment by Stephanie Slade on May 25, 2011 at 10:12am
Check it out: There's an opinion piece in the Washington Post today about exactly this issue!
Comment by Stephanie Slade on May 24, 2011 at 12:45pm
See, I think when it comes to public service, your morals and values and self-discipline and decision making skills and trustworthiness all affect how well you're able to do the job (and represent me, the voter). I got so incredibly tired of hearing about Tiger Woods last year, because at the end of the day, whether he was a womanizing jerk or a standup human being, he was still one of the greatest athletes of all time. What he was was doing on his own time didn't tell you anything extra about his ability to perform on the course. Not sure the same can be said for a political candidate.
Comment by Stephen Peteritas on May 24, 2011 at 9:19am
Maybe this is wrong but I don't really care about your personal life as long as it doesn't affect your ability to do your job and do it well. In the case of Strass-Kahn getting arrested means you can't go to work so then your decision start affecting me the citizen which isn't cool. But in the Bill Clinton scandal he still did his job and did it pretty well so what he did under his desk doesn't bother me as long as he's taking care of business on the top end of the desk as well.
Comment by Charles A. Ray on May 24, 2011 at 9:04am
An outstanding analysis of something that has bothered me for decades; we select/elect people with these tendencies, are suprised when they behave to type, and worse, want to lynch them for it.  You're so right; we need to look inside ourselves and ask what is it that makes us keep doing this.  It's a bit like the alcoholic who regrets his excessive imbibing while he has a hangover, but dives right back into the bottle as soon as the headache subsides.
Comment by Peter Sperry on May 24, 2011 at 8:57am

While both incidents are distasteful, we should nevertheless acknowledge that Schwarzenegger's affair was a legal activity with a consenting adult.  Strass-Kahn essentially raped his victim.  I seriously doubt very many people have ever mistaken Arnold for a saint.  He has never hidden the fact he enjoyed a good time; but there are no allegations, that I have heard, of him forcing himself on unwilling companions.  He seems to have more than enough willing ones.  Strass-Kahn does have a track record of using his position to force compliance or entice subordinates willing to trade sex for promotion.  Political and corporate leadership circles are full of both good time charlies and egotistical cads.  The two groups occaisionally overlap but not often, at least in my experience.  I've met and worked with many good time charlies I would keep far away from my girl friend and most of them were actually fairly decent leaders (Bill Clinton comes to mind).  I've never met or worked with an egotistical cad who was anything other than a phoney and a miserable leader.

Comment by Carol Davison on May 24, 2011 at 8:55am
If a leader is not respecting those closest to him or her, s/he IS disresecpting the people they serve. But we don't value the seven year POW James Stockdale who slit his scalpe, beat himself in the face with a chair or slit his wrists so he couddn't be used for propaganda or tortured to relese informaiton on fellow POWs, and consequently trembled during vice presidential debates because we value the 'pretty" or "manly" Al Gores and Dan Quayles.  Stockdale's statue stands in front of the Vice Admiral James B Stockdale Center for Ethical Leadership at the Naval Academy. 
Comment by Andrew Krzmarzick on May 24, 2011 at 8:34am

Love this line, Kathleen:


"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."


I know it's not a popular viewpoint, but I also feel that leaders who are willing to compromise personally are more likely to compromise in their public roles, too.  It shows a lack of integrity and should erode overall trust.

The key question: If a leader does not respect those closest to him/her, will s/he respect the people they are called to serve?

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