On Leadership
Video | PostLeadership | FedCoach | | Books | About |
Exploring Leadership in the News with Steven Pearlstein and Raju Narisetti

Jeffrey Pfeffer
Scholar

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Graduate School of Business, Stanford University, and author of the Sept. 2010 book, POWER: Why Some People Have it and Others Don’t.

Even Americans Are Forgiving

Willie Brown, two-term mayor of San Francisco and the longest-serving Assembly leader in California history, fathered children out of wedlock with various women and has lived apart from his wife for decades. It hasn't held his career back at all.

Although Europeans have a more tolerant attitude toward mistresses and other such carrying on, even Americans forgive quite a bit--including Bill Clinton who was elected president after basically admitting he had "strayed." Jack Welch had a very public divorce, but there is no evidence this has hurt his reputation or his speaking fees. The idea that sexual indiscretions invariably cause the downfall of leaders is empirically incorrect.

There are, however, two issues that get politicians, and leaders, into trouble.
The first issue is truthfulness. Brown has never dissembled about his taste for fancy clothes, fast cars, and young girlfriends. Just like Nixon with the Watergate scandal and Martha Stewart with insider trading, it is seldom the crime that causes the big problem--it is the lying and cover up. People don't like getting lied to. That's mostly because lying shows a lack of respect for people's intelligence: How dumb do you think the public is that you can put one over on them? Mark Sanford's problem was not so much the indiscretion but not telling even his closest aides where he was--once again, the cover up.

The second problem is embarrassment. I will never forget the response of Oliver North during his testimony during the Iran-Contra hearings in the 1980s:
"I am not embarrassed to be here, counsel." His absence of embarrassment meant that at least one person, him, thought that nothing he had done was worth being embarrassed about. That simple behavior of confidence sends a signal that causes others to ask themselves, "If he is not ashamed about his behavior, then maybe he didn't do anything wrong."

Similarly, since Willie Brown doesn't lie or hide and never acts embarrassed about his personal life, people have come to accept it as just part of who he is--he isn't embarrassed or ashamed, so why should anyone else think he has acted inappropriately?

Leaders need to be truthful--admit mistakes, even personal ones, and move on. And they need to not act guilt if they don't think they are. It is the lying and embarrassment that causes the problems, not the actions. We are, in many respects, a very forgiving country, and even convicted felons have gone on to have lives of consequence.

By Jeffrey Pfeffer

 |  June 30, 2009; 10:58 AM ET
Category:  Ethics Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The Puzzle of Trust | Next: Marital Vows, Constitutional Vows

Comments

Please report offensive comments below.



Firstly, please stop the all-caps. It's distracting.

When a political party makes "family values" part of its platform, then it is setting itself up for failure.

We need people in office who will represent his constituent's best interests, as well as that of the nation. We need people who will act ethically in their elected position.

If politicians keep their private lives out of politics, then I think we'd all be better off.

Other nations seem to have a better understanding of this.

Posted by: MichelleKinPA | July 2, 2009 10:14 AM
Report Offensive Comment

Mr. Sanford is just a HYPOCRITE. If you, as the Republicans seem to do, present yourself in a higher position of morality and ethics than regular people, you should at least try and strive for those values. This man has made a mockery of marriage and the Office of the SC Govenor. Yes, forgive him. But don't forget even convicted felons are forgiven...and a lot of people like Mr. Sanford don't give them a second chance. Mr. Sanford doesn't deserve a second chance. He deserves to be charged with misuse of the state of SC's funds. He should step down just like he DEMANDED Mr. Clinton do.

Posted by: tawana_t | July 1, 2009 12:19 PM
Report Offensive Comment

Mr. Sanford is just a HYPOCRITE. If you, as the Republicans seem to do, present yourself in a higher position of morality and ethics than regular people, you should at least try and strive for those values. This man has made a mockery of marriage and the Office of the SC Govenor. Yes, forgive him. But don't forget even convicted felons are forgiven...and a lot of people like Mr. Sanford don't give them a second chance. Mr. Sanford doesn't deserve a second chance. He deserves to be charged with misuse of the state of SC's funds. He should step down just like he DEMANDED Mr. Clinton do.

Posted by: tawana_t | July 1, 2009 12:18 PM
Report Offensive Comment

When you leave your job without anyone knowing where you are and when asked you lie about your where abouts while all on the governments time and the taxpayers dime then you are unfit for whatever job it is that you hold. When you comment on other men's indiscretions as if you are hollier than thou then you have to be held to the standard that you wanted to hold those other men to then you are unfit for that job. When you site that you have strong religious values and have a high moral standing in life then you get caught up in something like Mr. Sanford did then you are a hypocrite and everything you say should be treated exactly as it is....(a bunch of hot air.) This is the same guy that had to be sued(by students in his own local school district) in order to accept stimulus money something that SC reeeaaaallllyyy desperately needs, then your sir are unfit for your job. Bottom line is if you call yourself a "leader" but no one is following you or behind you, then YOU ARE NOT A LEADER> YOU ARE JUST TAKING A WALK! Someone please show this "Clown" the door. This is the type of man that makes every man that is doing what he is supposed to do (providing for his family, being a good role model to his kids, Being a faithful spouse, you know the things that "Real Men" do) look bad. To say that you are not going to step down is a direct reversal of what he said Clinton should have done when he was caught. But what do you expect from a Hypocritical, Sanctimoniuos, Hollier than everyone else, Blowhard Republican. It's amazing how The Republican party can say NO to everting that the President is trying to accomplish for the better of our country and its population, but they can't seem to say NO when it comes to extramarital affairs, cheating on taxes, stealing money, or when it comes to the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his bufoonery. Mr. Sanford YOU ARE THE WEAKEST LINK! GOODBYE!

Posted by: SCtoDC | July 1, 2009 10:58 AM
Report Offensive Comment

leaders must be honest and if you are not honest in your marriage you will not be honest to anyone !! this guy is sad!!S.C. it is a crime on the books committ adultry. we stick our nose in to other countries business when we have leaders like this JUST WRONG no other country would put up with this !!

Posted by: jwilsonte | June 30, 2009 6:45 PM
Report Offensive Comment

The comments to this entry are closed.

 
RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company