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Joanne B. Ciulla
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Joanne B. Ciulla

Joanne Ciulla is Professor and Coston Family Chair in Leadership and Ethics at the Jepson School of Leadership Studies, University of Richmond, the only undergraduate degree-granting school of leadership studies in the world.

Immorality, Magnified

Let me begin by pointing out that it does not make sense to say that leaders should live by a higher moral standard, because that would imply that it is okay for everyone else to live by a lower one. Leaders get into trouble when they make themselves exceptions to the rules or fail to live up to the same moral standards as the rest of society.

Marital infidelity and lying are just as wrong for you and me as they are for Governor Sanford. When we say that leaders should be held to a higher moral standard, we really mean that we want them to have a higher rate of compliance to moral standards because the stakes are higher. Leadership is morality and immorality magnified. Good or bad, a leader's behavior affects more people.

As a leader, Governor Sanford's infidelity is not the biggest problem. The central issue is that his rendezvous interfered with his responsibilities as governor. Governors are responsible for running a state. To carry out this responsibility they have to be on call in case there is an emergency. In this case, Stanford disappeared and lied about where he was going - note that the initial public concern was about his disappearance. When the public found out about the affair, Stanford's behavior was even more worrisome. He appeared to be thinking with - well, Iet's call it his "heart" not his head.

Sanford's behavior illustrates some of the moral hazards of being a leader. First, success, power, and influence sometimes give leaders an inflated view of that they can do. It is extraordinary that Stanford actually thought he could get away with going to Argentina without anyone knowing. This is reckless behavior and demonstrates bad judgment and lack of self-control.

Second, most leaders know their constituents want them to have exemplary moral character. Rather than making leaders behave better, this can have the opposite effect. Since leaders are not morally perfect, the expectation compels them to hide or lie about their personal flaws and ethical failures. Public life means that a leader's moral mistakes and shortcomings are displayed for everyone to see, so the potential for humiliation is great. This pressure to appear morally perfect is further exacerbated by the kinds of stands that a leader takes on issues such as family values and defense of marriage.

Third, in most scandals involving leaders, the cover-up is worse than the indiscretion. During the cover-up leaders most often abuse their power and/or lie to the public. Both destroy the trust of their constituents and colleagues. During the investigation of President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, people were disgusted by his behavior, but a majority still supported him as a leader. This attitude changed when the public discovered that Clinton had abused their trust by lying to them.

The irony of Governor Stanford's affair is that he might have been better off if he had not tried to cover up his trip. The fact that his wife said she was not concerned about where he was on Father's Day shows that she probably had some idea of what he was doing. Betraying one's spouse is despicable and unethical, but for leaders, betraying their constituents is just as bad, if not worse.

In theory at least, infidelity to a spouse does not disqualify a person to lead as long as that infidelity does not spill over into the leaders' work. In most of the high profile cases concerning leaders like Sanford, the ethical problem is infidelity plus abuse of power to gain favors, abuse of public funds, deceiving the public, or failure to properly carry out the duties of their office. I leave to psychologists the question of whether it is possible for leaders to fall in love or lust outside of marriage without abusing their power or abdicating their responsibilities.

I think the public is more willing to forgive political leaders' love affairs than their indiscretions on the job. The real problem comes when they are asked to forgive a politician for both. This is as it should be. Despite all the hype about leaders, they are like us - fallible human beings - but unlike us, we entrust them to look after the common good.

By Joanne B. Ciulla

 |  July 1, 2009; 8:37 AM ET
Category:  Ethics Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Any man or woman who will repeatedly lie to or cheat on his or her spouse will have no compunction about lying to complete strangers, i.e. the voters.

Support who you may, but caveat emptor.

Posted by: captn_ahab | July 1, 2009 9:53 AM
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