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

Robert Bruner

Robert Bruner

Robert F. Bruner is the Dean of the Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, and author of a blog and several books, including The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned from the Market's Perfect Storm.

'God's own fool'

"Ah, well, I am a great and sublime fool. But then I am God's fool, and all His work must be contemplated with respect." -- Mark Twain

Recent headlines about Tiger Woods, Max Baucus, Raj Rajaratnam and a score of others highlight an elephant in the cultural room: What do we do with a leader who fails us?

Can leaders be "rehabilitated," as political prisoners once were in communist countries? It seems that Elliott Spitzer is trying; and some might say that Bill Clinton has been there and done that. It is human nature to put leaders on a pedestal--unfortunately, from that vantage we too easily see the feet of clay. Does such discovery consign the fallen leader to everlasting damnation? What does it take to get to purgatory, if not to heaven?

This question came into focus recently as I read an attack by Felix Salmon on Henry Blodget. Blodget is a defrocked securities analyst who now writes a financial blog that is edgy and entertaining. Salmon opened with a blog posting headlined," Kicked out of finance and into journalism," in which he criticized the media for employing fallen financial practitioners. Blodget defended himself with a posting headlined, "Felix Salmon: Henry Blodget Should Be Banned From The Industry." And Salmon replied to the reply with "Disclosing journalists' pasts."

I hold no brief for Blodget or his alleged misdeeds. But these three postings make a fascinating case study and provocative reading (I even recommend the comments attached to the postings, though as they say on cable TV, "Viewer discretion is advised.") And I must say that Blodgett makes a pretty fair case for his redemption.

At the heart of the Salmon/Blodget smackdown is the question of when to let a miscreant get on with his or her life. This is a dilemma of universal relevance and complicated by numerous considerations: gravity of the crime; restitution for anyone injured; propensity to repeat; truth-telling and transparency about the issue; sincerity of regret and commitment to do differently in the future; and competence and reliability to tread a new and better path. Parents deal with these kinds of issues in disciplining their kids. So do judges, juries, and the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. So do professors. And so must leaders and managers.

Twain's quotation is funny when viewed as a bald appeal for mercy. Yet justice and the art of good management really do require us to "contemplate with respect" the miscreants we encounter. This entails fact-finding, critical thinking, assessment of alternative views, and not a little patience. We are too easily encouraged toward snap judgments, a stereotype of the business executive. But the great business leaders I have known are people of proportion and reflection. And humility: Perhaps in judging someone to be "a great and sublime fool" it takes one to know one.

By Robert Bruner

 |  December 9, 2009; 10:05 AM ET
Category:  Making mistakes Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: Maximum mea culpa | Next: Paradise lost

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company