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Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis

Warren Bennis is University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Business at the University of Southern California. His newest book is 'Still Surprised: A Memoir of a Life in Leadership.'

Four leadership lessons

The recent cluster of Page One stories about famous men getting "outed" for their extra-curricula-cough-affairs run the gamut from Spitzer to Tiger and are both bizarre and banal. On the bizarre side, we've seen an entanglement with an innocent fire hydrant; a secret flight to meet up with a Brazilian charmer ; a governor who turns up as #9 on a VIP bordello list, and other equally exotic messes.

In spite of the strange and sometimes lurid details, these scandals are also banal. All these men screw up by hiding or lying or dissembling or colluding or gagging or other deploying other ridiculous cover-ups. All end badly for the pitiless heroes, like some kitsch Greek tragedy, with no mortal wounds, but badly soiled brands and reputations; impeachments and resignations; burnt logos and contracts worth a billion or two; multi-billion dollar bankruptcies or other such narcissistic and financial injuries. There are at least four lessons that all leaders can learn from these juicy and wretched stories.

Lesson 1 is the most obvious and worse, sadly ignored. Has nothing been learned from the famous cover-ups of former Presidents Nixon and Clinton or the goddess of home care, Martha Stewart? Cover-ups make matters worse. Always. They also prolong the agony of unwelcome publicity. If Stewart had come clean early, she would have paid for it, a lot, but would not have ended up in behind bars. It's plausible that Nixon would have completed his second term instead of resigning in humiliation, which David Frost unwittingly (and only partly) redeemed by cornering him to tell the truth.

In a way, it doesn't really matter because cover-ups are virtually impossible to pull off today, given our preternatural prurience, camcorders, and spastic news cycle. Senator Baucus's recent attempt at openness gets him a B+ in my book; at least his fellow senators came to his rescue. He could even be re-elected.

Lesson 2 is about getting honest with ourselves: we are all "innocent" co-dependents. We love these stories, whether out of boredom, Marthafreude, prurience, moral superiority -- you name it -- we are addicted to these luscious "iniquities" of public figures, those helpless pinatas we never tire of kicking and blogging. The only beneficiaries of our national prurient hunger are magazines like the "National Inquirer" and gossip sheets, like the "NY Post's" widely read "Page 6."

Lesson 3. "Glory be to God for dappled things," wrote the 19th Century Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins. When will we grow up and come to our senses that even the best of us are dappled, spotty, tainted and imperfect? How many times during the past 11+ months did the rest of us "misstate" something or disrespect someone or do something we later regret or not regret something we should have done?

I am as judgmental as the next one when it comes to illegal transgressions, deceits or "oversights" that can harm and kill. But is it possible to accept our own human frailties and recognize that all of our leaders, heroes, and celebrities are as dappled as we are?

Lesson 4. Advice to the rich and powerful and famous: You are not like the rest of us whether you like it or not. You get paid egregiously lavish salaries which allow you to buy, cash on the table, three or four "second homes" worth a million dollars per square foot and receive the benefits (and bonuses) and adoration that position and power bequeath.

You're not like the rest of us because you hold our most basic national values in your hands, not just your golf clubs or our finances, but our sense of collective self-esteem. So when your ambition drives you to high office and power, you must be be mindful that the mundane blunders the rest of us may commit, cannot be, should not be, overlooked.

Exemplary leadership of any institution is a covenant of trust. In order to earn and sustain that trust -- whether you are a poster-boy for golf or tennis or a governor of a state or the CEO of a Wall Street giant -- you must observe a worthier ethical etiquette. The rules are simple, plain common sense: Tell the truth. Encourage dissent, especially from "nay-sayers." Widen your range of information resources. (FDR talked to anybody he could, official or unofficial, to get the most complete information possible. George W. spoke to only his "objective sources," his direct reports. Right.)

You want to be a hero, a leader, a celebrity? Great. Then are you ready to sacrifice and give up what the rest of us can get away with? Or, you can take the Derek Jeter course and get an MVP degree. Jeter is an MVP on the field and off the field. He has an eye for discerning curve balls at the plate along with an eye for the curves of gorgeous women he's often seen with. Now there's a guy who is a genuine role model and deserves all the cash and fame he gets, not only because of his talent, but because he has nothing to hide.

By Warren Bennis

 |  December 10, 2009; 9:27 AM ET
Category:  Making mistakes Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Ummmmm, what about family values?! Maybe, like say, DON'T GET MARRIED AND HAVE CHILDREN?! How's 'bout adding that as the #1 "lesson"?! Obviously, a lot of these guys know they're egos are too big to be married and stay faithful, so why not stay single and save the pain and embarrassment that will ultimately come crashing down on them and their innocent families?! What a bunch of selfish, immature morons!!!!!!!

Posted by: ziggysd | December 10, 2009 11:34 AM
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Hey Bennis, do you get paid for writing this unimportant drivel??? TFL, Ken

Posted by: kentigereyes | December 10, 2009 10:57 AM
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