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As part of the Coro Fellows Program in Public Affairs, these 12 Southern California fellows are engaged in a full-time, nine-month, graduate-level leadership training program that prepares individuals for public-affairs leadership.

Leaders: Approach the confessional!

Barack Obama still sneaks cigarettes. Gordon Brown has a mean temper. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin struggles with her weight. At what point do a leader's personal vices begin to undermine effectiveness? Is it better to hide them or acknowledge them?

After a lifetime of taking music lessons, listening to Dvorak in the car on the way to school, scavenging my father's jazz collection, and scanning Pitchfork.com every morning before work, I have a confession to make. Often when I'm in my car, alone, I listen to bad pop music. From fleeting Top 40 hits and mindless dance party singles to tasteless rap releases and pulsating reggaeton tracks, I listen to it all. Though I know there's nothing inherently wrong with indulging in a bit of vapid pop music once in a while, this is hardly acceptable practice for someone with a self-proclaimed "serious" interest in music. Yet I continue my habit, mostly because it gives me a chance to just not think for a while. This is my vice.

The hackneyed adage is as true as ever: We are all human. Everyone indulges in a petty sin or two daily, insignificant as they might be. For some they serve as an indulgent source of release, and for others, a quiet act of rebellion. Whatever the motive, no one should be crucified for their vices, as perfection is a goal as attainable as walking on water. Contrary to popular belief, however, it's not the vice itself that makes a statement about our character, it's our self-awareness of it. Inwardly denying our vices is as much a statement about our sense of self as outwardly acting against our moral code -- it refuses to acknowledge who we really are.

For leaders in highly public and influential positions, the responsibility goes deeper. Leaders are, of course, humans as well, and the exposure of their various foibles should be no surprise to the public. Leaders, however, must maintain a certain amount of trust with those they lead in order to maintain the respect needed to do their jobs. Therefore, the effect of certain vices on their reputations can be just as important as the actual work they do. Should we, then, hold leaders to a higher standard than our own?

While those of us with relatively private lives may be absolved by a simple acknowledgment of our habit, leaders may be incapacitated by not being upfront with both themselves and their constituency. Leaders should be quick to expose their own shortcomings. One who addresses his own vice may be perceived as flawed, albeit with integrity; one whose vice is exposed by another may be perceived as trying to cover up a darker truth.

In the grand scheme of things, my penchant for tasteless pop music is quite insignificant, but the bottom line is the same. Honesty -- whether to oneself or others -- is still the best policy. Leaders, approach the confessional. --Neeta Sonalkar

Does good behavior equal good leadership?

Let's look at this question from a historical perspective: Winston Churchill smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish, was called a bully, and managed to hold off Hitler for years until, with the help of a lifelong adulterer (FDR), he managed to win World War II. Or how about looking at leaders outside the political realm? We've all watched Oprah Winfrey struggle with her weight for decades. In the meantime, she's built up an entertainment empire.

Leaders--no matter what sector they happen to be in--are people too. They have their vices, their pitfalls, and their Achilles heels just like the rest of us. It's unrealistic to expect them to be infallible or to lead a "sinless" life simply because they are in the public eye. These concerns can distract us from the real question: how well are they doing their job?

The emphasis we seem to place on good behavior--the point of worrying over an occasional smoke break or an expanding waistline--concerns me. We might, in our pursuit of perfect behavior, loose real gems in the shuffle. Imagine if England hadn't elected Churchill because they thought his habits presented a bad example to children. --Liz Willis

A hidden (read: visible) vice

In the days following Barack Obama's first official physical, the blogosphere has once again focused on the president's cigarette habit. Obama's need for a cigarette fix, Gordon Brown's temper, and Surgeon General Regina Benjamin's weight struggles have all reached wide audiences, who expect them to maintain strong fitness, diplomatic behavior, and healthy lifestyles, respectively.

I say, give the guy a (cigarette) break. Cigarette smoking is clearly not the best behavior to maintain. Now exposed, Obama should make a concerted effort to show the public that he can kick the habit, therefore revealing another side to our president. Besides, he's just as well known as the president who regularly hits the basketball court for pickup games with aide (and former Duke player) Reggie Love. He makes it known that he intends to uphold what Presidential Fitness means to the nation.

As long as Obama, Brown, and Benjamin make it visible that they intend to change their habits, and invest the public in the process, citizens with the same issues will appreciate their honesty. Furthermore, if we consider these three individuals as preachers to their respective choirs, it only makes sense to quote John Selden's Table Talk: Do as I say, not as I do.

Brown can't hide from his temper, nor Benjamin from her weight, so we'll know how they are improving (if at all). Obama, while engaging in a potentially private habit, should expose his progress. They should continue to preach better behavior. We will be reading about it soon enough anyway. --Parsa Sobhani

By Coro Fellows

 |  March 2, 2010; 12:40 AM ET
Category:  Leadership weaknesses Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: The self-aware leader | Next: 'The vices I admire'


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Winston Churchill smoked, drank and bullied.

FDR cheated on his wife.

And all you can say is Oprah is fat?

So was Churchill.

Vote Oprah in 2012.


Posted by: michaelniland | March 2, 2010 7:47 AM
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