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Amy M. Wilkinson

Amy M. Wilkinson

Amy M. Wilkinson is a senior fellow at Harvard University's Center for Business and Government and a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center. Visit her < a href="www.amymwilkinson.com">website for more.

Privacy is old-fashioned

Q: 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?

Let's start with the simple truth that hiding vices is impossible. Privacy is fast becoming an old-fashioned notion, gone with the days of Roosevelt's unknown health problems or JFK's unpublicized affairs. If you don't believe me, ask Tiger Woods, Charlie Rangel, or Akio Toyoda. Today their foibles - like it or not - are front-page news.

Modern leaders must realize that they will be known for who they are. "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place," Google CEO Eric Schmidt has said. In our networked world, leaders' vices, along with just about every other detail, are going to be discussed on 24-hour news, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and blasted across millions of iPhones, blackberries and other smartphone devices.

This doesn't mean that imperfections are unacceptable. To err is human as Alexander Pope famously said. And, who among us doesn't have foibles?

Personal vices don't have to undermine a leader's effectiveness, but some do. There are vices, and there are vices. If a vice negatively impacts others or proves counter to the leaders' stated goal, that vice will be a hindrance.

As for President Obama sneaking cigarettes, the occasional Marlboro doesn't influence his ability to implement policy. Prime Minister Brown's temper tantrums may have greater consequence due to the ripple effect on those around him. Certainly, if getting Brown's agenda accomplished requires consensus building, his bullying behavior will be a detriment. As for Surgeon General Benjamin, images are powerful but her experience far outweighs a few extra pounds.

Most important is that leaders demonstrate integrity. In an age when we will know our leaders - faults and all - effectiveness will be measured by the ability to get things done as well as do what you say.

By Amy M. Wilkinson

 |  March 3, 2010; 10:42 AM ET
Category:  Leadership weaknesses Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
Previous: A refreshing breath of off-message reality | Next: Private peccadilloes, public sin


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Great article, Amy, and so timely.

To err is human... we all have our personal vices or have made mistakes in our past. I think you point out well that not all vices are the same, and it should depend on the impact a personal vice has on the ability to do the job. Not that it'll keep the media from analyzing it from every angle anyway!

I believe there's a second dimension as well - not just what one did, but how they handle/acknowledge it. Do they honestly admit and move on? Do they try to cover it up? That is often more telling of their character as leaders than the vice. I recall the stories of Congressman Charlie Wilson, whose conservative electorate repeatedly supported him despite his many scandals - why? He was always honestly apologetic to his constituency, and his approach consistently regained their trust.

When personal vice occurs... honestly looking the public in the eye, admitting fault, apologizing, ensuring the implications of the vice are minimal to the responsibility at hand, and moving on appropriately... it's now a common and critical test of character for modern day leadership.

Posted by: kcanavanwilson | March 10, 2010 2:51 PM
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Thank you for such an honest viewpoint. Effectiveness ultimately comes back to honesty and character in this age where transperancy is usually unavoidable. This is not a political issue specifically but certainly one with large political implications. We all have faults. When careers that influence companies or nations are at stake, we will have to decide how "foibles" speak to character because we all have them.

Posted by: dbw02 | March 10, 2010 9:19 AM
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I completely agree. Its not his smoking that is concerning, its his deceptiveness and his associations with people like Rev Wright. The back room deals and bribes are not what I expected when he promised that the health care discussions would be on C-SPAN.

Posted by: girodmd | March 5, 2010 2:52 PM
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I was discussing this with a fellow history major here and he has read some biographies from a variety of previous presidents but what he stressed to me is that they got away with a lot of things. The list of examples gets long but there is to much information sharing.

MIT was the winner of a pentagon sponsered project to find 10 large red balloons placed all over the United States and while the expectation was that the process would take days it took less than 24 hours to located all of the balloon using only social sites as a venue of information. It is fascinating but surely every public figure will be held accoutable. If a mistake like Tiger Woods occurs the appropriate song remix will be on youtube.

Fun to read and think about thanks for sending it my way it spurred good conversation with the history/political science people

Posted by: bradleyjgirod | March 5, 2010 1:32 PM
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Thank you for your article. Although we all have 'foibles', basic integrity and honesty is critical in our public leaders. It would also be beneficial if those in the media would perform their 'craft' with the same honesty and integrity.

Posted by: jagw | March 4, 2010 7:12 PM
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As for POTUS, his health is very much a public matter as his health can affect his ability to lead. Regarding his or her personal vices, they will most likely become public so better to own up to them straight away.

As to when a personal vice undermines effectiveness, I would say at the point where it becomes such a public spectacle that it causes distraction. Good article, Amy.

Posted by: lsl777 | March 4, 2010 5:12 PM
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There are two separate issues: 1) what do we need to know about the president's health and why? 2) meta data regarding bad habits.

Assuming the White House is a high performing team (there are clear lines of authority, roles and responsibilities and good leadership succession planning)his health is a private matter. Regardless of it's status.

Smoking and other habits can say alot about people. Would that influence healthcare policy issues? does it mean he's depressed? is smoking his worst habit?

We can found out much better information about his smoking through visual observation than health records.

I say: it's private. No one's business.

Posted by: debrahbradley | March 4, 2010 4:30 PM
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Agreed. There's no hiding anything in today's environment...for better or worse.

Posted by: JulieAK | March 4, 2010 11:24 AM
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if you're embarrassed don't do it! otherwise fix it

Posted by: johns14 | March 4, 2010 10:19 AM
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This article and discussion is quite timely. Transparency is important to enabling yourself and others to focusing on real issues, not hyperbole and cover-up. Just ask Presidents Nixon and, as noted above, Clinton. Not equal transgressions, of course, but each just dug a deeper hole as they attempted to dissemble (the employment status of "that woman, Ms Lewinsky" is beside the point). As for President Obama, I think it humanizes him. He's taking nicorette for goodness sake.

The business world might be a bit different. Seems like the spotlight is not quite as harsh...perhaps only because there are tens of thousands of CEOs and only 535 Members of Congress and the selected leaders in the Executive Branch.

Either way, great article - thanks.

Posted by: ofritz | March 3, 2010 10:21 PM
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I remember when I first heard that nearly no one knew that FDR was crippled because the newspapers never published any pictures of him from the waist down. I thought, "That is crazy...and that is really nice." Being in a wheelchair had absolutely nothing with FDR's ability to govern, and it was classy and respectful to not show him in a wheelchair. I very much agree with your premise that we should focus on what makes people good or bad at their job (if their job is why they are in the public eye) rather than on personal characteristics or choices. We should be able to separate the professional from the personal. It makes me think of some recent commentary by veteran politicians that there used to be more bipartisan comraderie among congressmen and senators outside of work. This has been lost as people let work carry over into the personal realm, and I think that it is unfortunate as it is a lot more difficult to demonize someone when you know them as a person.

Posted by: whit_wilson | March 3, 2010 9:19 PM
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Amy, this is a fresh dose of realism - but let us not forget that Bill Clinton endured a puritannical persecution that destroyed the last particle of privacy a president might have. Kenneth Starr's zealous inquisition into a harmless affair was the real crime - and by the way, everybody, Miss Lewinsky was not an "intern" as the media and the Rs would have it.

Posted by: JamieStiehm | March 3, 2010 6:21 PM
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The point is exactly that you can't hide these things, and in trying to do so, it makes it a much bigger deal. People don't care so much about one another's flaws, and they do about being lied to.

To that extent, I don't recall any of these people running on a non-smoking, being nice, or temperance in eating platform. Well said that if it's not affecting your abilities, it shouldn't even matter.

Posted by: CodyR | March 3, 2010 4:59 PM
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In general, I agree very much with the premise of your argument that leaders must demonstrate integrity. However, I think it would be better for him to come clean about his hidden vice, before the vice lets his ability to lead go up in smoke. Great article, Amy...looking forward to reading more!

Posted by: sjmccall | March 3, 2010 3:16 PM
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