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Robert Goodwin

Robert Goodwin

Robert J. Goodwin is CEO and co-founder of Executives Without Borders; former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force and appointee at USAID, the State Department and the White House.

Vice: our common ground

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

They call it public life for a reason. For better or worse, ours is a world in which every aspect of a leader's life is the stuff of front-page headlines, nightly news lead-ins, and late-night monologues.

From Bill Clinton's McDonald's cravings, to George W. Bush's admitted bout with alcoholism, to Barack Obama's smoking habit, how our leaders manage the same personal vices shared by millions around the world plays an important role in how they are perceived - and thus, how effective they can be.

That's likely why leaders often try so hard to keep their vices under wraps. Today, people in powerful positions trade more on credibility than on wisdom, expertise, and personal experience combined - and more often than not, they see that public trust as inexorably tied to a squeaky-clean public image. When every move you make is tirelessly analyzed in a partisan political environment such as ours, it's probably easy to feel that if one thread is pulled, the entire sweater could easily come apart.

It's a perfectly understandable political instinct; but the wrong one nonetheless.
In truth, coming clean and publicly acknowledging a personal vice often enhances credibility for the simple reason that it demonstrates transparency while establishing common ground with the public. Unless the behavior is so egregious as make the leader unfit for his or her position, such honesty also enables a leader to better control the story and perhaps even transform it into something that positively impacts people's lives.

Imagine if President Obama committed to kicking his smoking habit before the end of the year. It's hard to imagine that his struggle wouldn't inspire others around the world to do the same and that he wouldn't earn a little sympathy from those who admire his desire to be the kind of role model that a president should be.

Furthermore, the media-driven and hyper-connected nature of our society makes it virtually impossible for a high-profile individual to keep a vice a secret anyway - meaning that a leader's credibility will likely be adversely impacted by anything other than full, controlled disclosure.

It's when a vice calls credibility into question that it most negatively impacts a leader's effectiveness. For that reason, today's leaders are best advised that honesty really is the best policy.

By Robert Goodwin

 |  March 4, 2010; 11:07 PM ET
Category:  Leadership weaknesses Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Point well taken Mr. Goodwin. There is something to be said for simply being human, and having leaders acknowledging that fact to fellow citizens.

Vices are minor failings. The commitment to tackle them, as you said, an inspiration to others. We should not expect a level of perfection in our leaders that we would not expect in ourselves.

Hitler was a tee totaling vegetarian. Churchill swilled booze from sun up to sunset.

Vices and virtues rarely decide the quality of the leader.

Posted by: CoughlinC | March 5, 2010 3:01 PM
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