Leaders in the News: A reality TV show, a comedy of errors, or a Greek tragedy?

In one hour this morning's news was filled with the following headlines with fallen leaders topping the storylines:

“A middle school principal arrested for domestic violence …”

“NASCAR star Jeff Gordon loses his temper in a race and gets into a fight on the track”

“John McAfee (of anti-virus fame) wanted for the murder of his neighbor in Belize”

“Lockheed Martin CEO ousted after having an affair with an employee”

"General Allen, a “Superstar Military Leader” linked to “inappropriate” emails”

 “General Petraeus (head of the CIA) guilty of an extra-marital affair, sex scandal'”

Yes, it’s shocking to see the dirty laundry of public heroes in their own right being aired in public, and perhaps that’s what makes the news.  Yet, it seems to be happening more often than ever before:  Leaders who are responsible for making decisions and who have such influence over so many lives making shockingly poor decisions for their own personal gain or satisfaction.

Which leads me to ask a different question ...

Why do we continue to be so shocked at the misbehavior and poor personal decisions of leaders compared to “regular” people who make the same poor decisions?

Let’s start by asking:  Whose problem is it?

Is it the problem of the leader who, perhaps as a result of extraordinary success and accomplishment, develops any of the following belief systems:

  • Untouchable Syndrome: "I won’t get caught.”
  • It Can’t Happen To Me Syndrome:  Similar to adolescent thinking when you tell your kids not to drink and drive so they don’t kill themselves or someone else and their response is … "…that happens to other people, 'It won’t happen to me.'”
  • Entitlement Syndrome "I deserve to do what I want, who’s going to stop me?”
  • Sociopath Syndrome:   "Not only do I not give a damn if my actions hurt others, what I tell myself to make it okay is I blame others or I deny I did it in the first place.”

Maybe it’s my problem … your problem…. The public’s problem.  I believe the first three syndromes I described above is what happens when people put leaders up on such a pedestal (or in the corner office in the Ivory Tower).  The last one is a diagnosis of a mental illness.

Research has proven that many highly successful leaders have strong sociopathic characteristics of charisma, confidence, the ability to communicate and to deceive and influence others into doing what they want.

Where does that leave us when it comes to deciding which behaviors are reinforced and which ones are discouraged and have serious consequences?

Another option might be to manage our expectations of leaders and not set them up to fail.

What if leaders had the resources and the tools from Day 1 to lead from character, with integrity, authenticity and a sense of responsibility to “do the right thing in every situation especially when no one is looking?”

In our society, our culture and within our organizations, we elevate leaders into such a distant place they are so far removed from the feedback they need to see quickly that their behavior is unacceptable.  Left unchecked, each time a leader “gets away” with making poor choices, his or her belief system gets reinforced, even rewarded.  Until it crumbles completely.  And even then I have seen leaders still hold onto their beliefs with white knuckles.

Perhaps it’s time to stop being surprised that ordinary, everyday leaders, as well as extraordinary leaders, are human, fallible and susceptible to making very poor decisions and fail just like you and me.

Perhaps it’s time to create cultures and organizations that allow, encourage, and reward leaders who are human.  To give them a way to “think out loud” and receive honest feedback from people who aren't “yes” men.

Those of you who are Executive Coaches and reading this are probably nodding in agreement.  You have experienced being the trusted adviser who tells them what they need to hear, not necessarily want to hear.  Assisting leaders in making good personal and professional decisions that are in alignment with their values as well as those of the company and people in it is an art and a science. And, yes, it’s an asset every leader ought to have in their arsenal because the stakes are higher than ever.  .

Yet, until Executive Coaching becomes a staple in the C-Suite, and we can stop preaching to the choir, perhaps the only thing we can do is manage our expectations of our very human leaders, both ordinary and extraordinary.

I wonder how the leaders listed above who were arrested, ousted, fired, forced to resign would answer, “What would have had to be in place for you to avoid being a news story today?”

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