Rob Ford and Leaders Gone Wild: the Bathsheba Syndrome or a Crisis of Authenticity?

Yesterday, I wrote about the general mayhem of Rob Ford’s public life and the leadership crisis in Toronto, Canada. Ford has now been stripped of his executive powers, and his staff and office budget have been reduced to a shell. According to Bloomberg Business Week, “Although he may be the most ridiculed politician in the world, there is no legal mechanism to remove him, short of a jail sentence. (No charges have been brought against Ford.) So Ford defiantly remains mayor and has promised to run for reelection next October. The longer his circus goes on, the more Ford seems to revel in his role as its clown prince.”

Yesterday’s post offers lots of links, background about the crisis and a general analysis of his bawdy, brawling fratboy authenticity, which has forced citizens to call for his resignation. Today I’m going to write about Ford as an object lesson for those of us who believe authenticity – defined as an integrated public/private integrity –  is a leader’s best tool. Instead of the performance we hunger for – scandal and abject apology-  Ford insists on showing us his true self, and although it’s honest, it’s not pretty. By refusing to follow the post-scandal script, and clinging to the “man of the people” myth he used to get elected, Ford is living proof that authenticity for politicians today is a performance that reassures — not a reflection of subjective or objective reality.

Ford represents an extreme example of leaders out of control. Unfortunately, there are and have been many in the past years. (Marion Barry, David Petraeus, George Bush II, to name a few!) Whether we diagnose the core problem as the Bathsheba Syndrome, or a very human struggle with addiction and desire, there are two issues that affect rebound — our perception of the politician’s authentic remorse, and where we place the “crime” on the spectrum of scandal that has become the norm in media coverage.

At least in America, our interest in their private lives has increased with new expectations that private integrity must match public status and responsibility. With the Rob Ford crisis, we see the self-destructive incompetence that happens when public and private integrity disintegrate together. What might have simply been a scandal – like Petraeus resignation — has become a public spectacle that can only destroy Ford and weaken public confidence in politicians.

Politicians now have a prescribed ritual in order to maintain their positions or post-resignation status. Apologize, creating a new peformance of “authentic remorse,” and move on, visibly chastened.  And when troubled people become destructive, embarassing and enraged leaders, as Ford has now, we see the meltdown of the relationships based on the leader’s promised authentic identity. That authenticity is part of a social contract, a performance standard that helps us trust and keep engaging with leaders in prosocial ways.
Ford knocks over a city councillor after the decision to limit his powers

Ford knocks over a city councillor after the decision to limit his powers

Ford has moved beyond prosocial authenticity into real world self-destructive honesty peppered with failed attempts to perform the script we expect. As a result, I believe he will eventually have to resign. It seems like common sense, given his behavior and citizen backlash. But in the meantime, he’s started blaming political backlash and personal vendettas for the consequences of his behaviors.  We get to see the instructive if delusional intensity of his denial and misjudgment with striking clarity.

This crisis goes beyond the Bathsheba Syndrome, where leaders with power and earned respect are protected by followers until unethical behavior becomes too egregious. It will probably earn its own name, the Rob Ford Syndrome — when leaders, faced with personal failures that go beyond scandalous, refuse to act for the common good because they can’t let go of their personal authenticity, forgetting that its strategic performance is the public key. Without that strategic peformance, leaders can’t take responsibility or salvage what is left of their power.

Authenticity gone bad — that’s Rob Ford all over! He ran as a “man of the people,” an ordinary guy who loved beer and hockey and wanted to cut the fat out of government so regular people could get their due. And that’s what he’s trying to maintain, despite the fact that his “man of the people” identity has been shattered by his violent and irresponsible behavior — no longer Ward Cleaver authenticity but Walter White authenticity.  (Leave it to Beaver vs. Breaking Bad, two great Western mythic authenticities at odds with each other…)

The bottom line, no matter what he says now, he’s scary — citizens have seen his authentic meltdown, so his strategic ordinary-guy personal/political identity is no longer believable. Sure, he’s ordinary — lots of people go over the deep end because of drugs and rage and alcohol. But he can’t see what we see, can’t do what we want him to do, so he’s making the crisis worse by being frat boy in-our-face real. And we can’t afford to believe him, even though he probably, ironically, deeply believes himself.

CBC interview with Rob and Doug Ford

CBC interview with Rob and Doug Ford

Oh, he’s trying to do the ritual apology/transformation thing.  In an interview yesterday with the CBC, Ford announced he’s quit drinking because of a “come-to-Jesus moment.” (For his sake, I hope it’s true — he may have ended his career, but getting control of his addiction may save his life.)

But then he goes all honest — letting us know what he really thinks. The interview offers insight into the delusional strangeness of Rob Ford’s fractured world. He accused the council, which reduced his staff, for punishing him for a few drunken Friday and Saturday nights, denied any drug or alcohol problem, and accepted his brother’s bizarre assessment that his main problem is that he’s overweight. And (watch the interview!) he believes it! It’s authentic, in its own twisted way.

Brother Doug Ford also said, with righteous hyperbole based on their assessment of the problem: “This is the worst thing that’s ever happened to democracy in Canada,” said Doug Ford. “It’s an overthrow because of personal issues. It’s up to the people to decide, not city councillors. Rob Ford agreed and said many on council are angry that he’s ending the “gravy train.” He also said many on council have their eyes on the mayor’s job. “I’ve let a lot of people down,” he said. Ford also said he will seek re-election next October and will do away with “excessive, stupid, immature behaviour.” Hmmmm…. Is that even possible, now that Ford has claimed it as his own?

Arguably, this crisis of real authenticity vs. the ritualized authenticity we long for is as devastating as the chaos resulting from the meltdown, because there are so many scandals, so many disappointments in the gap between private integrity and public service. The Toronto spectacle highlights what we all know — the apology ritual, much like the I-want-to-spend-more-time-with-my-family resignation, is a bandaid — but we want it, we need it. We have lost faith in our leaders, for good reasons and bad. We have lost faith in authenticity.

So when it’s sitting in front of us, in all of Ford’s familiar strangeness, the fractured dance of political authenticity shocks us into shame and anger. If leadership that matters is really about what we do, not necessarily who we are, then what is authenticity? What are the bridges that matter between our private and public selves? If we look at Rob Ford, the answer is not being true to ourselves, but being true to our constituencies. The answer is controlling our public authenticity, and having the self-control to keep our private authenticities, subjective as they are, to ourselves.

Authenticity is a performance. Rob Ford lost track of that, in whatever “drunken stupor” he regularly experiences. The scandal in Toronto is as much a scandal of a shattered public mask as it is the story of a mayor crippled by drug and alcohol abuse. We are watching the failure of the idealistic, ritualistic script of public authenticity. It’s an informative train wreck.



  1. […] Today, Dana Smith published an interesting analysis of Rob Ford’s behavior in the Guardian, noting that we cannot assume he’s an addict, but that he might be a person with dependent behaviors — i.e. excessive risk taking that leads to poor decision making. This is fascinating in terms of leadership assessment, helping us broaden our analysis of leader behaviors, moving one step past the questions of leadership authenticity and identity I raised in yesterday’s blog about Ford. […]


  2. […] Cline’s NY Times editorial introduces Neil MacDonald’s wisdom about the ongoing Rob Ford leadership scandal. Ford is an extreme case of private behavior poisoning public perceptions. But in other cases, are […]


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