Are we overreacting to private mistakes? Broken pedestals and the constant leadership crisis of the American “freak show”

Francis 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 we overreacting? Is private morality really the marker of good leaders, or is that a new leadership myth?

The CBC Washington Correspondent wryly calls Ford’s PR stupor the latest installment in the “American freak show.” And it is — because politics (should I call it leadership?) has become such a freak show of scandals that any pedestal has become a fragile one.

Taking Ford’s train wreck out of the mix, it may be that we’re overreacting, 9 times out of 10, now that politicians seem to have no secrets. The result may be that we’re losing leaders, before or after they run for office, who might have been great despite their human weakness.

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 character, trustworthiness and abilities, and where we place the “crime” on the spectrum of scandal that has become the norm in media coverage.

With our changing expectations, we’ve started telling different stories about our leaders, and getting jaded – and hypercritical and somehow helpless – because of it. News media and the blogosphere now willing to expose a leader’s weaknesses in titillating detail, even if s/he doesn’t make a repeated spectacle, or say things like I-smoked-crack-because-I’m-a drunk in a press conference. The repeated affairs were once winked at, with former CIA director Allen DullesPresident Roosevelt, and President John Kennedy being the most famous examples of common knowledge of multiple affairs never reported.
the bas relief of Dulles at the CIA building

the bas relief of Dulles at the CIA building, honoring his contributions that made the CIA great

Steven Kinzer, in his oped about Dulles’ famous “serial adultery,” (we’re talking hundreds of women, not just one or two) noted, “Dulles’s behavior was well known in Washington and elsewhere, but never publicly reported. By the journalistic codes of the 1950s, it was not newsworthy. The same code applied to Dulles’s superiors. Presidents Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy entrusted the security of the United States to him. What Dulles did in his private life, even when it intersected with his public role, was considered none of their business. Allen Dulles, who died in 1969, may have been, as one biographer claimed, “the greatest intelligence officer who ever lived.” Yet by today’s standards, this master spy would not have been allowed even to join the C.I.A., much less lead it.”

There’s a spectrum, and we’ve lost track of what standards we need to apply in order to judge when personal lapses become public dangers, except perhaps in extreme cases like Ford’s. Who among us would want to erase Kennedy’s accomplishments, or for that matter, Petraeus’ successes in battle, Clinton’s economic reforms, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, or, dare we say it, Thomas Jefferson’s foundational presence? Yet all these men might have been forced to resign over moral lapses. All of these men succumbed to sexual temptation. And all of these men are considered great leaders.

We have fallen in love with two dangerous and seductive ideas:

1. We have a right to know everything about anyone in the public eye. That’s the freak show, the celebrity spectacle, the media bulemia that spews out information 24-7. Nothing is private anymore and followers now feel we have a right to know, to judge, and to condemn our leaders for things that would have been secret only 40 years ago.

2. Leaders must be “authentic,” that is, public and private behaviors, morals and values must be totally consistent. This idea is even more dangerous than the media freak show, because very few people — perhaps no one — can be this consistent. It is impossible. We make mistakes. And we all have secrets. Arguably, we need them, in order to grow, to learn and to function.

The erosion of public and private lives is a fact now. And it’s changed our expectations of leadership — sometimes derailing leaders before they have a chance to shine, sometimes destroying careers, and sometimes just causing a general feeling of jaded despair in followers as we see men we think of as immoral rise again to claim political power. At core, the problem isn’t the private mistakes and excesses, but the myth that great leaders won’t have private failures.

We have lost perspective about our leaders’ humanity. And that means we either overreact or underreact, falling into voyeurism and being manipulated. Insteead of hanging on every thrilling private excess revealed, we need to build new tools to evaluate leadership scandals in the age of the freakshow.

P.S. Speaking of voyeurism…. here’s an update on the news, for those who can’t resist learning more: The Rob Ford trainwreck is still burning bright in the international media. Today we’re getting comments from the men who lost the election to Ford, Bloomberg called his mayoral cataclysm “the Idiocy-Industrial Complex,” and many of the few staffers who could remain in his office are reportedly resigning.

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