Michael Cohen’s Awkward Turnaround: Can Bad Leaders Change Their Ways?

Rep. Paul Gosar (R Arizona) accused Michael Cohen of selfishness and untrustworthiness, noting that he doesn’t deserve to be believed in his current testimony because, after all, “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire,” (quoting the sign behind his chair). 

27fireworks-facebookJumbo.jpgGranted, this childish poke at Cohen is more a silly twitter meme to entertain people uninterested in the facts than a commentary on the lawyer’s testimony. However, the rhetorically limp barb captures something important about what happens when bad leaders (liars) apparently try to change their behavior. They suddenly seem even more inauthentic than they ever did before, especially to those who were invested in their deceptive performance.

Cohen’s calm testimony, a real contrast to his earlier testimony, a tense iteration of official narratives, didn’t merit the continual attack by Republicans, who generally tried to discredit him rather than question him. Of course, he may be speaking with a variety of motives, some self-interested; even Cohen himself does not argue that he has suddenly become saintly or noble. But the attack underlines a surreal quality about Washington leadership lately. In their denial of Trump’s fragile position, his supporters must deflect substantive questions of law, evidence and practice. They must lead from bluster and project a culture of personality, not action.

The idea that Cohen isn’t trustworthy isn’t just an attempt to characterize his testimony as false. It’s also part of our current resistance in America to authentic leadership. Authentic leadership is not simply a consistent personal performance. It almost always involves leading from core values while shifting habits and positions in order to respond to real-world crisis, conditions, and relationships. Michael Cohen, who led badly in service of a man who cared more about business and fame than leadership, is trying to step up to a different standard. And he’s facing a childish, primal and strategic distrust — he’s the liar liar pants on fire we’re not supposed to listen to.


The real Michael Cohen protected Trump’s image. The real Michael Cohen was the man indicted for lying out of loyalty. This Michael Cohen can’t be real, therefore, because now he’s changed his story. Once a liar, always a liar. It sounds logical if you don’t think too hard about it.  But it only makes sense if we expect our leaders to stay the same, no matter what is happening in the world.

It’s the duty of lawmakers and courts of law to test the evidence and assertions in the testimony and commentaries we heard yesterday. That process will be ongoing. But our assessment of Cohen’s character (or lack of it) is important because it’s become a litmus test for a major problem in American leadership today: a distrust of questioning. This failure to acknowledge the importance of asking hard questions and transforming our behavior as a result has created a disdain for dialogue, collaboration, and compromise. Related to the political crisis at the heart of Cohen’s testimony is a leadership crisis that threatens our ability to proceed with resilience and integrity.




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