The scandalous downfall of a public figure is nothing new. During the past few years, the rogues’ gallery includes cyclist Lance Armstrong, golfer Tiger Woods, former Congressman Anthony Weiner, former CIA Director David Petraeus, former Presidential candidate John Edwards, and former Governors Eliot Spitzer, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Rod Blagojevich. And that’s just in the U.S.
Witnessing a public fall from grace should act as a deterrent, and as a reminder to strive to be our best selves. The fact that these scandals happen repeatedly indicates that we are not paying attention.
Occasionally, we can also learn something when a well-known figure attempts a very public comeback.
The recent announcement by Mark Sanford that he will seek a vacant Congressional seat is noteworthy for the very dangerous signals it sends to public servants, private leaders, and everybody else concerned about leadership. Sanford, formerly the governor of South Carolina, had to resign that position after he repeatedly lied about an extra-marital affair. If the phrase “hiking the Appalachian trail” means something to you other than a three-month trek along the East Coast, you’ve got Sanford to thank.
Choices are not mistakes
A mistake, according to dictionary.com, is “an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc.” As in, “I judged that the plan would work out well; I made a mistake when I did not accurately consider the impact of XYZ factors.”
To choose, on the other hand, is to “select from a number of possibilities; pick by preference.” As in, “I chose to have an affair rather than stay faithful to my wife.”
Many public figures admit to making “mistakes” when caught in, or after, the act of doing something they should not have done. In truth, these actions are choices that most knew were wrong at the time.
Conveniently, when a choice does not work out as intended it often becomes a mistake.
Leaders know many of their wrong choices
Many leaders, both public and private, know at the moment of decision that the choices they are making are wrong for any number of reasons. They make these wrong choices anyway. They think no one will find out, they do not fear the consequences, or they gamble that they can survive any scandal.
In a recent interview, Sanford said “In life we’re all going to make mistakes, we’re all going to come up short. The key is, how do you get back up and how do you learn from those mistakes?”
He’s wrong. The key to learning is to recognize the actual lesson--not make up a lesson that suits you. Now firmly on the comeback trail, Stanford is repackaging his deliberate decisions as abstract mistakes.
He glosses over his past arrogance with a further fantasy. His line of reasoning is essentially, “Heck, it could happen to anybody!” He makes it sound normal to carry on an affair while lying to his wife, children, family, friends, the gubernatorial staff, the media, the state of South Carolina, and, eventually, the entire nation while sneaking out of the country for trysts.
This is a series of extraordinarily intentional decisions to lie and deceive. These are not the results of chance or accidents, and certainly not of mistakes.
And they are unambiguous acts of self-deception and self-indulgence that are all too common among people in power. What is common is cheap. We don’t need cheap public servants or leaders. True leadership is quite costly.
Leadership starts with me
When we allow our leaders to behave badly, when we tolerate intolerable behavior, and when we refuse to stand for something better, we inadvertently give ourselves a similar pass. We sanction our own lowered standards. We let ourselves off the hook, and it is a long way down.
When we refer to our bad choices as “mistakes,” treat our personal integrity as malleable, and expect to avoid the consequences of our actions, it makes it easier to accept Sanford’s labored rationalizing. And that’s exactly what he, and other bad leaders, rely on.
If we want better leadership from our leaders, we must first be better leaders of ourselves.
The next time you make a dumb, selfish, lazy, dishonest, or irresponsible choice, admit it. Tell anyone: friend, loved one, co-worker, direct report, boss, or total stranger.
Don’t call it a mistake, or an error in judgment, or offer an insultingly hollow apology to “anyone who was offended.”
Speak unambiguously, courageously. Risk speaking truthfully.
This is a leadership opportunity waiting to be embraced. And when you do embrace it, you create a small measure of credibility, dignity really, that enables you to ask and expect the same from others.
A different comeback
Sanford grandly states that we all “come up short,” with the implication that you, too, could be in his shoes. How would you respond to a comeback after your public fall?
Don’t follow Sanford’s example. Be better.
“I engaged in an affair that I knew was wrong from the start. My choices were not mistakes – they were conscious decisions to do what I wanted to do, regardless of the consequences to myself, my family, and the responsibilities I swore to uphold. I have deeply wounded those closest to me, people who expected me to protect, love, and serve them. I chose to betray this trust and responsibility, and I will never stop working to make amends.
I should have done the most responsible thing: ended one relationship before pursuing another. I should not have lied to everyone concerned. I should not have been so arrogant as to believe that I was doing anything other than the wrong thing. I am truly ashamed of my very poor decisions – and I will work to try to repair the damage. I will never again take my position for granted, or abuse the trust given to me. I will make better decisions because I have lived with the cost of making very bad decisions. I will be a better person and public servant.
I alone put myself in this position. I recklessly jumped off a cliff. I slowly and arduously climbed up a steep wall of personal failings and painful self-reflection. With the help and forgiveness of many people, I am now standing on level ground. And I am asking you to let me try again.”
This is a first step towards a second chance.
BRIAN EVJE helps people and organizations lead change and growth. Brian is a Principal of Equipoise Alliance, an organizational consultancy, a Member of The Change Leaders, and an Executive-in-Residence at Astia, a global not-for-profit propelling women’s full participation as entrepreneurs and leaders in high-growth businesses. He is a graduate of Santa Clara University, and the Master’s program Consulting and Coaching for Change at HEC School of Management, Paris / Saїd Business School, University of Oxford.