News of a fallen leader elicits shock from followers. The higher the profile of the person whose reputation is tarnished, the bigger the shock. But for any leader, the news of another leader’s fall should elicit something more than and different from simply shock. While smugness is sometimes the emotional response, it is not what anyone should feel. A more rational reaction is “there but for the grace of God goes me…” The case of a fallen leader should be a reminder or wake-up call to keep our own houses in order. It should be a red flag to remind us how lapses in judgment or slips in one’s character are always a bad thing but are particularly devastating to a leader.
I’m not talking about a leader who leaves or who is removed for the inability to produce results (the most common reason for failure among high level executives). I’m talking about a moral failure that we too often, it seems, read about on the front page. It is worse still when the leader is caught doing something he or she is publicly against. My friend and colleague Frank Bucarro says that values are what we believe but that ethics are what we do. This incongruity between espoused beliefs and lived behaviors destroy the confidence of followers by its hypocrisy.
With the many examples of leadership failure that confront us, it is prudent to periodically take a moral inventory of one’s life. How can a leader do this?
Contemplate. Consider what needs to change. Thomas Carlyle said, “The greatest of all faults is to be conscious of none.”
None of us is perfect, but some imperfections are more serious than others. Are there any areas of your life that would be devastating to your credibility and reputation if exposed? These are the areas that need your honest consideration.
This process of honest evaluation can be very difficult. One definition of denial, playing loosely with the acronym, is “don’t even know I’m lying.” To avoid the pain of dealing with a problem, people can develop elaborate rationalization techniques. It takes the highest form of intellectual honesty and integrity to examine oneself for faults.
Confront those problems you find. While a leader might find a serious problem that needs attention, even little problems shouldn’t be ignored. After all, little acorns grow into big oaks. It is easy to deal with a small problem than an ingrained habit that grows from it.
Looking at one’s dark side is never pleasant. We are all capable of extraordinarily great behavior and, in moments of weakness, awful behavior. A childhood story tells about two dogs continually fighting, the good dog and the bad dog that represent our noble side and our base side. The moral of the story: we must continually feed the good dog and starve the bad dog unless we want to bad dog to become victorious.
Confide in someone for support and accountability if appropriate. I think the biggest derailer of leaders today (and I have no research; this is my gut) is that to even mention a problem it to risk being found out. Leaders think they can handle a potential problem by themselves in secret, and the problem grows beyond their ability to deal with.
The key is to pick the right person to confide in, and that is someone you place utmost confidence in. Confidentiality is critical. To even admit struggling with a moral problem is to risk having someone repeat that you do have a problem and the next person to proclaim your problem monumental.
Here’s the catch: some leaders have no one in their lives they can trust at this level of risk. That’s why developing ongoing and meaningful relationships is critical for long-term leadership success. The higher one climbs, the harder it is to initiate and develop these trusted advisors.
Seek professional counsel. If necessary, you may want to deal with a professional who is skilled in whatever area threatens you. Assessing the need for professional help is not my expertise, but a good counselor will usually spend a session evaluating if you do indeed need his or her services, and explain how he or she can help. The money spent on professional help is a small price to pay to avoid moral collapse.
Correct immediately. This is easy to write, but far harder to do. Change can begin in an instant, and while it may not permanently stick, I believe it better to change and change again rather than putting off the hard work of beginning the process of change.
By accepting the responsibility of leadership, I believe leaders agree to play by a higher standard, knowing that they will be held to a higher standard. That’s why “big L” leadership isn’t for everyone. Periodic acts of leadership are within everyone’s ability, but ongoing leadership of people and organizations is a serious charge done in public, and as such, scrutinized by the public.
The harsh reality is that either a leader holds him- or herself accountable, or given enough time, someone else will. Use an honest but rigorous process for keeping your heart and life right, and avoiding a terrible fall from leadership.