Success may leave clues, but clues often proceed failure.
I’ve been following closely the moral collapse of two different leaders over the past several months. I was struck by how similar the themes are despite the differences in personalities and circumstances.
The situations are tragic for everyone involved, but especially those who trusted these leaders. Those who believed in and supported these leaders are naturally experiencing anger, betrayal and disappointment. The fallout has been ugly and there is no joy in tracking these moral failures.
There are. however, lessons that can help both leaders and those they lead.
Two things strike me:
- Both leaders were known for having unusual perks and privileges. These weren’t the kind of benefits that increased their impact or effectiveness, but that signaled their power and increased their personal comfort. And it seems that these entitlements raised the eyebrows of many around them, all whom–apparently–never challenged them. As time went on, in at least once instance, these little things lead to outright misuse of funds. What started as a little became a lot.
- More concerning, the behavior of both was often abrasive or even abusive of those around them. Rage, yelling, name calling and shaming are examples. I’ve always been puzzled why behavior that wouldn’t be tolerated by an employee or middle manager is accepted from a powerful leader. The easy answer is that people fear for their jobs and well being. Ironically, that makes the offending leader think that their behavior isn’t that bad. After all, nobody complains, right?
The success or effectiveness of any leader is not a license to privilege or bad behavior. Treating people badly is a major shortcoming of any leader, regardless of skill or success. If it would be unaccepted from someone else in the organization, it should be unaccepted from those in power.
Personal privilege is telling. A leader can–because of her schedule, demands and responsibilities–sometimes need resources that others in the organization wouldn’t, we should still beware when the infrequent becomes the frequent and then the norm.
While we are often disappointed when a leader fails, we are rarely surprised. In retrospect, there were usually clues. It takes courage for the leader to recognize and change when they are guilty of these things, and it takes even more courage for a friend or colleague of the leader to challenge them to do so.