The Humanity of Leadership

Making the most out of our mistakes, we all know, should be a mantra for everyone.  And learning from our mistakes is a critical component of organizational agility and successful change, not to mention personal self-development.  So, why does it remain so elusive?  And why do we react so negatively every time someone makes an error, particularly if that person is in a leadership role?

Numerous personal misconduct crises have left leadership gaps in major organizations in the past several weeks, none more high profile than the departure of General David Petraeus from his post leading the Central Intelligence Agency.  His resignation shocked many of us, and for a brief moment, I found myself terribly disappointed and a bit angry at him for his actions.  After all, here is a leader who represented some of the best leadership qualities this country has experienced in many decades, from a military or civilian leader.  How could he let us down like that?

The answer hit me as quickly as the initial disappointment had….he let us down because he’s human, and because we tend to put our best leaders on a pedestal from which they can hardly avoid disappointing us at some point.

Think about it….think about all the positive examples of strong leadership in governmental, corporate, or organizational roles in this country.  Many have overseen tremendous crises on all levels.  Some have saved lives.  Others have saved jobs.  Still others have raised millions of dollars for noteworthy causes.  Yet, so many of them fall from this pedestal of public praise…..

Recently, Lance Armstrong’s once seemingly untouchable reputation took a huge blow due to his use of performance enhancing drugs during his remarkable cycling career.  A decade ago, Colin Powell’s testimony to the United Nations about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction undercut his once impeccable reputation for objectivity.  In the ‘90s, President Clinton’s scandal led to his eventual impeachment, and his reputation was forever tarnished.  This week, it’s General Petraeus’s turn.

As I’ve stated before, I’m not at all critical of the public condemnation or fallout that has swept up each of these (any many more) public figures.  Leaders are leaders, and as such, are accountable to a higher level than many of the rest of us.  But leaders are also people, and people have flaws, skeletons, and all make mistakes.  So should we give them a pass because of the great things they have accomplished prior to (and sometimes while) making tremendous errors in judgment and unquestionably awful personal decisions?  Nope, I’d say not….but we should similarly not allow our final judgments of these American leaders be forever tainted because of their individual failings.

Should General Petraeus have remained in his position as Director of the CIA?  No, I commend him for resigning.  For starters, his is a position of extreme trust, and he violated that trust (no different than if anyone else with that level of security clearance had made the same mistake).  Secondly, his affair was with an Army Reserve officer, a clear case of military misconduct, no matter whether the affair took place before his move into the civilian realm or not (doubly so, because she was married)….

So, yes, I’m glad he resigned.  I believe it was the correct course of action in response to his indiscretion.  But will his mistake taint my view of General Petraeus as one of the brightest and strongest leaders of his generation?  Absolutely not.  He remains, from my perspective, a positive example of the kind of leader we need in all areas of global leadership, whether public or private sector.  Let’s not forget that even the greatest leaders make mistakes, however.  As such, he’s paying the price for that mistake, and it will forever be a part of his enduring legacy.  But it should not define his legacy.

Strong leaders are strong humanitarians, and that’s precisely as it should be.  But by definition, humanitarians are also human, and humans make mistakes.  So, while we must continue to insist on holding leaders accountable for their actions, let’s stop being so shocked and disappointed when they do err.  Because in expressing our shock, we are essentially expressing our disappointment in their humanity, which is an unreasonable and undesirable expectation for us to have in our leaders.

4 thoughts on “The Humanity of Leadership

  1. As more information on this story comes out, I’m rethinking my ‘like.’ Yes, we all get to make mistakes and shouldn’t be judged for one poor decision. But this is more than a mistake. It’s calculated. Deceitful. And with complete disregard for the trust placed in him by his position. It shows a new level of what he is ‘capable’ of to save his own hide. Petreaus only did the ‘right thing’ once the smoking gun was found. I don’t believe everyone is capable of deceit to this level. And while you can forgive the mistake, it does call into question his entire past and what other types of deceit may be lurking that is this well hidden. For me, he now has earned the Mark MaGwire asterisk behind his name. Petreaus may have been capable of great leadership, but was it really his?

    1. It’s a mistake and deceitful toward his spouse, and even with regard to his role as a leader. I wouldn’t argue that at all, but fundamentally, his betrayal of his marital commitment is not the issue here. Nor, quite honestly, do I think whether or not he would have resigned had it not been revealed is the issue. Because of his role, I think that revelation of his error should have prompted his resignation. But I don’t think it has anything to do with undermining the successes he had as a leader. I say that realizing there are those out there who were never his fans, and who now will and are taking the opportunity to paint him as an egomaniac and power lord. Thus far, that’s not the perception I have of his leadership. However, I also am not putting him on a pedestal and refusing to reconsider his record as a leader. My point in the article was simply that too often we allow flash judgments of leaders’ mistakes immediately cloud what are often quite remarkable leadership records. Can we be deceived? Absolutely, and where we are, let’s always reconsider. But if infidelity is the extent to which he has erred in maintaining a position of trust, then let’s not condemn his leadership. Time will tell (or not) to what extent his leadership is also questionable, I think.

      1. If it was only a breach of his marital commitment, then why resign? If the affair does not question his ability as a leader, then why not stay? The reason? It does. This goes to character. Does it erase or condemn all of his achievements? No, I agree, it doesn’t. But it puts all in question. I don’t think character, morals and ethics are something you can turn on and turn off and/or compartmentalize personally versus professionally. Yes, we all make mistakes. This isn’t a mistake, this is a pattern for at least a year. One he didn’t own up to until forced. One he knew would most likely cost him his job. How many of his leadership decisions/accolades were put to the same morale compass? True, only time will tell because we can no longer trust Petraeus to be honest with us. At the very least, he is not the man — or high moral leader — he portrayed himself to be. The two are very connected.

      2. I beg to differ. Based on requirements for security clearances, the affair should have stripped him of his security clearance, just as it would have for a more junior personnel. That’s the reason for his resignation. It’s not a simple matter of leadership ability, but rather the ability of someone to extort him more easily as a result of the indiscretion. And I’m not sure he tried to portray himself as a “high moral leader,” but I could be wrong. Regardless, the message here wasn’t specific to Petraeus, but rather to the troublesome manner in which we as a society put leaders on such a high pedestal from which they must inevitably fall with time.

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