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.