A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure to debate about this question with a dozen of great leaders from around the globe. It was in a the Decision theater of the McCain Institute head quarter in Washington DC, during a workshop on ethics, values and leadership, moderated by General Freakley (RT), assisted by Ambassador Polt.
Those supporting that there was a line to be respected between private and public lives argued that the betrayal in such circumstances was not collective and only the spouse (and eventually the family) was entitled to explanations. They also argued that unless the leader was a religious or spiritual leader, the impact of one’s infidelity would not affect the message. According to them, the fact that many great leaders who were not faithful managed to achieve great goals for the benefit of their organizations, their countries and even humanity is evidence that people do not care about their leader’s private misconducts. They concluded by saying that Media and political vultures often took advantage of these private issues to tarnish one’s reputation but faithfulness in a marriage, fidelity, had nothing to do with effective leadership. My position, and those I teamed with was that infidelity of a leader, or any person for that matter, had a direct impact on his/her leadership.
Before I give consequences of leaders’ unfaithfulness, let’s first talk about some of the attributes of leadership. What makes an effective leader? Why are some leaders followed, cheered by thousands and some others by only dozens, despite the obvious collective benefits of their actions? As many leadership expert have said, a leader needs to be a role model. A leader has to be transparent and integer. People need to know that he or she is a gentleman or a Lady who will honor his/her words.
Transparency means that leaders must live each day of their life having nothing to hide. I am not saying that life should be a cheap reality show. What I mean is that if questioned on anything, the leader should be able to respond honestly and to table the explanations in a way that do not compromise his or her trustworthiness. Integrity means that there must be oneness between what the leader says and what he or she does. Any fracture would mean there is no authenticity in what is preached and would result in mistrust from most of the followers.
These attribute are intrinsic to all effective leadership as they create and maintain the relationship between the leader and the people behind. Of course, leaders are not perfect, and when it happens that they breach one or another of these attribute, they must expect that the trust that cements their relationship to their followers will be impacted to a more or less level, depending on many factors. Breaking this cement comes with consequences.
Integrity, trustworthiness and faithfulness are not circumstantial. They are permanent attributes that need to be reflected in any aspect of the leader’s life. Leaders who mistreat their personnel cannot be expected to treat civil servant right. Those who do not separate recyclable garbage at home cannot pretend to have green policies at heart. In the same way, Leaders who do not honor the marriage oath they voluntarily took in their heart, in front of his God, the State, Family and friends, cannot be expected to respect the oath they takes swearing on the constitution.
Leadership does not materialize overnight. People are not born great leaders. They patiently build leadership skills, ability, mentality and charisma by scoring constant goals that align their speech to their world, that inspire trust. Breaking a solemn promise is a grave breach of integrity and trust, and this will definitely have an impact on the way people look at the leader, and on the weight they attach to his or her promises going forward. The more public and solemn the promise, the deeper the negative impact. And what greater promise than peoples’ promise to always respect their engagements to the people they hold most dearly in their life?
Another consequence of an unfaithful leader on his organization is the mismanagement of resources. Often such leaders would not hesitate to use the organization resources for their personal benefits. Because of the nature of the relationship, the time allocated will often be time that is supposed to be spent building the organization. The transport and accommodation means, the premises and even the secret partner will often be linked in a way or another to the organization (which in addition of being an abuse of power can be interpreted as sexual harassment).
A typical example of an unfaithful leader and the impact of his cheating on his career is the case of former US president Bill Clinton. Not only he was left with very few followers but he also tarnished the image of the party and the office he served.
“ In the wake of the Clinton scandals, independents warmed to Bush's promise to 'restore honor and dignity to the White House.' According to Voter News Service, the personal quality that mattered most to voters was 'honesty.' Voters who chose 'honesty' preferred Bush over Gore by over a margin of five to one. Forty Four percent of Americans said the Clinton scandals were important to their vote. Of these, Bush reeled in three out of every four”. Todd J. Weiner (May 15, 2004). "Blueprint for Victory". America's Future Foundation.
So if cheating leaders do not only cheat on their spouse, but they cheat on themselves and their followers by failing to be integer, trustworthy and honest; if they often spend the organization resources to cover up their shameful affairs, how is this private matter? Why should the media and their opponent restrain from exposing their true colors? It is about someone failing to comply with a set of values and ethics expected from any leader.
Infidelity is about breaching integrity, honesty, trustworthiness and delivering to one’s promise. These are not circumstantial; they are permanent qualities leaders should always have in order to keep their moral high ground; so yes, infidelity of a leader matters and should be discussed in public when evaluating the potential to lead.