How Leaders Go Bad (i.e. Spitzer)

Last Updated Mar 20, 2008 3:32 PM EDT

Two interesting views on the career suicide of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer.

Writing in BusinessWeek, Harvard Business School professor Bill George fits Spitzer into a failed leadership type he terms "rationalizer."

I believe Spitzer's profile closely fits the rationalizer, one who gets so caught up in his own power that he can justify the most egregious acts and believes he won't get caught. He also conforms to the profile of the glory seeker, who defines himself by the acclaim of the external world. With an unquenchable thirst for fame, no amount of recognition is sufficient. Yet the emptiness inside is always there. In Spitzer's case, it appears he attempted to fill it by hiring someone to reinforce his ego. Of course, it never works. Like pouring water into a bucket with a hole in it, no amount of adulation can fill the emptiness within.
Meanwhile, Harvard Kennedy School's Barbara Kellerman, blogging on Harvard Business, sees the fallen governor as an 'intemperate" leader.
... that is, leaders who lack self control, who are unable and manifestly unwilling to curb their various appetites. The thing of it is they abound. While no other type of bad leadership seems as unnecessary, as careless and wasteful as intemperate leadership, it is nevertheless nearly commonplace.
The common thread I see in both descriptions is the corrupting influence of power.

Nothing new in that thought, but it certainly makes me add another dimension to my own thinking when I have a say in granting someone real authority. How do I think the presidential candidates will handle power when they step into the Oval Office? Have they had experience with it before? Do they shown signs of becoming too comfortable with the perks of privilege?

In business, boards of directors must also ask similar questions as they evaluate CEO candidates. The Corner Office can swell an ego and taint judgment even faster than residence in the Governor's Mansion.

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.