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Rethinking Leadership and Character--from Spitzer to Schwarzenegger to Tressel

Recent weeks have brought a bumper crop of scandal and fallen icons--from Arnold Schwarzenegger's out of wedlock misdeeds to the resignation of Ohio State University football coach Jim Tressel for recruiting and ethical violations and his efforts to conceal them. The crash of fallen expectations seen in these stories is familiar, as we recall the plunge of Eliot Spitzer from crusading ethics reformer to serial call girl addict or of Bill Clinton from triumphantly reelected President to sexual harrasser. These and other scandals challenge us to rethink our perceptions of a respected leaders--if we were so wrong about them, we ask, should we ever trust our judgment?

Two psychologists, David DeSteno of Northeastern University and Piercarlo Valdesolo at Claremont McKenna College, have written a new book that challenges cherished views about what good character is, and sheds light on why good people do bad things. Out of Character: Surprising Truths About the Liar, Cheat, Sinner, (and Saint) Lurking in All of Us gives us a scientific perspective on why we make choices that hurt others.

Character Isn't Fixed, But Fluid
Drawing on a wealth of their own research, the authors argue that the quality of character is not a fixed quality made up of early childhood experiences, education, mentoring, and experience that is stamped on us like a code. Character is more of a process of constantly balancing conflicting goals and desires: getting what we want, doing what others expect, doing good, and pursuing our own drives and pleasures. Character is about making smart, nuanced choices in complex circumstances, based on strong self-awareness, rather than discipline.

"We'll show why the mind values flexibility," they write, "and why, whether we like it or not, exerting willpower doesn't inherently make us an angel, any more than indulging our urges necessarily makes us a devil. Life isn't that simple."

Knowing and wanting to make virtuous choices is essential to successful living and leadership. But the ease and frequency with which a leader or any of us can "do the right thing" is far more influenced by a myriad of situational and environmental factors than is commonly understood. These include selfish wants, opportunities for the organization, longer-term strategies, altruistic notions, unconscious biases, "old brain" fears (so and so is "out to get me".."I'm getting older and losing my appeal to women") and the will to win.

When there is conflict between the big long-term goal (say, building a winning football program that makes millions of dollars and supports hundreds of jobs) and the ethics of a short-term decision (allowing players to get illegal gifts and cash from boosters)--a leader may make a decision without understanding what is really driving it.

The Downside of Virtue
DeSteno and Valdesolo argue that typical virtues such as charity or kindness can become destructive if taken to extremes, and vices such as lust or pride have a role to play in the best life has to offer (our lust may have sparked our marriage, our pride drove us to overcome setbacks).

In fact, we don't have nearly as much control over character as we like to think. Whether a funny television show, the advice of a peer, the praise of an authority figure, the adulation of a crowd--our emotions respond to micro-events that tip us toward actions, for better or worse, that we would never otherwise engage in. None of this is to say the authors are arguing that doing the right thing isn't the goal. But how we do the right thing evades black and white choices.

Controlled Experiments Show All of Us Will Take Advantage
The authors' experiments found that while we may think hypocrisy is only found in politicians, student participants screwed each over at the slightest provocation and generally felt ok about it later. Other research shows that many decent, well-meaning people will abuse others if given the power to do so in a controlled experiment.

Do Good, Then Win?
It seems for leaders in modern organizations, ethical and legal disasters often arise from confusion over the imperative to "win, then do good." The financial and political benefits that accrue from winning often seem the factor that most heavily clouds a leader's short term choices. Where regulations or laws can be soft pedaled for those who consistently win, some leaders assume that breaking rules in the short-term is a moral decision.

Consider Ohio State coach Tressel who saw himself as a proponent of respect and integrity. Did he think keeping his student athletes (many from disadvantaged backgrounds) content and with a few extra bucks in their pocket was a higher good in the short-term than NCAA regulations? Did the financial rewards of winning at NCAA Division One make the biggest statement about what was valued?

How should leaders be expected to behave? Should we be more tolerant of their trespasses and consider their achievements when we evaluate their poor choices? When leaders fail, are their organizations accountable?

Herb Schaffner is president of Schaffner Media Partners, a consultancy specializing in business, finance, and public affairs publishing expertise, and is found on Facebook. He has been a publisher and editor-in-chief at McGraw-Hill, and a senior editor at HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter.
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