In 1948, Harry Truman made an executive order at the risk of losing popularity: he determined that segregation within the U.S. military was illegal. It was an election year, and this decision could have cost him the presidency.
But he made the decision anyway, because it was the right thing to do. And he was prepared to accept the consequences of his behavior. That seems a rather quaint and even antiquated notion now, doesn’t it?
We live in an age when evasion, obfuscation, and accusation are the defensive arts of choice when prominent individuals are called out for improper behavior.
Avoiding responsibility and pointing blame at others is the order of the day. It’s not those who have breached the norms of ethics and the rule of law; it’s the whistleblower’s fault for disloyalty. It’s the media’s fault for reporting it.
Have you noticed this pattern?
“The supreme quality of a leader is unquestionable integrity.”
— Dwight D. Eisenhower
We need to look no further than a lawyer who took part in that questionable call between President Trump and the Secretary of State of Georgia over the weekend. Cleta Mitchell from the law firm of Foley & Lardner LLP was part of that call. After her employer stated it would not participate in any efforts to overturn the presidential election.
The Foley & Lardner LLP website states:
“We will adhere to high standards of ethics, professionalism and integrity and safeguard the reputation of the firm at all times.”
And yet, this employee decided to ignore the company’s intentions and threw its standards out the window. On January 2, just days before the certification process completes, she determined to be part of an effort to nullify it.
And just yesterday, she left her job after the firm determined it was uncomfortable with her actions.
Her statement? She blamed the media and members of the public who called her out rather than acknowledging that she was caught on tape violating her law firm’s policy.
In an email to her clients and friends, Ms. Mitchell blamed her departure on “a massive pressure campaign in the last several days mounted by leftist groups via social media and other means against me, my law firm and clients of the law firm.”
The accountable leader would have said, “I made a judgment error. It was unwise to place my firm’s reputation in jeopardy by associating myself with a legally tenuous effort.”
Time and again we read of leaders who made the decision to do the right thing, even in the face of poor public opinion or dangerous situations.
The painting above, The Death of Seneca by Jacques-Louis David, is a perfect representation of that. Seneca was a Stoic tutor of the emperor Nero. As a callow youth with much to learn, Nero needed guidance, and his mother hired Seneca to be a force for good.
Part of Seneca’s plan was to give Nero a sense of ethics and duty, and in doing so, restore order to parts of Roman politics. As Nero’s wealth and power grew, so did Seneca’s. To the point where Seneca was the second richest person in Rome. And as you can imagine, that came by questionable methods.
Eventually, Seneca fell out of favor (because narcissists only appreciate when you’re helping them) and Nero suspected him of being part of a conspiracy. Seneca, rather than fight the accusation or flee, remained at his villa where he committed suicide at the request of the emperor.
In other words, he accepted his fate.
What Leaders Do
We may make decisions that people don’t agree with, or support the questionable judgment of others. If and when the fickle finger of fate points back in our direction and we’re called to account for the behavior, the most noble thing we do is this:
Admit our error. Own up to our weakness.
It’s a gesture of honesty.
And those are character traits necessary for a trusted leader.
I’ll be back on Friday with a story from Faulkner and some commentary about Facebook, for members of the paid subscription tier only.
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