The news was not good this week for two leaders in the public eye. First we learned that Dennis Hastert, former Speaker of the House, was indicted for allegedly structuring bank withdrawals to evade bank reporting requirements and then making false statements to federal investigators all to cover up a thirty year old act of sexual misconduct with a minor. A few days later we learned that Sepp Blatter, president of the world soccer organization FIFA, announced his resignation in the midst of an investigation involving accusations of immense corruption and scandal for the organization he has led the last seventeen years. Such stories of corrupt leaders are not uncommon, but as a person who thinks a great deal about the topic of wellness, when I hear stories like these, I always pause to wonder about how and why such leaders end up becoming corrupt.
When a leader is exposed as having engaged in unethical behavior, whether it is in the field of religion, politics, education, public service, medicine, sports, or public service, I often hear people exclaim, “This person had to have known that what he or she was doing was unethical.” Most leaders have probably completed numerous courses on ethics and are well aware that their actions are unethical. They are simply hoping not to get caught.
I believe that what causes leaders to fail ethically is not a lack of knowledge about what is unethical, but a lack of wellness and integration. When a leader is not well, when he or she is experiencing a hidden sense of inadequacy, shame, or emptiness, he or she is vulnerable to developing an addiction to money, drugs and alcohol, power, or sex. The pattern of leading an unethical life does not usually emerge overnight, but develops gradually through months and years of making small, dishonorable decisions, at work or at home. This process is then minimized or denied by the person who, if they were well, would certainly “know better.”
What I am talking about here is the inner life of a leader. Because much of public leadership is, well, public, it is easy to get drawn into a leader’s public gifts and personality. It is easy to think that we know a public leader based on his or her public persona, but the truth is that the real character of a leader is revealed by his or her inner life and only those who are closest to the leader know if he or she is leading from a place of integration and wellness. Eventually, we will all find out if a leader is living an integrated life or not, because as with Hastert and Blatter, the truth always comes out.
Whether we are public leaders or not, the truth of this applies to all of us. Each of us has ethical values that help us make decisions, which for many of us are grounded in our religious faith. These values serve as a compass to guide the important decisions in our lives. The public failings of leaders are a reminder to us all that in order to stay true to these values we need to develop daily habits and disciplines that keep us emotionally and spiritually centered and well. We also need to be grounded in a community of relationships that provide honest feedback to us if and when we are starting to make decisions that are out of alignment with our values.
There is no pleasure to be found when it is revealed that a trusted leader’s life is not integrated and begins to unravel, but it does serve to remind us that living an integrated life, a life where our spirituality and values are integrated into and inform all of our daily decisions, requires humility and diligence for all of us.