Self Improvement — 06 June 2008
What can we learn from the egregious mistakes of our leaders?

Why do we watch our leaders in horror and some glee as they fail? We are aware of preachers who fiercely fought for moral conduct only to find themselves acting indecently, teachers who take advantage of students, crusaders for the holiness of families, betray and disgrace their own wives and children. We try to understand how some of the most ferocious justice seekers end up violating the very principles they advocate. We shutter when law enforcers are caught in illegal acts and we are stunned when politicians who fight for the rights of some – unscrupulously violate those of others.

Though these occurrences are few, we are forever astonished and shocked by leaders who act in illegal, immoral or unethical ways. They leave us wondering about their thinking, motivation, compelling reasons or incentives for losing their path. Is it their character flaws, power, arrogance, entitlement, hypocrisy, greed, superiority, profound early trauma or just self-destructive tendencies that allow them to act this way? Is Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton correct that: ”Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely”?

Since the answers are not clear and vary from person to person, we must ask ourselves why do we feel so impacted by wayward leaders? One answer is that we view those in power and authority as our “pseudo parents”. As children, we needed to perceive our parents as all powerful, superior and well equipped to care for us. Not dissimilarly, as citizens, we ascribe higher standards for our leaders to represent and lead us. When they falter, we no longer can count on them for our own protection and feel grave distress.

Another reason why we are bewildered when the powerful become weak is because we glorify our heroes. They serve as our idealized role models who inspire us to hope to reach our own higher goals. Who has not dreamed of being famous, powerful, accomplished, unique and revered? Many idolize Olympic gold medalists, noble prizewinners, astronauts, athletes, the very rich, entertainers, teachers and preachers, among many others. If they can obtain the best in life, perhaps we can do so as well in our own way. But, when our idols break, we are angry at them for having it all and losing it, shattering their and our hopes for greatness.

We also, however, find some solace in the failures of those whom we most admire and wish to emulate. When we feel too distanced from catching up with them, their missteps make them more human and closer to us. It helps to see that perhaps their lives are not as perfect after all. The curiosity we experience about the details of their self-destructive acts helps us be reassured that perhaps we are even better off than they are in our more humble, but decent ways.

How can our leaders shortcoming benefit us?

• We can learn to value ourselves for our moral and decent ways.
• We can appreciate that our ordinary lives may safeguard us from the stresses, responsibilities, opportunities and temptations those in power may encounter.
• We may become more self-forgiving for our minor transgressions and become more vigilant about avoiding the greater pitfalls.
• We may choose to reduce our jealousy, competitiveness and even the sense of inferiority compared to those whom we admire.
• We may look at our fallen leaders and assess our own greed, disrespect of others or the law, our sense of entitlement, and choose to assess how closely we actually follow the values we hold dear.
• We can appraise the ways in which we yield emotional, physical, financial or other type of power over others and modulate our words and actions with greater kindness.
• We can learn to develop more compassion for those who erred, regardless of the reason for their failures, as we remind ourselves of our own unhealthy behaviors.
• We can look at the trait or behavior we scorn in them and ask ourselves how we may have acted similarly in our life?
• We can analyze what specifically riles us up the most – the illegal, immoral, greedy, selfish, arrogant, immoral act? That which we most despise about them may be what is also our greatest challenge.
• We may determine to work for good- to balance the bad in our own behavior and others, for the benefit of all.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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