For a political leader, character depends on whether he or she adheres to generally accepted principles of law, morality and ethics, especially in private and/or while subject to individual temptation or other duress. Infractions of law, morality and ethics can also be seen to fall along a spectrum of seriousness. Not all infractions are meaningful. On one end of the spectrum would be the most serious breaches and on the other would be trivial matters. For ease of analysis, I present the table/chart below. I recognize that ethics and morality each represent distinct dimensions of action or behavior, with ethics focusing on group norms and morality focusing on individual conscience, albeit informed by social and/or religious beliefs and norms that find root in communities. I have combined ethics and morality into one construct merely to simplify (but I think not over simplify) the tool.
For illustration purposes, some examples:
Quadrant 1: Actions that are both lawful and ethical/moral. Examples: Rescuing a child from a burning building; telling the truth under oath.
Quadrant 2: Actions that are unlawful but nevertheless ethical/moral. Examples: Conducting a sit-in on private property to protest racism; exposing classified information to warn the public of official wrongdoing or to save lives (unless such exposure also costs lives).
Quadrant 3: Actions that are both illegal and unethical/immoral. Examples: child abuse; engaging in fraudulent business transactions; murder.
Quadrant 4: Actions that are legal but may be viewed as unethical/immoral. Examples: adultery; psychological (rather than physical) cruelty.
We can also think of the above chart as measuring degrees of seriousness. For example, someone who jaywalks late at night in a deserted intersection is technically breaking a law, but one that is generally not enforced. Most would also not consider such behavior to be seriously immoral or unethical. Of course, all of these quadrants are defined in practice by community-specific cultural and local norms.
Using this chart, we can make some interesting observations.
In political leaders, we prefer to see behavior in quadrant 1: actions that are clearly lawful, moral and ethical. We also prefer not to see behavior in quadrant 3: actions that are clearly both unlawful and unethical. This desire to embrace quadrant 1 and reject quadrant 3 is pragmatic as well as desirable. A leader who is being prosecuted cannot function effectively.
The most problematic quadrants are 2 and 4.
Quadrant 2 describes actions that are, at least in the view of some people, moral and ethical but nevertheless illegal. Political leaders sometimes press the boundaries of the law—and perhaps attempt to reform it—to advance moral or ethical objectives. Such leaders can earn our respect. Think of Martin Luther rejecting the Pope’s authority, Gandhi rejecting British rule or Martin Luther King rejecting Jim Crow laws. Think of the Declaration of Independence signers rejecting the British monarchy. In such cases, political leaders break existing laws in search of a higher standard born through competing moral and ethical frameworks. How we perceive leaders in quadrant 2 depends on where we stand in regard to the broken laws and the advocated moral/ethical frameworks. To oppressed poor folks, history’s Robin Hoods seem to be heroes, yet are criminals to those from whom they steal.
Now consider quadrant 4: behavior that is lawful but nevertheless unethical/immoral. In this category, Anthony Weiner has offered an almost platonic ideal of the form (or perhaps, ahem, un-platonic would be a more apt description). It is not illegal for a married father to engage in phone sex with a woman who is not his wife, but it is certainly immoral and distasteful. The Clinton and Petraeus cases fall within the same quadrant, except for the fact that Clinton's behavior may have fallen into quadrant 3 when he perjured himself under oath about his moral failures. Clearly, Spitzer’s fact pattern belongs in quadrant 3, involving behavior that was both unlawful (soliciting a prostitute) and unethical/immoral (infidelity).
Quadrant 4 presents problems that arise not from illegality, but from ethical or moral failures. Within this framework, we can imagine a broad spectrum of legal but nevertheless unethical or immoral actions. Consider the proverbial favor bank; politicians often do small favors for major donors without breaking the law. There are some kinds of political favors that do not, at least in the view of most people, pose serious ethical or moral risks. Is it unethical or immoral for a political leader to grant a major donor the favor of spending a few extra minutes of attention upon him or her? Is granting mere political access to those who fund campaigns unethical or immoral? If so, then all politicians achieve a baseline of unethical behavior merely by joining the profession. As favors become larger and more donor-centered, more serious ethical and moral questions begin to arise. Imagine a major donor who is consulted on a weekly basis about sensitive political decisions to the exclusion of other voices. This quickly enters more problematic territory. For a politician to accept a box of chocolates from someone seeking to influence his judgment is a lapse similar in kind to receiving a million-dollar gift, but the difference in degree matters. Small gifts are ignored; large ones suggest a quid pro quo.
Sexual morality involves a similar spectrum of seriousness. It is immoral for a married man merely to lust in his heart, to borrow Carter’s famous phrase? Is it immoral for him to look at a pornographic magazine in a barber shop? Compare such behavior to a married man finding a specific woman (not his wife) attractive, flirting with her, conducting an emotional relationship, kissing her or having actual extramarital sex. Compare a casual one-night stand with an ongoing affair. Clinton essentially suggested (with a straight face) that oral sex differed from intercourse in moral terms. Thinking through the reality and pervasiveness of such cases demonstrates what we know intuitively: There are no perfectly moral and ethical human beings, only degrees of immoral and unethical behavior. The goal is to lower the temperature as much as possible, but the human condition always brings a little heat.
If we are going to be clear-eyed and honest, we must admit that most political leaders (like most human beings) are subject to routine, if minor and well-hidden, moral and ethical lapses. Such behavior is mostly off the radar screen, but in our hearts and rational minds, we know it happens.
Should we care about quadrant-4 behavior and, if so, why?
First, we may worry that ethical and moral lapses will render our leaders ineffective by tarnishing their reputations and thereby spoiling the degree of trust they engender. This point sounds compelling, but real life is full of specific counter-examples. Martin Luther King’s inner circle knew that he was prone to extramarital affairs; the same was true in Kennedy’s case. Surely there are stories of Clinton’s philandering known to his inner circle that will never see the light of day. These lapses did not seriously undermine the effectiveness of these leaders, except in Clinton’s case, and only then because his enemies—all the while hypocritically engaged in the same sort of conduct—used the scandal as an obvious pretext to undermine the president's agenda. Would Petraeus, Sanford and even Spitzer have been deemed incompetent had their failings never come to light? Almost surely not. This yields a counterintuitive insight: Moral failings by themselves do not render politicians unserviceable. It is possible for political leaders to be extremely effective and do good work, despite moral and ethical shortcomings. Such frailties do not necessarily impede the practice of politics. It is the public reaction to such failings that causes the problem in effectiveness.
What about moral failings that go to the very heart of the political process itself? Imagine a particular politician being blackmailed by a sexual consort who uses this leverage to direct his decisions on matters of public policy? This would clearly be strong reason to reject a political leader on moral grounds. But there doesn’t seem to be much evidence that happens in the real world. Indeed, the entirely legal (and also apparently moral and ethical) influence that donors wield over politicians seems to pose an exponentially greater threat to independence than any stemming from immoral sexual encounters. In this regard, our focus on sexual misconduct often feels ridiculous, like worrying about termites in the foundation while the house is burning to the ground.
So what gives? Why do we care so much about having morally and ethically correct political leaders? Weiner’s increasingly impotent polls seem to be a direct result of public moral condemnation.
I believe that our deep-seated emotional need for ethical and moral perfection in our leaders comes from our desire to impose general responsibility on them for our circumstances. We do not simply ask our political leaders to advance our policy goals; we want to be able to charge them with overall responsibility for our communities’ and our personal successes. We want to feel righteous anger when our shared projects stall or regress. We want to blame them for the manifest injustice in the world. If the United States is attacked, blame the president. If GDP is low, blame the president. If I can’t find a job, it must be the president’s fault. Of course, politicians themselves sometimes encourage this kind of response. Remember when Anne Romney told America not to worry because Mitt would fix everything? Mitt. Does. Not. Fail.
This, of course, is messianic thinking. It is an attempt to ask our political leaders to serve as godlike figures who will hear our prayers, comfort our pain and solve our problems—all of them. And we want to be able to whine and moan if they fall short. It is very satisfying to know that, in regard to the problems confronting our society, a) the fault lies with our leaders (not with us), and b) our job is only to put them to work. We can flip back and forth between unreasonable adulation (e.g., Obama is perfect) and outrageous protest (e.g., Obama is the cause of all problems). From the peanut gallery, we often fail to recognize our responsibility to directly engage.
When our leaders reveal that they are morally and ethically flawed, the whole concept of their messianic leadership begins to unravel. We see this as a breach of the fundamental bargain. After all, how can someone who is human, all too human, possibly serve as our collective savior? The moral and ethical lapses that our political leaders showcase reveal the deep fallacy in our worldview. I call this the Messiah Fallacy: the strange idea that a community’s success depends upon finding and elevating a singular all-powerful leader who achieves moral perfection. This is distinct from the messiah complex, in which a person irrationally believes that he or she possesses super powers. The Messiah Fallacy is something that takes hold within groups; instead of direct action on community problems, we become lost in an endless and fruitless search for a savior willing to accept responsibility. This irrational search also entails the belief, operating below consciousness, that a perfect leader can somehow atone for all of our collective moral, ethical and practical imperfections.
Such messianic thinking is a kind of collective insanity. No matter what the situation, there is no singular human being who can lead us to the promised land or solve all of our problems. Real human progress requires fully invested teams of people who equally share the work of creativity and who fully embrace responsibility for their own circumstances. No single human being can atone for the shortcomings of the human race. For Christians, Jesus did so, yet to attempt to find morally and ethically perfect political leaders among mere mortals is really an insane and inane form of idolatry.
We should let go of such thinking in evaluating our political leaders, and instead make a pragmatic assessment of their moral and ethical failures. The question we should ask when confronted with quadrant-4 behavior (actions that are lawful but unethical/immoral) is this: Does the breach of ethical or moral standards directly pertain to their ability to carry out professional political functions?
If not, such behavior should be ignored; instead, we should focus on the more important questions. First, do we share their policy objectives? Second, are they capable of advancing toward those objectives? Regarding other ethical or moral shortcomings, we should allow our political leaders a zone of privacy to work them out, especially if they involve sex. We must recognize that our wish to be led by morally perfect individuals is not only irrational but a little silly in the sense of being obviously untenable. People who seek political leadership on a grand scale are not psychologically normal. They must embrace much higher levels of attention and human interaction than is otherwise healthy. They will likely also exhibit extreme interpersonal confidence not necessarily warranted or reasonable. They are likely to have narcissistic tendencies and delusions of grandeur. They may believe that they are infallible. These characteristics lead to obvious moral and ethical weaknesses.
The quest for morally perfect leaders is most dangerous because it distracts us from the pragmatic assessment that we must make about how best to achieve our policy goals. Politics should not involve a story about individual leadership even though it often appears to be only about that. Politics should involve the journey of people toward or away from justice as the community itself understands its meaning. The steps on that journey arise from the entire political system and the movements within it. Communities and teams of individuals working together engineer this forward motion. It is more important for the people themselves to own their system and ask the flawed individuals within it to make progress than to continue a childish search for perfect role models who do not exist and never have. Character does matter, but it is the character of the people as a whole that matters most. We can wish always to be led by saints, but when we are lost in the woods, it will be OK to follow someone who can get us where we want to go, even if he or she has personal imperfections. In the same way, the failure to achieve justice as whole community will not be more acceptable because we have led by people of impeccable character.
The concepts in this piece are elaborated further in my book, Genership 1.0: Beyond Leadership toward Liberating the Creative Soul.