Leaders Behaving Badly

The first in a series of two blogs about why global leaders fall down and how they can stand up again


Barely a week goes by without news of some prominent leader somewhere in the world getting caught behaving badly and having to pay a hefty price for his – most sinners are male – transgression.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi

In the last month alone, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has gone from the hero of ceasefire negotiations between Hamas and Israel to the target of mass protests after an unprecedented power grab at home; the prestigious British Broadcasting Corporation fired its director general George Entwistle in the wake of a series of uncharacteristic reporting scandals; widely respected US Army general David Petraeus resigned after revelations of an extramarital affair; and even the world’s most popular sport has had to deal with the fallout from openly racist behavior of star players in England and brazen cheating by highly paid forwards throughout Europe.

In this first blog of a two-part series, we will explore what makes these leaders and others at the pinnacle of their careers abuse their power and risk their reputation and why it seems that more and more of them are getting found out.

The second blog will delve into what these and other tainted leaders can do to stand up again once they have fallen and more importantly,what current and future leaders can do to stay on the high road and avoid this kind of irresponsible behavior altogether. 


When pondering why leaders fall down, some people charitably excuse their actions as hamartia or the “fatal flaw” of a tragic hero, which forms part of Aristotle’s much broader definition of human error.

Some people bring up another Greek word: hubris, which means arrogance or excessive pride, leading to exaggerated feelings of superiority and even invincibility.

Others cite physiology and the male anabolic steroid testosterone to explain why it is mostly men who seem to behave badly.

But this is not always the case as was evidenced by Danish tennis star Caroline Wozniacki who was recently accused of doing a “racist” impersonation of her peer Serena Williams by stuffing towels down her bra and shorts.

A fourth reason for “falling down” is often based on a misquotation of Lord Acton, who wrote in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
And an easy answer to the reason why sinners seem to be getting caught out more is because of global communication and the power of the media to uncover wrongdoing in cyberspace (when they are not hacking into celebrities’ and victims’ private correspondence themselves).Undoubtedly, some fallen leaders are flawed, some are arrogant, many are male and some are corrupt. And some are plain bad.

But in the 21st century, this does not go far enough to explain why leaders are falling down and more and more examples appear to be reaching the light of day.

For this blogger, a previously little mentioned factor is the four-letter “F” word or Fear.

In the increasingly fast-paced and pressurized world that we now live, many leaders are being propelled to “stardom” quicker and quicker without adequate time for preparation, practice and reflection.

This may not be so in the military but it does seems to be happening more and more in the lucrative business, entertainment and sports worlds where emerging leaders may be technically gifted at making widgets or stopping goals but they may not have the first idea about how to build, motivate and get the best out of a team of dispersed colleagues or superstar prima donnas.

As a result, fear may silently set in as they become more and more concerned about being found out as a “fraud” who cannot really handle the extra responsibilities of high profile leadership. Linked to this might be tremendous pressure from outside to produce more with less in an increasingly competitive environment.

This internal fear and external pressure may then lead to extreme isolation where leaders get cut off or cut themselves off from others – even trusted advisors and loved ones – to avoid detection and retribution for not achieving impossible goals that they and others set for themselves.

In this bubble or vacuum, some of them can lose sight of reality and take actions that they know at some level – conscious or otherwise – are risky or injudicious at best and potentially counter-productive and catastrophic at worse.

Sometimes, abuse of power or infidelity can even be a desperate, twisted plea for help. Some overwhelmed leaders might feel trapped in a gilded cage or a nightmare of their own making and they literally might not know of any other way to liberate themselves. So they themselves might directly or indirectly create an environment where the 24/7 media and blogosphere can catch them out so that others can finally help them help themselves.

Usually, perpetrators confess their misdeeds pretty quickly after getting discovered and resign their posts, if they are not fired or ousted first. Some – as happened in Italy’s Tagentopoli bribery scandal of the early 1990’s – cannot bear the shame of being publically humiliated and commit suicide.

Whatever the legacy of these leaders’ extraordinary contributions and accomplishments before they went off the rails, their misdeeds and their impact on those around them can often be devastating.

And the real tragedy is that many of these cases could have been easily avoided. The next blog will look at how and at the lessons to be learned for current and future leaders.

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