Charles Pfeffer

Executive Coaching & Leadership Consulting

Authenticity: Lessons from Spitzer, Paterson and Obama

The past two weeks have given us some prominent cases in what does and does not work in political leadership. Elliot Spitzer ignominiously relinquished the New York governor’s office when revelations of his sex life made his political position untenable. The problem was that while he was representing himself as a high-minded reformer and moral exemplar, he was also visiting prostitutes. The public (if not his family) might have forgiven the acts, but not the hypocrisy. A reformer who constructs a case for change around a narrative of moral superiority is left with no hold on the political high ground when it turns out that the narrative is (inevitably) groundless.

Strikingly, the day after being sworn in as the new governor, David Paterson preempted questions about his own extra marital life by announcing with his wife that each of them had engaged in affairs. On the one hand, it seemed strange to be hearing about something so private and personal from a politician, and the question of how this was relevant to his ability to govern was raised by reporters and commentators. On the other hand, there was something very refreshing and brave about two people who knew themselves to be flawed, just like the rest of us, coming out and saying so.

Many people in our society have had extramarital affairs, including me. The issue is not that it happens. The issue is what effect does it have on the various ways that we then lead our lives, publicly and privately. For me, it meant ending a marriage. It also meant examining my professional work and asking myself whether I could still be an effective coach and consultant. Did I have the integrity to do the work that I do? After grappling with this for a while, I concluded that I could still be effective and even that I could be more compassionate to the challenges of my clients than I had been before.

What Paterson did was to say, “I’m human, and I am the governor.” I think this is great. It’s authentic and it says what we all know to be true anyway. We as an electorate have a tendency to want to be fooled into believing that our leaders are better than we are. It’s just not so and it places an impossible expectation on the people who run for office. Which brings me to the big election…

This past Tuesday, Barack Obama gave a speech ostensibly to respond to statements made by the former pastor of the church Obama has attended for 20 years. Along with sex, religion is one of the most controversial topics we can discuss when spoken about personally. In this case, the statements that the Reverend Wright made were about his view of America as a racist society. By saying, “Not God bless America…God damn America.” Reverend Wright crossed a line, especially to the ears of many white americans. From a political standpoint, Obama had to respond, yet he was in a delicate position. Black voters could view a repudiation of the minister and the vehemence of his message as downplaying the history of racial oppression that african americans have experienced and continue to experience. Failing to repudiate the extreme, racially divisive statements could alienate white voters.

What Obama did was brilliant. He used the occasion to broaden the dialogue on race in America. He incorporated the racism inherent in Reverend Wright’s statements with the racism he grew up with in his own family, embodied in his white grandmother who “loved me more than anything in the world.” He incorporated views of white americans and black americans, making them real and legitimate parts of the ongoing dialogue on race that we continue to have in America. He incorporated these views as part of himself and asserted them as part of us. He did not stand outside of the views, he included them. In doing so, he brought more people into the dialogue on race and what it means in our society today. Further, he incorporated this difficult and potentially divisive topic into a broader dialogue on what America means, and what it means to be american, going back to the principles on which we were founded.

Patterson and Obama did themselves and the rest of us a great deal of credit by speaking authentically, speaking to us as adults about subjects that are controversial, but not so controversial that we can’t handle them. People cheat on their spouses. It’s not good, but it happens. People hold racist views. It’s not good, but it is reality. That these things are true is not the main issue. The main issue is how will we lead our lives, our families and our country with the full knowledge that these things are true, and that they are true about us. I’d rather be in that dialogue than in the pretentious farce that our leaders are perfect and none of us have anything to hide.

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