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Can political leaders accomplish admirable social goals or useful political changes if they are, at times, less than perfect individuals?

I’ve run into this idea before, not just regarding President Donald Trump, who some reject not simply because they disagree with his policy perspectives but because they feel he is not a nice person, or they believe he hurts or otherwise defames others or entire groups of people with his words, or they simply do not like him.

This piece is not about pro or anti President Trump.  You can make that determination on your own.  This is a think-aloud-consideration about human beings who become leaders.

One reason this is not per se about President Trump is that if you’ve lived awhile, you realize he is not the only political leader who is or was flawed or, at times, a jerk.  In the American context alone, we’ve had some doozies.  FDR, admired by millions for helping stand in the face of Nazism, had a mistress in his youth, may have had others later, and was with his first mistress when he died. 

JFK is by now known to have been an incorrigible womanizer, including during his presidency.  Yet JFK stood up to the USSR’s Kruschev during the Cuban Missile Crisis in a manner that is yet studied in the military as well as leadership studies in general.  He is admired for his vision for the American space program that eventually put men on the moon.

LBJ was a known shamelessly and maybe obnoxiously flirt or perhaps to sexually harass women, but another great failure was the way he treated people in general.  He was arrogant and boorish and imperial to say the least.  But LBJ helped pass the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, two enormously important pieces of legislation that changed the American social fabric.

Richard Nixon said, “I am not a crook,” but well, Watergate proved otherwise.  But Nixon ended the military draft, opened China to diplomacy, signed the Paris peace accords ending the Viet Nam War, and more.

Bill Clinton will forever be known for saying, “I did not have sexual relationships with that woman,” even though he did have encounters in the White House with intern Monica Lewinsky.  He lied under oath, was impeached, and barely stayed in office.  But he presided over a long economic expansion, paid down on the national debt, enjoyed a “peace dividend,” passed NAFTA, and helped end ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.

You run into this leadership character issue, too, with race politics today, wherein some groups wish to disavow any recognition of Thomas Jefferson because he owned slaves (something that has perplexed many historians), even while he wrote some of the most important human liberty and human rights documents in history.  Or the groups that want to remove Andrew Jackson from the $20 bill because he treated Indians pretty much like unwanted cattle or worse (The Trail of Tears), which he did.  Yet he helped America win the War of 1812, and he strengthened the national government, helped resolve the Nullification Crisis, and ushered in an era of common man democracy.

Rev Dr Martin Luther King, Jr was apparently a womanizer in private, yet he earned a Nobel Prize and helped awaken a nation to its open secret in ongoing discrimination against Black citizens.  King, flaws and all, clearly should be honored for his nonviolent civil rights work and lasting legacy seeking a color-blind society.

The list could go on. The point is not to overlook the wrong-doing or character flaws or outright sin in leaders’ lives, but to acknowledge that no individual, therefore no leader, is perfect, and if perfect defines leader then we have to stop with Jesus Christ.

Even King David, the great psalmist who solidified the nation of Israel in Old Testament times, and who was called a “man after God’s own heart” put himself in a position of moral failure that had to be called out by Nathan, one of God’s prophets.

This is not to excuse leaders or to give them a free pass to be a jerk or pursue immoral behaviors at will.  It’s simply to recognize that even flawed human beings can indeed accomplish good or even great things at given points of their experience.

It’s a lesson, too, that one should not be over-awed by any leader, i.e. one’s favorite leader of the moment who seems to represent your hopes and dreams so well, because he or she too is only human.  He or she can fail and if you put your full faith and trust in a person, you are vulnerable to disappointment, and so is your philosophy or policy perspectives or movement.

It’s a reminder, too, to not promote “your side” leaders in a manner that states or suggests that somehow he or she is better than the candidate or leader on the “other side.”  Why?  Because as noted, your side leader may fail, and even if not, time passes, your side will be out of power and the other side will be in, and the other side will put forth leaders who accomplish good things perhaps while being less-than-admirable people.

Finally, recognizing that leaders who are not good people can indeed do good things is a reminder that it’s possible to support and appreciate the “good things” while at the same time holding the leader accountable to a higher standard of personal behavior.  Because I think a leader is a jerk does not mean everything he or she does is ipso facto unworthy, or in reverse, because I think a leader is doing good things does not mean that he or she gets a pass to be a jerk.

Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2018   

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