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Senator and presidential candidate John Edwards’s admitted affair reintroduces a recurring pattern—political leaders trying to recoup their public reputations in the wake of poor personal choices.

Edwards, like several who’ve gone before him, lied repeatedly before owning his indiscretions.  Now he’s making the familiar round of talk shows and news outlets purportedly “coming clean” with a series of mea culpas.

New Jersey Governor James E. McGreevy and New York Governor Eliot Spitzer both lost their public office because of sexual scandals.  The Reverend Jesse Jackson lost some of his moral credibility as a social activist because he fathered a child in an extra-marital affair.  President John F. Kennedy didn’t live to see his extra-marital White House affairs exposed to the public, but his legacy suffers because of them.

When it comes to questionable character in a leader President Bill Clinton is Exhibit A.  During his second term he endured the nation’s second presidential impeachment trial, racked up millions in legal fees, and was disbarred because he lied under oath—which all started in the scandal of his “inappropriate relationship” with a White House intern.

President Clinton’s hubris in conducting an affair in or near the Oval Office, ambiguous definitions of words like “sexual relations” and “is,” glib lies to the American people, and squandered political leadership opportunities presented us once again with a leadership question.

Do a leader’s private choices inevitably affect his or her public actions?  Politicians, pundits, and professors debated whether it’s possible for a leader to act with such mind-bogglingly questionable judgment privately while acting with astute judgment publicly.

In the United States historically, private character and public action were considered inextricably linked.  Yet at the time of President Clinton’s impeachment, some 70% of the American people did not want Congress to pursue the matter.  So the Senate’s vote during the trial fell short of conviction and President Clinton was spared the ignominy of being bounced from office.

Whatever your thoughts on the outcome of this trial, we can say that the American people’s inclination to separate private from public character is a choice with consequences not yet fully understood.  The lasting ripple effects of the Clinton affair only history will tell.  But it’s neither a partisan comment nor a cheap shot to say that the impact of one leader’s poor character choices can greatly and negatively affect a nation—or an organization.

But what kind of poor character choices should cause us to disqualify a person from leadership?  Where do you draw the line?  According to the present American mindset private sexual immorality is apparently O.K., but what private character choices are not O.K. for a leader or potential leader, particularly in public office?

President Clinton, for example, was not a traitorous man.  He was not an autocrat or a murderer.  He did good things in office, even as a sexually immoral man.  He is charismatic and many people like him.  Some people seem to like him because he’s a rogue.  So his “not-so-bad-just-like-the-rest-of-us” immorality tends to be written off with softer words like antics or peccadilloes.  But still, the problem remains.  Which character fault lines in a leader’s heart should give us pause?  What about a candidate for office who’s known or shown to be a congenital liar?

What about a leadership candidate who admits to illegal behavior but explains it away as one of his or her “youthful indiscretions”?  Allow me to say it again, where do you draw the line?  Should private morality be ignored?  How does a political leader (or you or me) separate his or her moral being into private and public personas?

From a Christian perspective, the short answer is “You can’t.”  Yet that’s what our culture now seems to believe.  You see?  It’s tough.  We’re all sinners.  Any of us who are leaders or leader-aspirants have already established a record of wrong choices in our lives.  We’re human.  We were born in sin and we’ve committed varying levels of wrong-doing ever since.

We know it’s impossible to select perfect leaders because there are no perfect people, so we work with a sliding scale.  We place character choices (often subconsciously) on a continuum running from Acceptable-to-Unacceptable.  Where a character choice sits on that continuum varies based upon our cultural values at a given point in time.  Before President Ronald Reagan, for example, candidates for the highest office in the land were not taken seriously if they’d ever been divorced.  Now it doesn’t seem to matter.

We know that good and bad behavior exists and, consequently, we know that good and bad leaders exist.  But as a culture we sometimes struggle with where one fades into the other.

How do you recognize bad leaders?  They lack integrity.  They allow fundamental flaws to fester in their character.  These flaws are not the vague “He’s struggling with his demons” you read about in the press, as if something or someone else is responsible.  No, these flaws are sinful attitudes and behaviors sprung from the leader’s own hearts.

There’s generally a pattern of wrong moral choices in a bad leader’s character.  Bad leaders don’t tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  Bad leaders live for their own self-aggrandizement.  They take from rather than grow with the people.  Bad leaders’ lives and leadership are a running story of ethical lapses and duplicity.

Bad leaders always exact a price from their nation or their organization.  They can destroy in a matter of months what took years to build.

In the Old Testament book of Proverbs, God reminds us that, “when the righteous thrive, the people rejoice; when the wicked rule, the people groan” (29:2).  Good leaders and good leadership are a blessing.  Bad leaders and bad leadership are a curse.

Long after President Gerald R. Ford’s administration, former Senator Alan Simpson summarized well the importance of a leader’s character when he introduced Mr. Ford at Harvard University.  Simpson said, “If you have integrity, nothing else matters.  If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters.”

The continuum of Acceptable to Unacceptable character choices we tolerate in our leaders is a picture of how Americans think about values, character, and leadership.  It’s not necessarily a trustworthy guide for how God thinks about these matters.  Nor should it be our standard because in Christian terms good enough is not good enough.

God’s moral standard for leadership is high.  He said, “from everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48).


© Dr. Rex M. Rogers - All Rights Reserved, 2008

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