Legitimate Leadership – Why We Need Great Examples

A Function of Moral Judgment
The recent wave of significant leadership resignations and some of the interactions I have had with clients in the last three months have me thinking about how leaders gain or lose legitimacy and the role mentors play in leadership health.

The loss of legitimacy rooted in poor moral and ethical judgment is a significant pitfall for leaders. The failure of national and globally influential leaders should give all leaders pause to reflect on the ethical and moral foundations of their own choices. It is unfortunate however that a large number of leaders will exercise their hubris and declare, to themselves if not also to those around them, that the failure of these leaders was that they got caught and not that they made incredibly poor moral judgments.  There are important leadership lessons to learn from these failures.

David H. Petraeus resigned as director of the CIA after his affair came to light. His lapse of judgment cited in his letter of resignation affirms the need for a strong moral core in those who lead and who carry the weight of other people’s lives and well-being in their daily decision-making.[1]  Petraeus’ actions lead to a loss of trust.

Christopher Kubasik, chief operating officer and future chief executive of Lockheed Martin, resigned after he admitted to an improper relationship with a subordinate.[2]  The board of Lockheed Martin asked for Kubasik’s resignation after his tryst came to light because it violated the company’s code of ethics and business conduct. Kubasik’s misstep was an abuse of power.

The BBC’s Director General George Entwistle resigned over a story of an alleged sexual scandal that failed to apply quality journalistic standards to a story broadcast in November 2012 because as editor-in-chief he failed to put integrity over sensationalism.[3]  Without integrity the process of journalism succumbs to a quest for the novel – like an addiction for more and more sensational tidbits so that the purpose of journalism is lost in a narcissistic pursuit of the next hot piece or conspiracy theory that serve as little more than escapes from personal responsibility.

Three stories and three failures: a failure of trust, an abuse of power and a lack of integrity tear apart the essence of leadership. Good leadership as characterized in benevolence, integrity and ability is far more than a formula for organizational success – it is a building block of healthy community and social interaction. Given the amount of time each of us spends at work the influence of work on the rest of our personal life is significant in both its direct and indirect effect.

A Function of Follow Through

It isn’t enough to start well – good leaders know they must finish well. Follow through is a theme that has stood out for me personally in the last few months both as I reflect on my own leadership and as I work with helping other leaders develop. When leaders short-circuit their development they diminish their capacity so that they collapse under pressure. Leaders who find themselves out of their depth have essentially two choices: (a) fake it or (b) ask for help.

If a leader chooses to fake it they start down the road of defective reasoning that ultimately ends in ruin. Defective reasoning explains why otherwise intelligent leaders fail to exercise moral sensitivity. The three contributing factors to defective reasoning include: insecurity, greed and ego.

Insecurity is that low self-esteem that equates identity to the job.  This lack of differentiation as a person means that the trappings of the job become the sole source of identity. Jobs are artificial!  A job represents a temporary structure to an end. The greater importance rests on the person in the job – a person who understands their unique contribution that far outlasts the current situation. When jobs become real in the mind of their occupants i.e., the source of all security, identity and well-being they take on god-like characteristics in the minds of those that hold them and they are defended at all costs including the destruction of all others.  When the job defines ones identify the loss of a job is not seen as a mere transition and time for new opportunity but a loss of self. The insecure twist moral reasoning so that it becomes a means of self-protection.

Greed is simply cheating because payoff is high or dishonesty is justified by systemic injustice. The result of greed is always that the consideration of the good disappears.  Greed suppresses moral reasoning to make way for the acquisition of ever greater personal gain. The ultimate moral formula for greed is a self-focused Darwinian fallacy that only the strong survive and the weak – the victims of greed – exist to feed more of greed’s ambition. Symbiotic relationships don’t exist for the greedy.  There are only the winners and the dominated.

Ego is a set of beliefs that sets one apart from others – it is not a differential belief as is found in healthy people it is an exceptional belief in that the egotist sees themselves as an exception to the rule.  Hence the belief that one is above average, or more ethical than others, or in control of their environment, or immune from consequences, or possesses all information needed or is irreplaceable in their organization. Each of these beliefs led to the conclusion that the exceptions ego finds are simply higher rules or inconsequential loop holes that the less intelligent or capable just have not seen.

Clearly the preferred option is to ask for help. Leaders (men and women) wise enough to call for help understand his/her differentiation from the group. A differentiated sense of self enables a person act without being adversely affected by a group’s (institution’s) own emotional processes.  Without a clearly differentiated sense of self the leader fails to develop clear values, a unique vision or a defined moral foundation.  Instead the undifferentiated person looses the nerve to be his or her own self in the face of the emotional reaction of the group to both internal and external events.[4] Mentors serve as a significant force for growth by helping leaders follow through in their development and maintaining their nerve to be themselves.

A Call for Mentors

I am drawn more and more to work with leaders. I am available to emerging and established leaders to encourage them and to ask them probing questions.  I also find that I want deeper levels of accountability in my own life – I desire to be connected with a community of those who pursue meaning and purpose in life i.e., those who persist in working to make sense of a life that is often senseless, disappointing, inconsistent, and sometimes just pure evil.

Craig Johnson diagrams the components of developing ethical capacity in a helpful way in Figure 1.[5]  Johnson built a concentric model that starts with leadership development components at the core of the model. Leadership development requires three components consisting of challenge, assessment and support. The role of mentors provides all three of these components in the life of the leader that can then be applied to the ethical capacity of the leader i.e., skills, motivation, knowledge and perspective (the next layer of the model).  The result of ethical capacity is ethical outcomes illustrated here in the outer characteristics of the model i.e., self-confidence, moral imagination etc.

Figure 1: Developing Ethical Capacity

If Petraeus, Kubasik and Entwistle had mentors ready to challenge their ego, insecurity and greed consistently would their stories be different today?  What challenge did they fail to follow through on?  What assessment did they ignore?  What support did they pass off as unnecessary?

I find that one of the greatest challenges I face as a leader is being an engaged follower.  How do I help the leaders I work for avoid the defective reasoning that will not only ruin their life but also negatively impact the lives of those around them?  Left to their own devises we see entire companies destroyed by leaders exercising defective reasoning.  Where are their peer mentors?  Where are their followers who are courageous and differentiated enough to challenge defective reasoning?

It is a bit unnerving to discover that I face similar ethical dilemmas as the followers Hitler in that I face the temptation to ignore the defective reasoning of leaders around me and thus consider myself exempt from the consequences of their bad decisions.  Are followers who know of defective reasoning themselves exempt from accountability for that reasoning if they do nothing? People in my experience have not died as a result of my inaction but they have led miserable lives and faced the loss of employment. The point is that dysfunctional systems are built by followers who do not exercise their own differentiation not leaders who exercise defective reasoning! Without followers leaders have nothing to work with.


Reflecting on the failure and accomplishments of Petraeus, Kubasik and Entwistle led me to resolve to persistently pursue feedback, assessment and support in my own development. At a personal level I understand the draw of defective reasoning. Defective reasoning is easy to nurture – especially as I get older. On the other hand the consequences of defective reasoning are unavoidably clear.  Rather than taking the easy road of defective reasoning and rationalization I will be a leader who finishes well.

And another commitment arises – to be a mentor.  I am grateful to one of my mentors for pointing out that mentoring possesses different expressions and time commitments – mentoring may be active, occasional or passive in its time constraints and approaches. I can and I will make a difference in the lives of leaders I work for and leaders I work with. Good leadership characterized in benevolence, integrity and ability is more than a formula for organizational success – it is a building block of healthy community and social interaction. So, I am committed to helping build a community of health.  Will you join me?