Leadership scandals seem to be a staple of news in recent years. In the corporate world, one might point to Volkswagen’s Dieselgate. In city governance, the Flint water crisis was a catastrophic failure of leadership. At the state and national levels, we read about officials overstepping their authority, hush money, and sex scandals. Hollywood, we now know, is rife with sexual predators. And scandal continues to wrack the Catholic Church.

Are leaders particularly susceptible to scandalous, even horrific, behavior? One piece of the answer has to be that positions of leadership place people in situations that come with enormous temptations to take resources, overstep authority, and abuse power. (This reality is one of the driving forces behind the Leadership Ethics capstone course in the Jepson School. Our hope is to prepare students for the special ethical challenges associated with leadership.) The first two of the above temptations seem somewhat more straightforward to fix than the latter.

Below are some thoughts on how we might better avoid scandals. (Look for a future post on how leaders should deal with scandals in their organizations.)

  1. Recognition that leaders are in situations of temptation, and that leaders know we know this, will help them to police themselves. In Escape from Democracy, David Levy and I make the case that experts who know you are skeptical of their expertise perform better (to earn your trust) than those who are given carte blanche. While this is intuitively plausible, empirical evidence also supports it.
  2.  Still, we need to do more than simply tell our leaders that we know they are capable of doing bad things. We need to subject them to careful scrutiny and punish them when they overstep. And we need to make no exceptions. Leaders on both sides of the aisle, in the Church, well as those in business, all need to know that they are subject to the same rules. If we let politics get in the way of shaming and punishing, things will never be put right.
  3. Let’s especially agree to shame sexual predators. Perhaps the only good outcome of the terrible news out of Hollywood or the Church is that it will cause us finally to come to this agreement. Unfortunately, I remain most skeptical. What the last few months have revealed is that many people looked the other way for a long time in the face of truly horrific situations. When that changes, perhaps we will see real improvement.

Until then, we’ll keep educating our students about leadership ethics.

Leadership and scandal

Sandra J. Peart

Dr. Peart is Dean of the School of Leadership Studies at the University of Richmond. She is an economist with special interests in leadership and economics and leadership ethics. More about her: Go to jepson.richmond.edu and see faculty information.

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