June 7, 2011
It’s hard not to shake your head on hearing the latest news about “Weinergate.” I have been asked now several times in the media for my opinion on this. Was it because of his position of power? Was it because of something going on inside of him? Why did he lie when caught? What does it say about our leaders? So here it goes, both as an attorney and a psychologist, I have some thoughts.
1. He didn’t believe he would get caught. In one interview he admitted this. Research studies show that as leaders gain power their view of risks becomes distorted—they underestimate the amount of control they have over situations and underestimate the risks. This is good if you are trying to raise quarterly profits against the odds of the market, but bad if you watch your career go up in flames as you deny an event that actually occurred in front of a room full of reporters. Think of a time when you were speeding—did you think you would get caught? Of course not! This is an example of how we all can underestimate the consequences of what we do—and in this case, his position of power caused him to distort that sort of analysis even more than the ordinary citizen.
2. He wanted to be a “rock star.” We have become a culture obsessed with fame. Let’s be honest-Weiner probably went from relative obscurity to a place where women were telling him he was “hot.” The opportunities that new media provides for a few minutes of fame can get distorted pretty quickly and have lasting repercussions for us all.
3. Believing your own press. Leadership these days is in a bit of a crisis and that includes our political leadership. In order to get elected to political office you have to take some pretty extreme positions to cobble together constituencies that will get you elected. Similarly, in corporations for a number of years now, we have focused our nation’s executives on short-term results at the cost of long-term gains, relationships with employees, and research and development. Here’s the point. With such a short-term focus on extremes, leaders surround themselves with staff and management who pump them up and cheer them on. It is the rare leader who welcomes the staff or board member who tells them when they are making bad decisions or that they are behaving badly. Without this sort of reality check we make bad decisions and the entire organization will be taken off course from the pursuit of its broader strategic goals.
4. It’s a high. Let’s face it, to become a politician you have to want a different sort of life and quite simply, want—power. The very desire that led him to office, also led to his demise. Once you are in office, where does your next high come from? Well, for most, it is a different sort of satisfaction gained from knowledge that they are helping others. But for Weiner, it seems he needed more adulation. That’s not “real” or authentic power, that’s external power.
So I think this incident represents one aspect of the intersection of the darker aspects of leadership and of human nature. Ultimately, those in power are there because of a magical and unique mixture of certain personal traits and public trends. In this case, for Representative Weiner, as in many cases, we probably could forgive what he did. Hey, none of us are perfect and what happens with his wife is not our business. We do love a comeback; think Clinton and Spitzer, and he probably didn’t break any laws. Lying to your constituents doesn’t seem to be a violation of the ethics code of Congress. But, when he looked in the camera and still lied when he was caught being human—well, that seems harder to forgive and makes a larger statement about his judgement. Let’s let the voters ultimately decide.