Culture Fail: Exceptional Leaders… Why Do We Care Who They Sleep With??

“Oh, how the mighty have fallen.” We’ve probably all relished saying those words at one time in our lives, because who doesn’t love seeing someone deserving put in their place? But what happens after someone truly exceptional falls victim to the fatal glare of an intense public spotlight? Leaders who resign as a result of ultimately non-job-related scandals often elicit an underwhelming “meh.”

Exceptional leaders have the common qualities of regular good folk, plus something extra: a combination of luck, timing, and an unholy amount of hard work. Like the Beatles and Madame Curie, and the guy who thought to fortify orange juice with calcium, brilliance doesn’t just show up everywhere on schedule like it’s owed to us as a society. It appears in its own time to inspire, delight, frighten, and revolutionize.

So why do we take such gleeful delight in crucifying these leaders when they do something stupid, like cheat on their husbands or wives? It seems as though the “brilliant leader gene” is inextricably linked to the “cheat-on-your-spouse gene,” but we remain so caught up in our Puritanical ideals that we take into account an individual’s personal transgressions when determining their professional merit.

For leaders who have fallen due to vanilla sex scandals, I reserve the “French shrug” and save (and savor) my indignant reactions for the bizarre and ironic cases (secret prostitute lovers, accidental deaths by auto-erotic asphyxiation) and scandals that include actual crimes and victims. You know, like the guy who provided the voice of Sesame Street’s Elmo.

The latest U.S. political sex scandal resulting in the resignation of CIA director General David Patraeus is an example of the vanilla category. After FBI investigations, what this story boils down to is a man who slept with his biographer; the juicy details were no more intriguing than the emotionally disturbed and hormonally charged vapid dramas played out weekly at middle schools across the nation.

Petraeus and his biographer, Paula Broadwell, shared an email account and played out their affair through volumes of email correspondence cleverly retained as drafts never sent. But like many a secret lover, Broadwell blew her cover when she began cyberstalking Jill Kelley, a Florida socialite who seemingly jeopardized Broadwell’s claim as the general’s rightful paramour (that hussy!).

Thus, the Shakespearian downfall of Petraeus. Shakespeare used tragedy to offer insight into the follies of humanity: pride, greed, and the misplaced vindication of the afflicted love-torn.

The result—no criminal investigations, just a tragedy in the loss of a competent leader who was able to deal with a sloppy war more effectively than he could deal with a sloppy extramarital affair.

Could we stick to following jilted Twilight lovers and keep these scandals relegated to People Magazine? Not as long as we are so tolerant of skewering others for their personal mistakes in the bedroom, I suppose.

by Kerry Brown

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