How to Admire Leaders Without Thinking They're Infallible

Most leadership disasters stem from honest mistakes made by people with noble intentions but flawed judgment.



Kurt Vonnegut once dismissed leaders like Ben Bernanke, Jamie Dimon, and David Petraeus as self-appointed "guessers" whose grand public hunches determine our fate. "Persuasive guessing has been at the core of leadership for so long--for all of human experience so far--that it is wholly unsurprising that most of the leaders of this planet, in spite of all the information that is suddenly ours, want the guessing to go on, because now it is their turn to guess and be listened to."

As a journalist, I appreciate that kind of humanist crack.

But as an American citizen who likes to sleep at night, I try to take a more reverent attitude toward the people who pilot the institutions that try to keep our economy on its axis and our children safe from terrorists.

Whatever my personal mix of skepticism or reverence toward American leaders, it shouldn't be unduly influenced by the recent news of one leader's indiscretions. And neither should yours.

I just finished helping a dying Army officer write a book about values and leadership, for the children he will soon leave behind. In the course of the work, I had to wrestle with my own conflicting attitudes about leaders, military and otherwise.

Lt. Col. Mark Weber worked in Iraq for General Petraeus, and like many other army officers, considered the general a mentor. In a Saturday story at, Weber referred to Petraeus as "one of the smartest and most energetic men I've ever met in my life, which creates a self-imposed demanding nature to the man--I just always wanted to be a better officer when I was around him."

That meant something to me, because Weber is one of the smartest and most energetic men I've met in my life.

Despite suffering from sepsis, enduring a surgery and attending a retirement ceremony presided over by Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, the cancer-stricken Weber cheerfully wrote a book in two months. Along the way, his editorial proficiency increased at a rate that gave me the uncomfortable sense that my customer was eating the skills I'd been hired for. (I shouldn't have been surprised. Working under Petraeus as an aide de camp for Iraqi Chief of Defense Babakir Zibari, Weber became frustrated using an interpreter and learned Kurdish in three months. Who does that?)

I came to admire Weber very much, and just as Petraeus made him want to be a better officer, Weber made me want to be a better editor and a more faithful correspondent. But as a citizen in a democracy, I must be able to admire Mark Weber the same way Mark Weber should be able to admire David Petraeus: wholeheartedly, but without thinking him infallible.

When we evaluate our leaders, we lazily compare them to leaders we perceive as evil -- the J. Edgar Hoovers and the Richard Nixons. But most leadership disasters small and large stem from honest mistakes made by honest people with noble intentions but flawed judgment.

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David Murray is the editor of Vital Speeches of the Day. He also writes regularly at Writing Boots and Contentology.

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