How to Admire Leaders Without Thinking They're Infallible

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

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Reuters

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 MinnPost.com, 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.

People like us.

Take Colin Powell. After he presented bogus evidence for weapons of mass destruction at the United Nations, he suffered the humiliation of his life. But perhaps more of us should have understood and articulated what in hindsight appears to be the plain fact of the matter: Colin Powell believed what he was saying, but he was wrong.

Hubris is hardly confined to the top echelons. Weber's memoir is full of his own "failures," as he calls them, squarely. He flunked out of Army Ranger School because of a knee injury he had suffered previously. "I had been dishonest with myself," he writes. "This was a personal and professional embarrassment I could have prevented, but I had allowed pride to blind me." And when he took his first command, it was of an MP platoon whose morale was in the toilet. "If you're looking for a story about a new platoon leader who inherits a mess and turns it all around," Weber writes through still-gritted teeth," you should skip this section, because it isn't here."

Later in his career, Weber experienced a series of disorienting successes in the course of a few months: he was chosen from an eligible pool of 37,000 Army officers to win the General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award, given a prestigious assignment in Washington that included a sabbatical to get a master's degree and early-promoted to the rank of major. "With all that praise and recognition," Weber admits, "it was difficult keeping perspective."

If our leaders can't assess their own genius and fallibility, clearly, they need our honest help. Or as Weber puts it, "In the final analysis of failure and success, it may be difficult to tell which is which." Even when that kind of perspective is found, I would add, it's easily lost again.

So we must watch all our leaders closely, especially the ones we revere. The more we trust them, the more power they have over us--and the more power they have, the more vigilant we need to be.

The challenge is to keep that balance between reverence and vigilance. The moment a leader reveals his weaknesses, we shouldn't dismiss his strengths. As Weber writes about Petraeus: "Like it or not, he has been a standard bearer for leadership and calm under pressure. So his behavior tarnishes all men and women who seem too good to be true." But we shouldn't let it.

A great nation needs good and great leaders throughout the ranks of its institutions. When leaders do fall for whatever reason, we need others to take their place. And we must remain open to the possibility of greatness in the new man or woman.

We must each cultivate in ourselves the intellectual rigor and the emotional discipline to admire our leaders, watchfully. Perhaps there should be a name for this quality.

I suggest, adulthood.

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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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