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Raise your hand if you believe that Anthony Weiner has control over his sexting behavior. Raise your hand if you believe that Mayor Filner will be cured of his sexually harassing behavior in two weeks. Or that Eliot Spitzer has reformed. The list is long…not to mention disgusting and disgraceful. Yet there is a whole gaggle of (male) leaders who are asking citizens to believe that they are sorry for their past transgressions that they now (or soon will) have under control. Really??

Let’s take the spectacle and media circus out of the equation and get down to reality. What is going on in these situations and what can we learn about leadership in the real world?

First, let’s talk about human being-ness. None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes…sometimes big ones. We strive to give people second chances because we would want one too. For most of us when we screw up and it is known to others/on public display we are mortified and slink away to figure out how to never, ever do that again so that we can hold our heads up again. There is a sense of shame and deeply felt concern for others we may have hurt in the process. When the emotions are this heartfelt there is a high probability of earnest efforts to change because the internal alarms have gone off and we can acknowledge the error of our ways.

This is normal. This is human. And these are the conditions for someone to change. Still it takes awhile for true change to occur…for a habit (or compulsion) to be understood, dismantled, stopped and replaced with more productive actions.

We see evidence of this every day in our organizations. Someone constantly berates/belittles his direct reports in public. Someone revels in spreading gossip. Someone routinely blames others for her shortcomings. All of these are habits that harm others and are tough to change. But in the real world you get talked to, you get dinged on your annual ratings and bonus, you are given some resources to help you change and sometimes you are given an ultimatum. Change or else. There are negative consequences and the only path to redemption is to honestly and forever stop doing the bad thing. This can be highly motivating for most of us. And many times the situation does turn around and the perpetrator looks back on this moment as positively life changing.

But what these public officials are asking their constituents to do would never be tolerated in the business world. If an executive who had been removed from his role for some wrongdoing that broke the trust came back to the board and said, “Please reinstate me. I’ve been in therapy, I’ve searched my soul, I am a new man and I have seen the error of my ways” they would try hard not to laugh. Even IF they believed every word there is no way they would jeopardize the company. Boards are paid to know there are many fish in the sea and if you toss out a stinker you just go fishing for a better one. It would take a very “special” (sic. narcissistic) person to have the gall/balls to insist that he remains the best man for the job. Really?

The Weiner’s of the world are asking people to compartmentalize these bad habits as something apart from their basic character or moral compass. That is one mental pretzel twisting feat! My rule of thumb is: if you have to suspend too many of your own gut instincts or logical thoughts then it is a no-go. Write this person off and move on to someone better.

In the real world, when a leader screws up there is a very steep mountain to climb to regain trust and you will be hard pressed to find those stories. Very few Mark Sanfords in the real world. Most boards take the executive out to the woodshed, give him a pile of money and tell him never to show his face again. It’s a twisted kind of win-win. The board has preserved the reputation of the company and the disgraced executive can keep the money, even if he no longer has the power.

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