The New York Daily News today issued a scathing rejection of Eliot Spitzer’s candidacy for New York Controller, and endorsed his rival. This, from an ethical point of view, is a no-brainer, but it was the manner in which the rejection came about that was noteworthy, and the lessons we can glean from Spitzer’s character that are worth pondering.
The Daily News editors were obviously incensed that Spitzer obfuscated, spun and, in their view, lied when they quizzed him on the shady circumstances that caused him to resign in disgrace as Governor of New York. Spitzer was alternately indignant—How dare you interview me about my criminal use use of a prostitution ring when I was Governor, when that was long ago and I’m offering my services to the people of New York?—and evasive, as described in this passage of the endorsement piece:
“Following Spitzer’s resignation, unverified published reports placed his spending on prostitutes at up to $100,000. Getting a fix on the correct number is a step toward judging whether he knowingly helped the Emperors Club conceal income by wiring funds into secret bank accounts. Read the next transcript secure in knowing that the federal complaint mentions only $4,300 that Spitzer paid in cash in the Washington hotel room:
“Daily News: How much money was involved?
Spitzer: That was set out in that document, Arthur. I really don’t know.
Daily News: There’s no total.
Spitzer: I could not tell you. I didn’t know you were going to want to talk about this in terms of dollars spent. It was in that document or not in that document. If you want me to go back and calculate it, you can make out a request and I’ll determine whether or not I wish to allow it.
Daily News: Well, I do make the request.
“And read this transcript secure in knowing that the Manhattan U.S. attorney stated in court papers that ‘the then-governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, had arranged to transfer funds in a suspicious manner from one of Spitzer’s personal accounts’ to a secret Emperors Club [ the prostitution ring] account:
Daily News: The reason that I’m asking, that I believe the total is relevant, is that it got into the question of money laundering by the parties that were running the prostitution enterprise, right? You were a racketeering prosecutor and the attorney general. You were clearly aware of money laundering issues and transactional structuring issues because of your professional work. Am I correct?
Spitzer: Is that a question or a statement?
Daily News: That’s a question.
Spitzer: Yes, I understand money laundering. Can I cut this short? They investigated that.
Daily News: I don’t want you to cut it short. What I’m asking is, how did you make your payments?
Spitzer: Arthur, listen, I’m going to make a few limited statements about this. I made them in cash. There was no money laundering. The federal authorities looked at it thoroughly and said that there was absolutely nothing there.
There was much more of such fencing, finally prompting this conclusion from the Daily News:
“His boldness in issuing misstatements was not the boldness of a liar who is trying to avoid getting caught at wrongdoing. It was the boldness of a man whose ego-driven character allows for forcefully denying reality while expecting the public to accept his word.
“Because Eliot Spitzer is Eliot Spitzer. What’s changed since he fled the governorship as unfit for service is that Eliot Spitzer is five years older.”
Concluding that Spitzer is ego-driven is hardly news to anyone who wincingly watched him run roughshod over his “partner,” columnist Kathleen Parker, on their short-lived CNN show “Spitzer-Parker” (he got her fired, leaving the show to be hosted by him alone, whereupon he was promptly insufferable). As I read the quote above, however, it dawned on me what a perfect model Spitzer is for the eternal and unresolvable character dilemma of leadership.
It takes a special kind of person with unusual self-regard to presume to lead others. A strong, indeed too strong ego is an essential qualification for high-stakes leadership, for without it leadership becomes timid (“What do YOU think I should do?”), slow (“What if I make a mistake?”), and equivocal (“Ok, I must have made a mistake; everyone disagrees with me. I’ll take it back!”.) Even with an otherwise talented leader, insecurity leads to paranoia, isolation, and ultimately self-destruction.
Unfortunately, an ego strong enough to lead with confidence is also so strong that it feeds potentially crippling pathologies, which often manifest themselves as rationalizations. “I’m essential: The rules don’t apply to me.” (The King’s Pass); “I deserve my extra money/sex/ indulgences: where would everyone else be without me?”(Ethics Accounting); “I’m the smartest, most virtuous person here: obviously what I choose to do is right and good. Look at who’s doing it! (Self-validating Virtue). Ego-driven leaders also tend to confuse their job and constituency with themselves—it’s all personal. Thus those who oppose their policies are seen as opposing them. Failures of policies cannot be taken as personal failures, which would undermine such leaders’ view of reality. Thus they cannot admit mistakes, and must convince themselves that everyone else is responsible for poor results, not them.
This undermines accountability, and generates arrogance and contempt for the opinions of others. Seen in this context, Eliot Spitzer’s character is not only not unusual, but is to some extent unavoidable if a city, state of nation wants competent leaders. We must always be on the lookout, however, for signs that the advantages conferred by a strong ego—confidence, the ability to make hard decisions, charisma, courage, comfort with wielding power, sense of mission, purpose and responsibility, determination, perseverance in times of crisis—have been overtaken by the inherent perils of having such high self-regard.
Eliot Spitzer is the perfect example of what happens when a strong ego isn’t kept under control. Then it not only is not an asset to leadership, but dangerous and disqualifying.You may be able to identify some others current leaders who are suffering from this problem. Still, Eliot Spitzer is the perfect embodiment of the pathology of leadership.