Weiner, Trust, and You

Let the debating begin. Congressman Anthony Weiner’s revelation that he exercised terrible judgment by Tweeting an inappropriate photo to a woman he had met on line raises scores of questions for leaders. It is certain to dominate the news cycle until one of three things happens:
1. Something of greater magnitude comes along and quickly knocks this off the front page.
2. Congressman Weiner is compelled to resign by the fallout from his family, constituents, and supporters or by his own sense of personal honor.
3. Congressman Weiner waits it out and people finally grow tired of the story.

I’m sure at this point, the Congressman from New York is hoping for option one but would settle for option three as a worst case scenario. Unfortunately for him, Mr. Weiner’s political enemies will keep this on the front burner – or at least simmering on a back burner – until he resigns or is defeated.

Let’s set aside for a moment any moral judgments you may have about the photos and conversations that took place. There are lessons from the Wienergate Scandal that every leader can learn. Here are three:
1. The more visible you are, the more visible you are.
“What the hell were you thinking?” Jay Leno eloquently and succinctly captured the question on everyone’s mind during his 1995 interview with Hugh Grant after he had been caught and arrested with Hollywood hooker Divine Brown.

Here’s how high profile leaders think it works: My position allows me to conceal my actions and get away with this behavior. Here’s the way it actually works: The higher your profile, the larger the target on your back.

There are always people looking to bring an enemy down or, at the very least, break a new story. Ask Tiger Woods, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and any of the endless list of people who forgot that a position of authority and respect demands more of them rather than less.

2. It is better to admit that you were stupid sooner rather than later.
One tragedy in the Weiner case is that the Congressman unsuccessfully tried to avoid taking responsibility by claiming that his computer was hacked. The story didn’t make sense from the outset. How could someone who had been hacked not want that investigated by the authorities? The fallout would have been harsh had he quickly admitted his mistake. But, he would have changed the context of the conversation from the cover up to the misjudgment of the action. Neither are pleasant, but admitting the mistake allows you to diffuse the conversation.

Leaders who find themselves in a questionable situation would do well to remember that Hugh Grant could have avoided Jay Leno’s 1995 question by refusing to appear. Instead, he owned his mistake and responded with, “I think you know in life what’s a good thing to do and what’s a bad thing, and I did a bad thing,”

3. People will forgive what you did much quicker than they will forget that they don’t trust you.

Do you remember the details of the Watergate Conspiracy that brought President Richard Nixon down, or do you remember the infamous words, “I am not a crook?” Are you affected more by President Clinton’s relationship with Monica Lewinsky or his statement that he didn’t have “sexual relations with that woman?” Which angers you the most about Governor Schwarzenegger’s affair and child with someone who worked for him? The act or the fact that he kept it secret for all those years?

Trust is the currency of successful leadership. Once lost, it remains in question long after the details of the event have faded from memory.

Who knows what will come of Weinergate. It certainly isn’t the worst case of stupid behavior ever committed by a public official. His opponents will call for his resignation. If I were him, I would ask three questions to determine my next course of action:
1. Have my actions created a situation where the stress and tension on my family are too great to continue? This could happen if he and his family decide that the best way to resolve the issue and repair the relationship is out of the public eye.
2. Have my actions created a situation where the constituents who elected me to serve are being either harmed or short-changed because of my actions? This could happen if he is found to be in violation of House rules or determines that his credibility to influence others is damaged beyond repair.
3. Have my actions violated my sense of personal honor about the conduct of a person in my position?

Everything else is political posturing by others, and the pontification of those not affected by the situation should be taken for what it is.

About the Author:

Randy Pennington
Randy Pennington is an award-winning author and a leading authority on helping organizations deliver positive results in a world of accelerating change. To learn more or to hire Randy for your next meeting, visit www.penningtongroup.com or call 972-980-9857.
  • The story is tragic on so many levels. I’m a pretty liberal and accepting guy, and I don’t want to judge anyone and the personal decisions they make. And the media has definitely crossed the line in attacking public figures for the actions they take in their private lives. Unfortunately Rep Weiner has a wife and used his platform as a public figure to take these behaviors, so he left himself open to the scrutiny. (And behaviors is plural, as there are now numerous allegations coming out.)

    The most important lesson of all may be that character is the first prerequisite to becoming a leader. Everything else is just strategy.

    -RG

    • Randy Pennington

      Great point about character being the core of leadership, Randy. It is absolutely true. The photos don’t really bother me. We’ve all done stupid stuff, and Weiner appears to represent his constituents well. The cover up is much worse than the crime, and that is the biggest reflection on his character. There are some stories coming out that indicate that this is not the first time he’s used poor judgement on this type of thing.

  • Thank you Randy for an excellent nonpartisan analysis of the situation. Throughout the years, I’ve appreciated many of Congressman’s Weiner’s initiatives such as the legislation he authored to financially cut off support to the Saudi’s after 9/11. (It didn’t pass the Senate but at least Weiner was willing to confront the Saudis for their citizens complicity in the attacks.) I am furious at him for being so STUPID! Politicians need to remember they are role models and everything they do and say is scrutinized. His actions may not have been “illegal” but they are more than unethical.

  • Randy, As usual .. this is an excellent interpretation of what is a very complicated issue. I often am a believer of leaving a personal issue personal and giving those involved space to sort it out. We are not truly the ones to judge others, unless we are flawless; and we’re not.
    Newt Gingrich was blasting Bill Clinton and pushing for his impeachment while involved in an affair himself.
    Anthony Weiner has served New York well and could continue to.
    The bigger issue here, I think, is that people have some addictive or psychological behaviors that run rampant, especially when they are in positions of power. Weiner is newly married and probably enjoyed many years with the freedom to act on his own personal desires. Old habits die slowly. We could compare him with many of the other men of power you refer to — Clinton, Arnold, and more.Therapy might work, but so would understanding. As a psychotherapist by training, I often look to cause, not merely what shows up. It is in our nature to first defend against accusations, so it’s not unusual for that to be what comes out initially.. but, as you said, it hurts our position.
    I wish Anthony and his wife well, no matter what happens. And, by the way, look at Elliot Spitzer now — he’s reporting about Weinergate and has his own show on CNN. Ironic?!
    Thanks, Ann