Richard Nixon told us he wasn’t a crook. Bill Clinton said, “I never had sexual relations with that woman.” Baseball star Jose Canseco admitted to using anabolic steroids. John Edwards had an affair during the Democratic primary races. And Governor Mark Sanford (R-SC) disappeared from his post for five days with no word of where he was. Upon returning, he said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, and then admitted he was in Argentina, having and extra-marital affair.
We often hear that “to err is human.” And let’s face it, we have all erred a time or two. And many of us have been tempted to do what these men did. To want to win an election so badly that we’d consider breaking the law, or desire to have an affair so intensely we’d think about betraying our wedding vows, or want to become a star in our field of endeavor so badly we would consider cheating to get there
So I can understand Sanford’s falling from the “holier than thou pedestal upon which he placed himself in 1998 when he criticized Bill Clinton for doing the same thing he has been caught doing. It simply makes him a hypocrite, in addition to being a philanderer. From my perspective, as a student of corporate culture however, the more egregious sin committed by all five men is the arrogant disregard they displayed for those who had placed their faith and trust in them.
Nixon let his staffers lie for him. Clinton, thus putting their careers in jeopardy. Canseco, and his entire cohort of sports stars who’ve cheated by using steroids, betrayed the trust of every starry eyed kid who’s dreamt of following in their footsteps. Edwards was so selfish that he chose to have his affair when there was a chance he could win the Democratic primary. With all the scrutiny that comes with being a presidential candidate, the truth would have surely emerged, and millions of democrats would have lost the first chance they’ve had in eight years to win an election.
Besides his family and the citizens of South Carolina, Sanford arrogantly displayed an incredible disregard for the employees of the State. He blatantly broke a state policy, which would get any employee fired on the spot. The South Carolina Budget and Control Board Disciplinary Policy, which, according to Mike Spanhour, Director of Public Affairs, serves as the personnel policy guide for South Carolina State employees reads:
SECTION VI, ABANDONMENT OF POSITION “An employee who voluntarily fails to report to work for three consecutive workdays and fails to contact the appropriate supervisory authority during this time will be considered to have voluntarily resigned from the Budget and Control Board. The resignation is automatically accepted. A voluntary resignation is not a grievable issue.” (http://www.state.sc.us/dio/DisciplinaryPolicy.pdf)
But will Sanford be “fired?” Of course not.
Spanhour went on to say, “It’s not clear that the Governor has to abide by the rules that employees must follow.”
So there’s probably no legal standing for canning him. But that’s little comfort to the supervisor in the field who decides to discipline an employee for the same infraction, and is confronted with, “If the governor can do it, why can’t I?”
Everything a leader does demonstrates what is acceptable or not. Sanford’s behavior told the State of South Carolina employees that it’s ok to abandon your position and it’s ok to lie about what you do on state time. Of course, everyone knows that’s not true. The Governor gets to behave according to a different standard that the rest of us. Is it any wonder government employees are sometimes perceived as having an “attitude?”
The bottom line is that people follow leaders because they trust them. When leaders are dishonest, when they lie, when they act without integrity, when they adopt special rules for themselves, they betray that trust. Think about the last time someone you cared about betrayed you. Did your level of cynicism about the world not go up a notch or two? Keep that in mind the next time you are treated rudely by the clerk the DMV.
Of course, few of us are state governors. Most of us are supervisors and managers doing our best to lead and manage our folks – and that includes me. And none of us would ever act in a way we wouldn’t want our employees to act – would we?