The story broke, sending exclamations of shock across the country. New York Governor Eliot Spitzer addressed the media. His statement was brief, providing as little fodder for the press as possible. He declined to answer any questions. And perhaps there was little that he could have said. After all, the federal investigation provided quite enough unsavory details. In the course of a day, the Crusader, once dubbed Eliot Ness, who had doggedly pursued and prosecuted the scum of Wall Street, organized crime, and, yes, prostitution, had been reduced to just another corrupt public official. And, just like that, public confidence in ethical leadership fell another notch.

Watergate. Monica Lewinsky. Enron. Martha Stewart. Larry Craig. Scandals can bring down an administration, a company, a career. They can cost billions of dollars and untold losses in public confidence.
What is it about leadership, corporate and political, that seems to put even the mightiest at risk of corruption? Is it because they are in the limelight, their imperfections bared for all to see? Or is it due to the enormous stress and conflicting interests inherent in these positions? These questions have the business and political worlds scrambling for solutions.
Recent reports in the Wall Street Journal show that companies are more concerned about the ethics of their employees than ever before. Business schools are responding accordingly, adding courses on business ethics to their curriculum. These classes introduce students to philosophical concepts and dilemmas formerly reserved for liberal arts and law students. The goal behind these is to produce students who can navigate the often murky waters of leadership. Whether these courses will reduce corruption in the real world is yet to be seen.
Perhaps the fall of Eliot Spitzer only highlights the peculiarities of the times we live in. Perhaps in a less connected world, the impact would have been unnoticeable. Perhaps, as permissive as we have become of certain behaviors in private, we are still shocked when our leaders are revealed publicly to have engaged in the same behaviors. Perhaps we have an insatiable appetite for scandal but very little for goodness. Perhaps we are hellbent on proving that no one is as good as they seem and somehow find satisfaction in revealing their weakness. Perhaps, deep down, we don’t believe that people can be as good as Eliot Spitzer seemed to be. I hope not.
To become a leader in politics or business is to be held to a higher standard, to have the media and public eye, with their x-ray vision, fixed on you, trying to chip away at your seemingly flawless facade. And for every Eliot Spitzer or Martha Stewart there are hundreds of other leaders out there who perform wonderfully without falling. These leaders should be celebrated and held up as an example. I’m not recommending turning a blind eye to corruption. I am, however, recommending that we also show how leadership can work, how we can still look up to our leaders.
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