Five Stages of Leadership – Honesty (Part 3)

The lack of honesty following glaring humiliation brought on by dizzying hubris destroyed a President of the United States.

The hubris in the White House just after Richard Nixon's 49-state romp over George McGovern in 1972 was so intense the looming Watergate crisis faded behind the glimmer. Ultimately the exploding supernova would fill the whole political sky, but in those early days just after Nixon's second term inauguration, the attitude was: "Watergate crisis? What Watergate crisis?"

Nixon probably could have redeemed his ailing presidency with searing honesty. He might have squeezed benefit from the humiliation of the Watergate break-in, and doused the hubris that was drowning the White House in pride and egoism.

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Instead, Nixon had to endure the further humiliation of the White House tapes, which stripped his character naked before the whole world, exposing hypocrisy and a web of lies.

Nixon ultimately had to face the American people, not to bare his soul through honesty that would have lent credibility to his favorite cliché, "Let me make one thing perfectly clear," but to resign the presidency.

Had Richard Nixon bared his soul maybe he would have been spared the baring of his reputation. But Quaker Nixon couldn't find his version of the Prophet Isaiah's famous confession that could have gone something like this: "Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and here in Washington and the White House I dwell with people of unclean lips…"

That would have come far too close to the simple confession, "I have sinned."

The closest in my memory of an American President – or any world leader – even approaching that stark honesty was Bill Clinton's "Monica Lewinsky speech" on August 17, 1998.

Clinton's Oval Office escapades with Lewinsky had become public knowledge, as well as his purported misdeeds with Paula Jones. Clinton had been summoned to testify before the Office of Independent Counsel, and to "answer questions about my private life, questions no American citizen would ever want to answer."

Then Clinton came clean – or at least somewhere in the neighborhood of honest confession: "I must take complete responsibility for all my actions, both public and private… I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate. In fact, it was wrong."

While Clinton's reputation as a philanderer was not diminished in the eyes of many, his candor in that speech was rare for an occupant of the Oval Office. It might have been a factor in helping him keep the presidency. Less than five months after Clinton addressed the nation, the House of Representatives impeached the President on two charges of perjury and obstruction of justice relating to the Lewinsky and Jones matters. In February, 1999, however, the Senate acquitted Clinton, and his presidency was saved by a razor-thin seventeen votes.

"I have sinned" is one of the most liberating, progress-spurring, honest statements a human can make. People whose belief systems are without a concept of sin don't know what they're missing. Even a leading psychiatrist thought so.

Dr. Karl Menninger penned a 1973 book, Whatever Became of Sin? Dr. Menninger's concern was that the erosion of the idea of sin was undercutting self-honesty and personal responsibility. Further, he thought, without the stark awareness of wrong, and the need for confession, we never experience forgiveness and the soul-healing resolution that comes with it.

After hubris has led to humiliation, there's nothing that will lead to restoration faster than the stark honesty of "I have sinned." The problem is – as another leader shows – such honesty usually begins in the "dust" after humiliation has deflated hubris-swelled psyches.

Jesus told His disciples He would go to Jerusalem, where He would be arrested and put on trial, and that they would all desert him. Pumped up with hubris, Simon Peter vowed he would never deny Jesus. However, Peter's denial is lashed historically to his name and reputation, an albatross of humiliation. But when he flings himself into the dust, and weeps out his confession of sin, humiliation produces honesty that qualifies Simon Peter for leadership, and takes most of the stench from history's memory of his denial.

No wonder Simon Peter can be trusted to be point-man for the band of Jesus' followers, and a foundational person in building the church. Leaders who allow their humiliation to take them into the dust of honesty and repentance can be entrusted with nations, families, churches, educational systems, businesses, and all else.

Everything depends on what a leader does with humiliation. If it leads to honesty, the humiliation that follows hubris is a great spur to positive progress. But if humiliation leads only to cover ups and deceit, its pain is wasted, and many are brought down. And the best thing honesty can lead to is "honing," the sharpening of character, professionalism, leadership skills, and credibility.

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