He won the highest office in the Central Intelligence Agency and he was a candidate to become Vice President, perhaps even president, but in 2012, David Petraeus shamefully fell as the result of his relationship with his biographer, the writer Paula Broadwell. It shattered his professional career and he exited with his reputation tarnished while she exited with fame and authorship of the biography about his life!
Thus was the end of the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, one of the most prominent financial institutions in the world, Dominique Straus-Kahn who resigned in 2011 amidst accusations that he had attempted to sexually assault a hotel employee. After multiple litigations, he was tried with charges of soliciting prostitution in one hotel in the French city of Lille. He was at that time considered one of the most influential and powerful world figures, and then he fell from the top to the bottom.
And in 2007, after increasing pressure, Paul Wolfowitz, president of the World Bank and symbol in the fight against corruption, handed in his resignation after confessing that he had offered a high salary to a previous bank employee because he was engaged in a romantic relationship with her. He confessed, humiliated, and apologized but this was not enough to intervene on his behalf. After that he became a laughing stock and many took out their frustrations on him.
These are some of the stories specific to important leaders that occurred in the recent period. They are available from the West because of the transparency there regarding investigations and the accurate documentation of events, regardless of the people involved. Examples like these are repeated in places all over the globe, including in our own, of course!
Why do great leaders fall as they did in these examples? And why does a stray action destroy a leader of a prestigious institution, along with all that he built with his successes throughout his life? The more important question here, and the one that many in our Arab world are interested in these days, as they develop their leadership skills in order to take control of large-scale projects and leadership in both national and international institutions, is how can we learn from these leaders so that we can guard against stumbling along our own paths to success? And what do we have to share from these lessons in many of our current programs encouraging youth leadership and nurturing entrepreneurs and community activists that can fortify them with strength against such stumbles?
Specialized research and practical experience suggests that there are three challenges successful leaders face, whether in the institutional, social, political or religious fields. These challenges, if leaders do not develop appropriate means to address them in the early stages, are capable of destroying both their professional and personal lives.
Successful leaders are usually characterized by a high amount of self confidence, the ability to takes risks and influence others, to display boldness in dealing with situations yet maintain some semblance of stability in the face of shifting conditions, and the ability to turn failure into success. A successful leader is also usually accompanied by people who reinforce this vision of himself.
The qualities which support leaders in excellence and success in office are the same that prompt them to enter into ill-advised ventures. Their previous achievements sometimes blind them and their own success becomes their enemy. Having succeeded in the past, despite the criticism and warnings of others, they possess a sense of false confidence that they will always be able to repeat this success.
In the midst of success and the accompanying lack of self-examination, successful leaders may suffer from feelings of high stress and isolation, especially under the severe pressures of responsibility or in the face of rapid changes. Amid stresses, meetings, tasks, and the deep void of a lack of human relationships, profound questions about what should be the next steps seep into a leader’s consciousness, little by little. Throughout his conversations with people of high renown and his constant presence within the societal hubbub, his smile is accustomed to concealing many of the painful feelings of loneliness or a rift in the relations with the people closest to him.
In the face of these challenges, the leader may cease to deny his internal needs, and attempt to turn off the stresses that have been thrown upon him, through corrupt financial ventures which increase his sense of greatness, or romantic relationships which, while attractive to the human touch, do not bring stability, or dishonest commercial competitions which crush his competitors and raise his earnings. These are all steps that lead to severe destruction as far as the leader is concerned.
Successful leaders have learned, with difficult means, to hold onto other options. They have realized that it is important to always surround themselves with people who direct them, hold them accountable, and tell them the truth--even those truths which they do not like to hear. They have learned as well the necessity of organizing a successful human life in a way that provides them with emotionally satisfying relationships and that keeps them close with people who provide balances in all aspects of their humanity. A successful leader learns not to put loved ones on a shelf, only reassuring them with his presence when his concerns are finished.
During his career, a leader may build his resume, increase his income and expand his relationships, but it is important that all of this is accompanied by the promotion of moral values and the quest to get answers to important questions such as: What does it mean to be successful? What are the most important things and people in my life? And, am I willing to pay the price, if necessary, to maintain them?
The leaders may have fallen, but the lessons learned from them do not.
* The arabic of this article appeared on May 07, 2015
**an earlier translation of this article placed David Petraeus's "fall" in April of this year. The court proceedings regarding the scandal wrapped up in April, 2015, however the scandal itself occurred in 2012. We have amended the translation to clear up any ambiguity regarding the sequence of events.
Basel Saliba: Senior expert in Leadership Development, Capacity Building and Organizational Excellence.
Translated by Julia Norris