Mistakes, scandals, and atrocity

In a recent episode of Scandal, Olivia Pope and her media relations team rush in to manage a crisis involving a CEO, her family, and the professor with whom the CEO had had an affair. The CEO’s Board of Directors demands her resignation for violating the company’s morality clause. In a brilliant scene, Pope’s team meets with the Board armed only with an empty file box. They claim that the box contains evidence of scandals from the lives of the Board members – secrets that Pope’s team is ready to leak to the media.

Poker-faced they sit around the table until one Board member cracks in fear over what might be revealed about his own past. Suddenly, concern over the morality clause vanishes and the CEO’s resignation is no longer demanded.

On television, at least, secrets provide an interesting plot and prevent Boards of Directors from taking action. In real life, reflecting on leadership mistakes, scandals, and moral failures are opportunities for us to learn together about implications of the personal and professional choices made by leaders.

The American Sexually Transmitted Disease Association (ASTDA) is engaging in a very real examination and reflection into the horrific decisions of one of its own leaders. And, it’s an inquiry from which we can all learn.

The ASTDA has requested public feedback about its prestigious Thomas Parran Award. Dr. Parran was the United States’ sixth Surgeon General. The award given his name honors the medical researchers and practitioners specializing in sexually transmitted disease. The result of the examination and reflection may result in renaming the award.

Dr. Parran is credited with leading the nation’s fight against the spread of syphilis and other STD’s. He served as Surgeon General at a time when medical researchers had learned much about the ways the diseases spread and about the impacts on the infected. Some of what they learned about the behavior of the diseases came from truly horrific experiments including ones that took place in Tuskegee, Alabama and Guatemala.

After World War II, in Tuskegee, Alabama, hundreds of African American men were intentionally not given appropriate treatment for syphilis. They were studied for over 40 years as the disease progressed and spread throughout their communities. In Guatemala, more than 1,300 hundred individuals were infected by U.S. based researchers with one of three different STD’s without documented evidence of their permission or their knowledge. They were likewise studied as the diseases progressed.

Episodes of Scandal, working past the point of reason to protect against personal scandals becoming known, and lauding those who oversee truly horrific activities in the line of duty are very different situations. However, each provides an interesting look into our shadow selves and the shadows of our leaders.

At the simplest level, we do great things and we do horrible things; sometimes at the same time. Pretending that any of us are perfect, being surprised when flaws become public, and avoiding reflecting deeply on our own mistakes, scandals, and atrocities is a denial we can’t afford. It’s a denial that reduces the likelihood that we will rise each day to invent a new future for ourselves and for the world.

Continue exploring the light and shadow sides of leadership by learning more about yourself through the 21-day Challenge and by learning more the leadership of others in Dave Logan’s upcoming book. Here’s the question to ask yourself: what kind of leader are you and what kind of leader do you want to become?

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