Does the Personal Character of Our Leaders Really Matter?

Does the Personal Character of Our Leaders
Really Matter?

The Power of Character
This selection is reprinted from Josephson Institute’s The Power of Character, which includes essays on a variety of topics from a variety of accomplished and interesting people.
Purchase securely in the online store »



Does the Personal Character of Our Leaders Really Matter? By Arianna Huffington

Arianna HuffingtonArianna Huffington is a nationally syndicated columnist and the author of many books, including Greetings from the Lincoln Bedroom; The Fourth Instinct, The Female Woman; After Reason; Maria Callas; The Gods of Greece; and Picasso: Creator and Destroyer. A native of Greece who headed the famed Cambridge Union debating society while she studied in England, she is today a fixture in American political discourse and has made numerous appearances on television programs ranging from Larry King and Oprah to 48 Hours and Roseanne. During the campaign year of 1996, she teamed with comedian Al Franken to provide coverage for Comedy Central, and she also worked with Franken on the “Strange Bedfellows” segment of Politically Incorrect. She is chair of the Center for Effective Compassion, which advocates greater community involvement to solve social problems.


Character – even when the word is not uttered – has dominated the political conversation in America in recent times. Yet at the end of the day, does the personal character of our political leaders really matter, or is it irrelevant provided there is peace and prosperity in the land? Is character only important when things are going badly?

Too often we confuse character with flawlessness. “Is it to be the cherub or the tiger?” Winston Churchill asked Graham Sutherland when he was about to sit for the portrait Lady Churchill later destroyed. In that short question he summed up a great truth: no human being is hewn out of a single block. And no great man or woman, whether a politician, philosopher, or an artist, has been of a piece. In fact, it is an inescapable truth of history that the greatest men have been enigmatic composites of virtue and vice. So in our zealous post-Freudian age, “show me a great man and I will dismantle him for you” has become one of our best-loved national pastimes.

“Demystifying” the giants of the past was, until recently, our favorite game. Systematically, and with a bizarre kind of vindictiveness, our attention was diverted from the greatness of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Newton, or Moliere and focused on the “discovery” that Tolstoy was schizoid, Dostoyevsky an epileptic, Newton paranoid, and Moliere consumptive. And this doesn’t even include scandalous sex habits and shockingly bad parenting.

Although we enjoy wallowing in revelations about the greats of the past, we launch our heartiest assaults against our current leaders.We relish every opportunity to reduce our highly visible politicians to terminally flawed creatures. In fact, if you would like to have your character praised and your flaws neglected, your best bet is to die. For a short while, especially after a sudden death, there is a reprieve. A statesman is a dead politician, the saying goes. And we see this tendency to vilify in life and glorify in death fully demonstrated in the cases of entertainer and congressman Sonny Bono, Kennedy family scion Michael Kennedy, and commerce secretary and political operative Ron Brown.

No doubt the time will come when their characters will be exhumed and dissected. But during the media honeymoon that follows tragic death, Michael Kennedy was a fearless athlete, Sonny Bono was the embodiment of wit and wisdom, and Ron Brown (whose friends just days before his death were proclaiming on national television that he was “unable to distinguish between public service and private gain”) was extolled as “a magnificent life-force,” “an inspirational leader,” and a “Renaissance man of politics.” Even Richard Nixon got a eulogy from President Clinton.

So the inescapable conclusion to be reached from the coverage of our public figures is that as a nation we need to grow up. Now growing up does not mean character shouldn’t matter. Far from it. It does mean, however, we shouldn’t magnify each transgression until it eclipses everything else, until nothing else can be seen – and especially nothing good.

Maybe the solution is to have an obituary writer vet every scandal story. Is the scandal so enormous that it eliminates everything positive, or can there at least be a sidebar about the rest of the person’s life?

When someone complained to President Lincoln about General Grant’s drunkenness, Lincoln suggested that the person find out what brand Grant drank and send a case to every other general. Today, by spotlighting political leaders’ private weaknesses, we’re in danger of being led by men and women who have no private weaknesses, or indeed, private thoughts, private ideas, or private values – in fact, by smiling, handshaking robots programmed with all the requisite poll numbers and focus-group results. But it is not all the public’s fault. Part of the reason for our fascination with authority in dishabille and the private lives and foibles of our political figures is that their stature is so shrunken these days that there is little to differentiate them except speaking style and sexual tastes.

The problem with the leaders of today is not that they are flawed but that they are bad leaders – because the essence of good leadership is the ability to see the iceberg before it hits the ship of state. Vaclev Havel, the President of the Czech Republic and one of the few great modern political leaders, called recently for “post-modern politicians” who will speak the truth and put principle above party. “Firsthand personal insight into things” and “the courage to be one’s self and go the way one’s conscience points” are two of the qualities he identified as essential for an effective leaders. Such leaders have character and moral authority even when they fall into temptation. As Havel did. In the fall of 1996, the Czech tabloid Blesk reported for the first time that there was more than had been previously told to the relationship between Havel and the 43-year-old actress Dagmar Veskronova. She had allegedly been his mistress for a few years before his wife’s death. Now they are married.

So what is the difference between Havel’s infidelities and President Clinton’s? The difference is to be found in looking at a man’s entire character – which can only be seen in a man’s entire life. Havel, the imprisoned hero of the Cold War, had the capacity for sacrifice and the courage to put principle above self – essential aspects of character. The opposite was ironically defined in a speech that Havel gave in Salzburg in July 1990. He painted a portrait of the political leader corrupted by power: “In short, he believes that he has something like an unconditional free pass to anywhere, even to heaven. Anyone who dares scrutinize his pass is an enemy who does him wrong.” It is this hubris that has throughout history created around leaders a corrosive environment of lies and cover-ups and has led to a progressive breaking down of character.

After all, what we learn, both from our own lives and from the lives of public figures, is that character is not something static. James Q. Wilson summed it up in The Moral Sense: “To say that people have a moral sense is not the same thing as saying that they are innately good. A moral sense must compete with other senses that are natural to humans – the desire to survive, acquire possessions, indulge in sex, or accumulate power – in short, with self-interest narrowly defined. How that struggle is resolved will differ depending on our character, our circumstances, and the cultural and political tendencies of the day. But saying that a moral sense exists is the same thing as saying that humans, by their nature, are potentially good.”

We build up our moral muscle – our character – by exercising it. We become virtuous by the practice of virtue, responsibility by the practice of responsibility, generous by the practice of generosity, and compassionate by the practice of compassion. And we break down our moral muscle with every flabby choice and decision we make.

Plato wrote that most people want power, not virtue, and must be trained to prefer virtue. Freud, by contrast, enthroned sexuality as the strongest universal force, and it too must be channeled into the proper avenues.

True character, therefore, involves discipline, restraint, and sacrifice. True character subordinates the lust for power and sex below a higher spiritual purpose – the giving of oneself to others. The act of transcending ourselves – not just our problems, cares, fears, but also our pleasures, hopes, and joys (and lusts) – is at the heart of character. In every major religion, giving and service mark the path back to God, back to a world in which we are no longer strangers and alone but members of a vast but tightly knit family.

In a study on altruism, Ervin Staub analyzed men and women who had risked their lives during World War II to protect Jews hiding from the Nazis. What turned an ordinary bystander into an intrepid defender? “Goodness, like evil, often evolves in small steps,” Staub wrote. “Heroes evolve, they aren’t born. Very often the rescuers made only a small commitment at the start – to hide someone for a day or two. But once they had taken that step, they began to see themselves differently, as someone who helps.”

Indeed, heroes evolve, but they could not evolve if the seed for heroism, for goodness, for transcending our self-interest, had not been planted a long time ago. It is this capacity, this potential to love others more than ourselves, that is our common heritage, waiting like a seed to be watered by the first tender drops of compassion. So it is the obligation of us all, as a society, as communities and as parents, to plant this seed in our children and watch them grow into the leaders of tomorrow. The bounty flowing from our efforts may range from death-defying rescues to daily acts of kindness and wisdom. As for the season of the spring of a man or a woman, the time when each will become a leader of true character, this is the mystery of grace. The seed may bear forth year after year, or it may lie fallow, wedged in a corner of an arid soul. Yet like the seed that lay buried in a sealed urn of a pharaoh’s tomb, the potentiality – the eternal impatience to be born – is there. When the conditions necessary for germination were met some 5,000 years later, the seed bursts forth into life as if it were planted with last year’s crop.

Such is the character and nature of our leaders, as with all humans: complicated, unpredictable, full of potential, and capable of breath-taking heroism and appalling villainy. When we recognize character as a dynamic, unfolding process leading us closer or further away from our true selves, then we’ll recognize that our public figures, like the rest of us, are on a similar journey. To expect flawlessness and perfection is to be stuck at an infantile stage of all-good fairy godmothers and all-bad witches. At the same time, to argue that character doesn’t matter is to embrace the twentieth century’s moral relativism, according to which we are nothing more than a bundle of neurons and chemical responses.

As for the coverage of our public figures, would it not transform our public discourse if, even as we raise legitimate questions about their conduct, we also acknowledge their qualities and contributions? Could we not praise what is praiseworthy at the same time we investigate what needs to be investigated and condemn what should be condemned?

In other words, could we not grow up?

— top of page —