by Gael O’Brien
For some leaders whose lives are upended by an ethical failure, the GPS to redemption can grind through long distances of rough terrain before it reaches milestones that help restore trust. For others, repairing reputation and having a successful second act come faster. The key to both courses is how leaders avoid falling into the same traps they did before.
The latest high-profile seeker of rehabilitated reputation is former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) who this week, nearly two years after resigning over inappropriately sexual social media behavior and lying to cover it up, is testing the waters for a second chance. In a lengthy interview in the April 14 New York Times Magazine he discusses how he processed his actions, his work to repair damages, and his future.
Weiner acknowledges in the article that he’s spent $100,000 on polling to gauge his voter appeal if he were to run in this November’s New York City’s mayor’s race, a job he wanted before he lost public trust. Poll results so far indicate New Yorkers relegate him, not surprisingly, to underdog status. While personality and likeability quotients often influence the speed of re-established trust, achieving that goal usually requires more than now-familiar time-worn apologies for outrageous behavior, some of which Mr. Weiner tearfully offers in his interview.
So if Mr. Weiner is open to advice, I’d suggest he embark on the comeback trail by examining one of the well-travelled routes, and offer three for consideration. They offer varying lessons in what works and what doesn’t.
Route 1, a stretch of hard work and determination, was taken by Martha Stewart in her climb back to power from an insider trading conviction and five months in prison in 2005. She left prison wearing a poncho crocheted by a fellow inmate, symbolic apparently of changes she had undergone, and worked unremittingly to build back up her company and brand. However, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia‘s falling stock price in recent years, Stewart’s own rising compensation, and the legal battle she is fighting with Macy’s over alleged contract violations remind us that to be sustained, comeback requires sustained trust.
Stewart’s route is all about will and determination; the focus is on promoting the company and herself, with the corporate brand and her personality wrapped up all in one. Those were the origins of the company, so it’s difficult to unravel now. But one doesn’t sense any higher purpose here, either corporately or personally. So issues like what she’s paid, and whether she’s been ethical in dealing with business partners, become reputational road hazards for her as well as the company. If Stewart loses trust, so does her company.
Route 2 involves bridging to good works, a route taken by Michael Milken in his transformation from personifying the Wall Street greed of the 1980s (and doing jail time for securities fraud) to emerging as a leading philanthropist. He has founded two think tanks, two foundations, an alliance, scholarship program and other programs to advance his priorities of medical research, education and economic issues. Denied his request for a presidential pardon by Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, his pursuit of redemption remains a work in progress including having others minimize his guilt — his website biography has a separate page citing 20 sources disputing his crimes and prosecution. But once you’ve been in the cross-hairs of aggressive law enforcement, it’s difficult to escape: according to a Fortune Magazine report, the Securities and Exchange Commission has its eye on Milken and is investigating if anything in his relationship with Guggenheim Partners violates the lifetime ban from the securities industry in his 1990 SEC settlement.
Milken does good works and he has a purpose that fits closely what he self-references. Diagnosed years ago with prostate cancer, he established a foundation focused on that disease and accelerating research on fatal diseases. The Milken Institute takes on subjects such as leadership, the economy, health care and the environment. Like Stewart, clearing his name is important to Milken. But unlike her, he aims to regain trust through work that benefits society. He is admired by many who’ve been impacted and reviled by others who remember that his success financially came at the detriment of a financial system which continues to suffer from a lack of trust even today. The challenge for more ordinary folk looking to make a comeback: good works often have a big impact, but they can require a huge personal fortune.
Route 3 takes the overpass to higher purpose which allows the failings of an individual to be eclipsed by the scale and impact of what is being attempted by large numbers of people in service of the world. It is the route former President Clinton took after his perjury in the Lewinsky affair resulted in a vote to impeach him. In its eighth year, the non-partisan Clinton Global Initiative, a program of the Clinton Foundation, has led to more than 2,300 commitments involving 400 million people in 180 countries “to create and implement innovative solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges.”
The pre-requisite for this choice is huge sense of purpose that drives an agenda. While that’s made easier, of course, when you’re the former leader of the Western world as opposed to, say, a former Congressman from Queens, N.Y., leaders of small organizations that possess huge heart and purpose engaging followers can also have disproportional impact. Clinton empowers and brings great minds and committedly passionate people together to innovate and seek social change globally. If the former President were to be in another scandal, funding efforts might suffer but the work of the initiative might very well continue because he has built an organization with so many others now involved. The Clinton Foundation clearly feeds Mr. Clinton’s ego – but the very clear higher purpose transcends any one ego.
So which route might Mr. Weiner take? It’s difficult to say. His comments in the Times interview suggest a search for validation, wanting to know he has a second chance but not yet committed to fighting for it, a very different playing field from those from which Clinton, Milken, and Stewart launched their efforts. Leadership is ultimately about giving people a reason to follow you. It speaks to purpose. Weiner’s comeback trail will depend on it.
I’m reminded of a question Weiner asked BP America’s then-president and chairman Lamar McKay (now BP’s “chief executive, Upstream”) during the 2010 U.S. House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing on the Gulf Oil Spill and Drilling Safety. In grilling McKay, he asked, “What have you done to establish credibility?”
Whichever route Weiner takes in his comeback, he would do well also to direct that question to himself.
Photo by Center for American Progress Action Fund, via Flickr.
Gael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is a consultant, executive coach, and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes the The Week in Ethics and is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine