Be careful of your leadership examples

While in attendance at a college event for our son, my wife and I waited in line with other parents and friends before we entered the performance hall. On the walls were pictures of the various graduation speakers at the school. We overheard several people comment on Lance Armstrong as a speaker in 2011 and some wondered aloud if they should take the picture down. Then I started looking at some of the other speakers – Karl Rove in 2010, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in 2008 and President George W. Bush in 2002. I put the years up as I believe the timing is important.

By the time Armstrong spoke, there was evidence that he had misled the public, which he admitted to last month. To be honest, I have always felt he was taking something to improve his performance, as what he accomplished, especially after surviving cancer, was hard to believe. Yet, by the time he spoke to the graduates, there should have been enough question about his veracity to determine whether he was a suitable speaker candidate. Clearly, after his confession last month, these young adults can further discount whatever they remembered from his speech.

The same goes for Karl Rove as a speaker, which occurred in 2010. This is before his public meltdown on Fox News the night of the election, when he would not concede the obvious, that he had wasted hundreds of millions of dollars of key donors who had paid for a GOP win. Yet, at the time of his speech, what did we know about Karl Rove? He is, first and foremost, a master spin doctor and I do not say that as a compliment. He is very good at perfuming pigs in elections. But, that is not enough to discount him as a speaker by itself. Where I have major concerns are two-fold.

First, he was significantly involved with the George W. Bush white house to create a story of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) that led us into war. Second, it was confirmed after Lewis “Scooter” Libby was sent to jail for 30 months and fined $250,000 for leaking the name of Valerie Plame, a CIA agent, to the press, that Rove also leaked the name to Robert Novak, the reporter who broke the story. The whole purpose of the leak was to discredit the name of Plame’s husband and former ambassador Joseph Wilson who had evidence that contradicted a major claim in the WMD assertion. This was in 2006, four years before he was invited to speak at the graduation. Libby went to jail, but Rove did not due to his connections and Libby’s taking the fall earlier.

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas spoke in 2008. To me this was an interesting choice. He has been reasonably quiet on the bench, yet his senate confirmation hearing brought significant theater around his alleged sexual harassment of Anita Hill, a colleague. I found it interesting that two corroborating witnesses, Angela Wright and Rose Jourdain, were not permitted to speak at the hearing. Thomas was confirmed, in part, because he cleverly used the term “high-tech lynching” to imply race was a motivating factor. But, Hill is African-American. I also found it amusing when it was reported that Thomas’ wife left a voicemail message on Hill’s answering machine a couple of years ago saying Hill should apologize for her role in trying to discredit her husband years before. Hill’s reaction was why should I apologize? Now, I am not saying he did or did not harass Hill, but if the students had googled Thomas, this story would pop up which would lead them to question his selection as a speaker.

President Bush spoke in 2002, so it was quite a coup to get a sitting President to speak. We would not find out until later that his presidency would not be one that is held up as one of the best presidencies. A study by presidential scholars I once saw referenced rated him closer to the bottom of the list. The fact he was not invited to either of the last two GOP conventions gives you evidence of what his own party thinks of his efforts. However, unlike the three above, who had questionable qualifications when they spoke, the President was a very reasonable choice at the time. He would only prove disappointing at a later date.

The college has had many great  leaders speak at graduation and they should be given due credit. Of the ones I note above, the person that gives me the most pause (at the time he spoke) is Rove. I personally find him representative of what is wrong with politics. His track record is not enviable in my mind as a leader, so I would not think of him as someone who should be an example to our young adults. His main talent is to obfuscate the facts and sell you a story. That is not true leadership. That is Machiavellian.

I know the graduating students probably do not remember much about the speakers unless they are really famous. They probably remember little, if anything, of what they say. Yet, as a parent, I do think it is important to vet the speakers to make sure they are as good as advertised. They are supposed to be examples of leadership or someone who had done something extraordinary through effort. So, two years from now, if one of the grads remembers when asked that Karl Rove was the speaker, the asker will likely note, “Wasn’t he the guy that had the melt down on TV on election night?” The response should be “Yes, but he was much worse than that.” And, that is a shame.

9 thoughts on “Be careful of your leadership examples

  1. Thank you, this is a wonderful post. My wife and I often discuss supposed famous individuals, and we are amazed at the number of times “flash” wins out over “substance.” I can think of many individuals in 2010 (Rove) and 2011 (Armstrong) who would have made much better speakers and role models. But they lacked the public image, versus the person who actually gets things done, who lives by a moral code, and whose ethics are above reproach.

    Why wasn’t someone like Colin Powell, who lives by a code of ethics, speaking in 2011?

    Another question we also discuss is how can some of these people really stand up in front of a young audience, presenting themselves as role models? It’s pretty well accepted that Anita Hill was correct, and Thomas was ramrodded through the process. Rove certainly has never been burdened by scruples, so I’m pretty sure these two guys sleep well at night. But someone like Armstrong, who was held up as a winner who beat the odds of cancer and 7 bike tournaments?

    Should not the parents, obvious supporters of this institution, be asking exactly who is on the choosing committee and “What were they thinking!”

    We humans as a mass constantly amaze me, at our continuing lower standards, and our dumbing down to the lowest common denominator.

    Thanks for sharing

    • I agree. I would have love to be in the audience and been able to ask a question of Rove, in particular. I just don’t see why anyone would put him up as a good example.

  2. Finding candidates that might have a positive influence on graduates is surely a difficult task; there seems to be a strong chance that skeletons will appear – or dirty laundry aired -somewhere down the road. It must feel a bit like a game of hot potato!

    • Agreed. I was thinking of Bill Clinton after I wrote this. He has done a lot of good, but was a womanizer. Monica Lewinsky was just one of his peccadillos (if I spelled that right). Everyone has warts. I remember the example of one person who has done a lot of good (I can’t recall his name), but he wanted to introduce himself. So, he told the audience not of his accomplishments, but his faults. It made them realize we are imperfect, but we can still accomplish good things. Thanks for writing, BTG

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