Some time ago I heard David Brooks comment that the American public pays way too much attention to human foibles. And in an astute Journal article, Joe Queenan argued the same case. The Obama impeachment fantasy is another case in point.
I learned years ago that paying much attention to a politician's foibles, especially when the person was near genius policy-wise, and the country needed his or her expertise, was often a horrible waste. Richard Nixon, a documented dissembler, eventually had to go because of the Watergate Scandal, yet his contributions to international relations are among the greatest of the 20th century: successfully negotiated a cease-fire with Vietnam, opened the People's Republic of China and initiated detente with the Soviet Union.
In my mind, significant expertise that benefits the the public community usually trumps personal foibles. Inevitably, therefore, I had no difficulty admitting that Bill Clinton was a sexual jerk with a zipper problem. And as far as I was concerned, that was his problem, not worthy of censure, impeachment or discussion. His expertise in many areas of national importance was impeccable--and the nation as a whole would have been better off if Clinton's sexual peccadilloes had been ignored. As David Gergen, advisor to three Republican presidents, has since pointed out--on many policy issues Clinton was a genius. Gergen points specifically to ...
A few years ago, Joe Queenan published an article which he entitled, In Praise of Transgressions, and romped through the manipulations of Wall Street bankers and the failings of politicians and sports heroes. Queenan suggests that the attention to unseemliness is overwrought, that the attention to human foibles is more therapeutic for the American public than useful, and that we all need to lighten up. That's especially applicable to the noise and fantasies about impreaching President Obama.
I keep thinking about the lost intelligence of numerous political figures (whatever the party) merely because of their unique and sometimes questionable or offensive pecadilloes. When the article was written, I was warmed that Tim Geithner was slipped in before his personal tax foibles became public. Geithner, for example, had an exceptional understanding of macro-economic systems and economic policy--a set of skills perhaps irreplaceable. The loss of Geithner would have left a significant void in national decisionmaking expertise and likely put our economy in a still more difficult position. Having recently finished his exceptional biography I am even more happy that he beat the odds about his tax failures.
Queenan reminds us of our lack of proportion and balance, when he recounts how Reagan proved long ago that that "you could get them (the public) to blow their stacks by recounting a dubious anecdote about some conscienceless welfare queen on the south side of Chicago who was jobbing the public out of a few grand." Research on personal bias consistently demonstrates that we are readily misled by vivid, dramatic accounts resulting in conclusions and behaviors that thoughtful consideration would reject.
I remember a hilarious episode of Boston Legal, when Alan Shore educates Denny Crane on the vicissitudes of Schadenfreude--the human tendency to take spiteful, malicious delight in the misfortune of others. But Schadenfreude, as Alan rightly tells Denny, is much, much more than that. A Stanford professor has shown that when we see others fail, it sometimes causes a chemical to be released in the brain which actually causes us to feel pleasure.
In other words, we can be made suckers by the foibles of others. My point is that it's easy to get waylaid by vivid, emotionally frustrating depictions of people. The opportunities for ranting about human foibles will never go away. Nearly every business has dissemblers, womanizers--and the same of the female sex, those with questionable financial ethics and narcissistic manipulators. One of my most capable IT clients was a known womanizer--inevitably consensual. Knowing that it was probably impossible to stop the problem, I suggested that he select women from outside the company. Shockingly, he followed my suggestion and lasted a year longer in the firm than otherwise expected.
To be candid--and blunt--the notion that honest people behave honestly, and dishonest people behave dishonestly, has been shown to be consistently false. We all commit our own foibles. Recognition of this makes it possible for us to be more tolerant and compassionate for our own errors. And that recognition can be liberating, enabling us to focus in laser fashion on our own values and priorities.
And so, like Queenan, I believe that our work world--and we also--will be much better off if we lighten up on the foibles of others. When we see industries crumble, infrastructure problems ignored, and jobs limited to certain experienced folk (an often nonsensical approach to recruiting) we need to stay focused on our own careers and the overarching work priorities. It ought to be clear that we have enough requiring our attention--complex business problems needing resolution, and processes mandating the invention of new solutions--without getting caught up in malicious delight over the actions of others--ethical or otherwise.
FOIBLE: a shortcoming in personal character or behavior