March 11, 2008

The Spitzer Affair

The shocking news of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer´s liaison arranged by a prostitution ring offers yet another tragic example of how powerful leaders get so caught up in their egos that they lose sight of their True North.

Governor Spitzer should resign immediately and save himself the embarrassment of being forced from office. He has violated the public trust he was elected to uphold. As an aggressive pursuer of wrong-doers on Wall Street and in the corporate world, Spitzer has no justification for attempting to hold others to a higher standard than he holds himself.

Back in 2004, Spitzer spoke with revulsion when he announced the arrest of sixteen people operating out of Staten Island. He said then, “This sophisticated and lucrative operation with a multi-tiered management structure was, however, nothing more than a prostitution ring.”

How carefully did he check out the prostitution firm he hired to provide a call girl to take the train to Washington to meet him in his suite at the Mayflower Hotel? Might this firm have been run by shady operators who could have blackmailed him in exchange for favors or contracts from the State of New York?

The experience of John Whitehead, the former head of Goldman Sachs who was running the Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Commission, typifies Spitzer´s aggressive tactics in attacking other leaders. Two years ago, Spitzer personally attacked Whitehead for writing an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. The op-ed criticized Spitzer for accusing Hank Greenberg, who was chairman and CEO of AIG at the time, of being a crook, without bringing charges against him. According to Whitehead, Spitzer called him that same afternoon and said, “You and I are now at war. You have shot the first bullet, but I will shoot the last one. You will regret that you ever wrote that article. I am coming after you.”

One disappointing reaction to this tragedy comes from Senator Hillary Clinton, who seems ever mindful of placing political calculations ahead of her principles. When asked about the sex scandal threatening her political ally, Clinton carefully sidestepped questions. “I don’t have any comment on that,” she said. “Obviously, I am sending my best wishes and thoughts to the governor and to his family.”

Spitzer did many good things as Attorney General and Governor of New York, but they do not excuse his behavior. What happened to this 48-year-old rising star, who seemed to have the perfect home life? None of us will ever know the secrets of his heart or the lust that dominated his emotions. What is evident that he lost sight of his True North – the values and principles he has lived with throughout his life – and was seduced by his power and the apparent thrill of pushing the limits. As a result, he abandoned his judgment and lost his bearings.

This is indeed a sad situation for Governor Spitzer, for his family, and for the people of New York who voted to give him their trust. Hopefully, he will recover in the future to contribute his enormous skills to society – a wiser and better grounded person.

Elected leaders in the public sector and in the world of business have a special responsibility to uphold the trust placed in them. They are – or should be – role models of behavior that the rest of society can admire and emulate. Of course, leaders have failings and weaknesses, just like the rest of us. All of us make mistakes. However, this does not excuse the violation of the public trust that characterizes the Spitzer affair.

As citizens, we deserve better, much better, from our elected leaders. If is our responsibility, with the support of the media, to make a closer examination of the character of our leaders before they are given the power and to assess how well they practice their values. Surely, character is a lot more important test than the promises they make or the images they create.