Money, Sex and Power

"Fame or Self: Which matters more? Self or Wealth: Which is more precious? Gain or Loss: Which is more painful? He who is attached to things will suffer much." — Lao Tzu

Tiger Woods, enough already! I'm not interested in the 100 graphic text messages that Tiger sent to the porn star he was seeing on the side.

I'm also not interested in John Edward's love child, Sandra Bullock's philandering husband, or whom David Letterman is sleeping with from his writing staff.

What I am concerned about is the culture of entitlement that often accompanies success. Over the years, it has been the most consistent and predictable cause of the demise of talented leaders.

"Success has ruined many a man," wrote Benjamin Franklin. Not much has changed in a couple of hundred years it seems. From former President Bill Clinton to Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi, successful people seem to believe that they can make the rules.

The Shadow

In its purest form success is the recognition that an outcome has been produced that matches or exceeds the intent that was its source. As such, success is benign.

But success also carries a shadow side, as Benjamin Franklin noted. Its ability to "cause ruin" lies in its tendency to kindle hubris, the dangerous delusion that one's own competence and capabilities provide exemption from ethical standards.

Money, sex and power are the three perquisites that come with success. They also happen to be the most corrupting influences when character development lags behind talent.

The misuse of money was at the heart of the financial meltdown last year; sexual impropriety and the cover-up that ensued could sink the Catholic Church; and abuse of power by the United States and Canadian military in handling detainees have all commanded the headlines in the past two years.

For public figures like Tiger Woods, the temptation to bend ethical guidelines led to a painful personal crisis and an embarrassing public scandal. Wood's own words provide insight into the narcissistic rationalization that can overtake the most talented amongst us:

"I stopped living by the core values that I was taught to believe in. I knew my actions were wrong, but I convinced myself that normal rules didn't apply. I never thought about who I was hurting. Instead, I thought only about myself. I ran straight through the boundaries that a married couple should live by. I thought I could get away with whatever I wanted to. I felt that I had worked hard my entire life and deserved to enjoy all the temptations around me. I felt I was entitled. Thanks to money and fame, I didn't have to go far to find them."

John Edwards, David Letterman, Eliot Spitzer, Letterman, Mark Sanford and Jesse James didn't have to go far either.

The Public Trust

It is little wonder that public trust in leaders and institutions sits at record lows. The Harris Poll measures confidence levels of the American public in leaders of major U.S. institutions. The numbers are quite revealing. Harris reports, "...almost half of Americans have hardly any confidence at all in leaders of both Congress and Wall Street."

Rounding out the list of institutions that inspire the least confidence are organized labor, the press, and law firms. The Catholic Church’s response to sexual impropriety by the clergy is sure to garner a dramatic decline in next year's poll numbers.

Transformational leaders recognize that corruption comes when talent is not balanced by character. Setting a personal standard of ethical conduct is critical to walking the fine line between success and the temptation to make or bend the rules.

Transformational leaders must be prepared to sacrifice indulgences, character flaws, and bad habits that interfere with the ability to see clearly and act impeccably. They must be willing to occupy higher ground and hold that ground in the face of worldly temptations. Self-interest and self-centeredness is not the domain of leadership.


Sacrifice is an ancient practice associated with values. We tend to associate the notion of sacrifice with religion but that is only one aspect of its meaning. A sacrifice is ritual of dedication, where we announce the principles by which we choose to live.

Acting from principle rather than entitlement is the way of the transformational leader. That is how public trust is earned. That is how leaders avoid the traps of vanity, pride and entitlement. This is how trust is regained where it has been lost.

Let's stop feeding the tabloids with accounts of the bad behavior of our leaders and start a new era of principled conduct.

Posted on April 1, 2010 .