I just finished reading a fascinating new biography of one of the most complex leaders of our century - Richard Nixon. (Being Nixon: A man divided). Not only was he a "man divided" between who he wanted to be and who he was, but he could never bring his divided self into alignment, and that was his ultimate downfall. It reminded me of many leaders who have imploded for the very same reasons. 

There are some lessons to be learned from the Nixon story for any in leadership.

First, he was essentially a man without true close friendships, and that left him without people who were willing to tell him the truth. It is a fatal flaw. Three weeks before he resigned, George Bush, the senior, wrote a perceptive letter to his four sons in which he said this about Nixon. "He has enormous hang-ups. He is unable to get close to people. It's almost as if he's afraid to be reamed in some way - people who respect him and want to be his friends get only so close - and then it is clear - no more (p. 520)." The first time Nixon shook Haldeman's hand was the day Haldeman resigned! In addition, if you listen to the Nixon tapes, it is clear that those around him, with very few exceptions, did not tell him the truth but what he wanted to hear. 

Leaders who don't forge close friendships with others eventually get themselves into trouble. Nixon's presidency was called the "imperial presidency." Leaders can become "imperial leaders" when they shut out other people.

Second, Nixon "resisted self-analysis." He told Frank Gannon that "I've never believed that any individual can analyze themselves (p. 529). In some senses, this is a true statement which is why deep and meaningful friendships are so important. But at the same time, this lack of self-analysis kept him from learning the hard lessons that suffering and setbacks can bring. Rather than learn from them, he plunged headlong into even greater leadership stupidity, lies, and scheming. "Nixon's tragedy was that he did not gain wisdom, at least about himself, from suffering - certainly, not until it was too late to save his presidency (p. 530)."  

Third, Nixon, when he was in a reflective mood, and especially when facing adversity, would know who he wanted to be but was unable to translate that view of himself into reality. At the end of his first year in office, he wrote one of a series of lists about who he wanted to be: "Excitement - joy in the job - sharing, lift the spirit of people, Pithy, Brevity, Statesmanship, Honesty, Candor, Consideration for subordinates, Concern for people, Vitality and so on (p. 245)." Yet these were the opposite of who he usually was, as evidenced by the Nixon Tapes, and he was not able to integrate his desired self into his real self. 

This is why leaders get into trouble. They focus so much on their leadership and too little on their personal lives, which directly impacts their leadership. The very things that brought this brilliant leader down were issues that emanated from his inner life, where he was unable to tame the demons that haunted him.

Fourth, Nixon was deeply insecure, and that insecurity drove him to resist close friendships, hear or deliver bad news, and caused him to divide people into those who were on his side and those who were not. With Nixon and other leaders I have met, people were either friends or enemies.

Insecurity is one of the most vicious enemies of good leadership. It is why I have chosen to live by the value that I have nothing to prove and nothing to lose, and nothing to hide. When we are putting our energy into proving our worth, proving we are right, and guarding our pride, we say and do things that are destructive. Ultimately insecurity is about our own pride and lack of humility.

What struck me about this book is that any of us are vulnerable to these four leadership issues. It is also why I believe that the inner life of a leader is of so much importance. It is our inner lives that make or break our leadership. Whatever is inside is what flows into our leadership decisions, attitudes, thinking, and values. 

I do not take anything away from what Nixon accomplished, but ultimately his accomplishments are overshadowed by his untamed demons.

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  • Jul 12, 2015
  • Category: News
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