How Do We Judge Our Leaders?


A few years ago I was asked by one of my friends to go see an art collection with him and afterward I would give him my reflection on the pieces for when he wrote his review of the exhibit. I wasn’t a big art person and I hadn’t spent a lot of time in DC, so I figured it was a good opportunity to get out of my dorm room and become slightly more cultured. So we traveled down to the District one afternoon and made our way over to the National Museum of African Art to see the collection. When my friend interviewed me about it after the fact, I said that the art itself was decent, but there was nothing that really blew me away.

His story never got published. Why? Well, the collection had a celebrity attached to it who became much more controversial after we saw this exhibit. That celebrity was Bill Cosby. In the few weeks between when we went to the exhibit and when his story was supposed to be published, the number of Cosby accusers went from a handful to dozens and dozens.

In our debriefing, my friend had asked me if the accusations against Cosby had affected the way I looked at the collection and, to be frank, I said it didn’t have that much of an effect. However, the news that has come out since then has made me wonder how I would have looked at it if I had known about those other accusers.

When we look back on history, we tend to ignore the good in some individuals and emphasize the good in others to fit a certain narrative. We overlook the fact that President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus rights and ruled by martial law during the Civil War because he freed the slaves and kept the Union together. We ignore the fact that President Nixon put in place a lot of important environmental regulations because he also spied on his political opponents and covered it up. Applying this to our modern era requires us to think differently by removing the veil of history and realistically consider what characteristics and conduct we want to embrace for our leaders.  

Here’s the way that I look at it: It’s not about the person, it’s about their qualities, their values, and their morals. I don’t see people as a strictly negative or a strictly positive influence on others, it is much more complicated than that. Allen Iverson can be respected for the effort he put into his on the court basketball game without us having to agree with the way he handled his finances off the court. I can appreciate George Clooney as an actor and disagree with him about politics.I also try not to label people with an -ism or an -ist based a small number of actions. For me, a person who has done a couple sexist actions is not necessarily a sexist. If those type of actions become a pattern of behavior, then I might be more likely to put an -ist label on a person.

We all have an idea of certain ideologies or actions that should not be tolerated, but context is important. Some things (murder, rape, and child abuse) should be universally intolerable, but others can be seen differently depending on what society they come from. I can overlook if George Washington wasn’t accepting of homosexual marriage because society as a whole at that time was not open to any sort of homosexual conduct, but there is no context that can forgive Joseph Stalin killing his political dissidents. It is often difficult for us to look at the actions of historical figures compared to modern society, but it’s important to remember how the culture has changed.

In the United States, many historical figures are criticized now for not advocating for the immediate end of slavery. Even President Lincoln did not advocate for an immediate end to slavery until a couple years into his presidency. But we need to remember that sometimes being a leader means tolerating certain things to push towards a goal and sometimes you have to wait a while to get to that goal. For United States Presidents, they had to wait for a while before the culture evolved and the political situation changed before they could wipe away the institution of slavery from the country.

The most important value I look for in a leader is honesty. If a person remains honest in the way they conduct themselves and the things that they say, then I can give some wiggle room if they step out of line. The moment that a person deceives us, they lose credibility for any future actions they take. George H. W. Bush likely lost his re-election bid when he reneged on his promise of “Read my lips, no new taxes” by actually introducing new taxes.

Looking back, I might have been wrong about Bill Cosby, but it doesn’t mean that my reasoning was unjustified. I have a deep respect for the judicial fact finding process and that a person is innocent until proven guilty and when a couple of accusers come out into the open, I tend to give the accussee the benefit of the doubt until the process is finished. However, when it became many accusers, the odds that none of the claims were legitimate shrunk significantly, so I looked at the situation in a different way.

So, let’s remember a few things when looking at our leaders, influencers, and heroes. People should be judged based on their actions as a whole, not by a label someone else gave to them. When looking at the past, context is incredibly important. All of us should hold certain values that should be applied equitably based on the context. Sometimes the standards we use need to be adapted when considering the impact of people beyond the culture in which that person lived.


What characteristics are important for your leaders? Leave a comment and let me know. If you like this, share with your friends, family, roommates, pets, acquaintances, colleagues, or anybody you know who can read and can access the internet.

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