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What We Can Learn About Leadership from Cuomo’s Resignation

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Written by Melissa Wheeler and Sylvia Gray.

The public expects more ethical and responsible leadership, now more than ever.

Key points:

  • New York Governor Andrew Cuomo resigns after an investigation revealed inappropriate misconduct.
  • Scandals such as this capture the public’s attention and erode trust in leaders, as evidenced by global public opinion polls.
  • Public trust is low but can be restored if leaders focus on accountability and are driven by a sense of purpose.

Leaders’ decisions and actions take place in the public arena, where laudable actions are applauded and scandals have consequences. Turn on the news any day, and you’ll see a new example of a corporate leader or government official whose missteps have led to public scrutiny and, in some, cases, forced resignations and or criminal investigations.

This week in the spotlight was New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation from office following allegations of sexual harassment against the former governor. Cuomo’s initial response to these allegations was delayed, and his strategy was one of denial, rationalizing that the women who made allegations were misinterpreting his behaviors and intentions. In an attempt to explain, Cuomo created a montage of photographed interactions of him kissing and touching a variety of people of different genders, ages, and cultural backgrounds, which was not well received. Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul will replace Cuomo, becoming the first female governor in the state of New York.

Why do such scandals grab the public eye?

Misconduct and corruption might resonate quite strongly with people who are feeling let down by their leaders. The public has certain expectations of its leaders. The public grants a political leader power to make decisions, to hold office, and to represent their needs – which confers many advantages to that leader, including reach, influence, and power. Public opinion surveys highlight the eroding trust in government, as seen in Pew Research Center’s Public Trust in Government poll, where less than one-quarter of Americans believe they can trust the government to do what is right “just about always” or “most of the time.” This dissatisfaction is a reflection of the high standards the public expects of its leaders. Public opinion surveys around the globe, including the Australian Leadership Index, continually show that people expect responsible leadership, including accountability and ethicality.

In return for appointing and following leaders, the public wants to feel protected, to be heard, and to be treated fairly. These scandals end with people feeling exploited by their leaders and may include even a sense of being duped for putting loyalty and trust in the wrong individuals. The social contract (expectations of roles of leaders and followers) has been violated in these incidences, further eroding public trust.

How can trust be restored?

When we read about scandals showcasing the misconduct of leaders, relying on hindsight, we can clearly see that something was missing along the way. And that something is a kind of decision-making needed to anticipate ethical challenges and to avoid missteps. We often talk about ethics only in the aftermath of a scandal, but not as a means to evaluate decisions and actions before or as situations unfurl.

Let’s not wait to talk about ethics until the scandal hits – let’s make it part of the conversation when we begin putting plans into place. Leaders can begin to restore trust by asking themselves some basic, but challenging questions: “Who do you want to be?” and “What do you want to contribute?”.

References

Wilson, S., Gray, S., Bednall, T., Pallant, J., Wheeler, M., & Demsar, V. (2021). Australian Leadership Index: 2020 national survey report, Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne. https://doi.org/10.25916/z9h8-sg12.

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