John Edwards' Biggest Mistake Was Lack Of Accountability, A Fatal Flaw For Leaders

When leaders, especially high-profile ones, crash and burn, lack of accountability is often the reason—just ask John Edwards. And it could happen to any of us if we’re not careful. Ask yourself these questions to make sure your leadership "check engine" light is working.

On PBS, the Edwardian drama Downton Abbey has transported millions of viewers to the Yorkshire countryside of a century ago. These days, my hometown of Greensboro, N.C. is hosting an Edwards-ian drama of our own—one that, thankfully, is winding down.

The former U.S. senator and two-time presidential candidate John Edwards was acquitted yesterday on one count of campaign finance fraud and conspiracy; the jury could not come to agreement on five other counts. Edwards had been accused of violating campaign finance laws in connection with nearly $1 million in donations from Texas trial lawyer Fred Baron and heiress Rachel "Bunny" Mellon.

For those of you who have managed to ignore this sordid story, here’s a brief recap. Edwards allegedly used the money to hide his affair with videographer Rielle Hunter while his wife, Elizabeth, was dying of cancer. After first denying it, Edwards admitted to conceiving a baby with Hunter in 2007. He apparently directed the money to staff member Andrew Young and convinced him to claim paternity of the baby. He then sent Young, his wife Cheri, and Hunter into exile in 2008, hoping things would cool off.

The tawdry details of Edwards’ case were played out in the F. Richardson Preyer Federal Building and Court House, which is, in my opinion, Greensboro’s most uninviting building. Constructed in the 1930s, the blocky Art Deco style, stark limestone façade, and narrow windows say, "This is a serious building, for serious people doing serious things. Now empty the contents of your pockets into the bins."

Last week I went downtown to meet a friend for lunch. While searching for a parking place near the courthouse, I saw Edwards, accompanied by his daughter, parents, and defense team, trot up the front steps of the courthouse while being pursued by a pack of media people. Some lugged TV cameras and several others reached over the pack with those big boom mikes, hoping to catch something on record.

I, by contrast, don’t have much interest in the outcome of the trial. And I find it hard to have much sympathy for Edwards, a former trial lawyer who made millions in medical malpractice.

Here’s my take: John Edwards made a mistake. And I’m not even talking about all the obvious ones. I’m talking about the moment he decided he was accountable to no one. When leaders, especially high-profile ones, crash and burn, lack of accountability is often the fatal flaw. Being accountable for our behavior (and its impact) is a cornerstone of leadership. Yet, time and time again leaders consider themselves immune to the rules. They believe they are too big to fall. And it could happen to any of us if we’re not careful.

Is your leadership "check engine" light on? Ask yourself these questions:

1. Are you above the rules? During the Edwards trial, the prosecution showed a 2008 Nightline interview in which Edwards told Bob Woodruff that the affair with Hunter was the result of "a narcissism that leads you to believe you can do whatever you want. You’re invincible and there will be no consequences."

2. Do you think others will cover for you? Edwards thought that his flunky Andrew Young would help him pull off his deception. When Edwards funneled the money to Young, he allegedly skimmed off $800,000 to build himself a house, buy jewelry for his wife, and pay for porcelain crown veneers. He also wrote a damning, tell-all book about what it was like working for Edwards.

3. Do you think you’re a star? In our culture, a handsome, high-profile presidential candidate like Edwards can’t avoid being treated like a celebrity. It’s how he saw himself that caused problems. Studies have found that this elevation of status makes some people feel they have greater permission to violate codes of conduct.

4. Will the truth be a problem? This question, which is one of my favorite guiding principles, did not come from a leadership guru. Instead, it was a question that a friend’s father would ask whenever he wanted to help his son make decisions—especially those that fell into the gray area between truth and lie. In Edwards’ case, would he have made different decisions if he realistically thought he would be hearing everything played back in the courts and the press?

The drama here in Greensboro is on its way out. In the meantime, where’s Downton Abbey when you need it?

Craig Chappelow, who specializes in 360-degree feedback and the development of effective senior executive teams, is a portfolio manager at the Center for Creative Leadership (www.ccl.org), a top-ranked, global provider of leadership education and research.

[Image: Flickr user Martin Gommel]

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3 Comments

  • Khay Henry

    Hi Craig!

    Great article on leadership accountability. I am surprised no one else as commented on this. I am currently enrolled in the MSOL program at Mercy College. This article will help me when writing my case study this month. Thanks for sharing your leadership knowledge with Fast Company. I look forward to reading more of your posts in the future.

    -Khay Henry

  • Bud Thompson

    The problem here is that Edwards WAS accountable...to his wife, Elizabeth, and to his supporters. He got in legal trouble by trying the deceive the folks to whom he was accountable. Mistakes in these cases are usually legal. The lies to cover them up can be crimes.

  • Michael Martel

    Nice points. I believe that Edwards greatest problem is that he didn't see a problem.  Complete lack of morals and self reflection...and not to mention the utter audacity to think you can run for President of the United States and keep a mistress and love child quiet. For someone who thought himself as smart, this was dumb, dumb, dumb.