I may be one of the few folks in our area who watched, on live TV, the McCarthy, Nixon, and Trump hearings. There are some interesting comparisons between and among these powerful political leaders and their close advisors.
As a cadet at West Point, I watched the McCarthy hearings in 1953. I was in the hospital and a black and white TV was at the far end of my ward.
Twenty years later, I watched intently many of the 1973 Watergate hearings.
Within the past couple of weeks, the January 6 hearings have caught my full attention.
In the 1953, 1973, and 2022 hearings, there are similar circumstances. McCarthy, Nixon, and Trump all had close advisors who supported many of their flawed positions. With Joseph McCarthy, it was Roy Cohn; with Richard Nixon, it was Ehrlichman and Haldeman; with Donald Trump, it was Rudy Giuliani, John Eastman, and, at times, Mark Meadows.
So what are the lessons from this sycophancy phenomenon?
- If you work close at hand for flawed bosses, do your best to constrain them when they want to pursue a really bad idea. The example with Nixon was John Dean; with Trump, it was Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper (I don’t know of a good example with Senator McCarthy). This requires a delicate balancing act. If you resist too much, you will get fired. If you resist too little and hang around too long, you may end up in jail (examples—Haldeman and Ehrlichman).
2. Analyze bosses carefully and figure out ways to constrain them. A good example is President Trump. In a meeting in the White House on January 3rd, 2021, Trump declared that he planned to replace acting Attorney General, Jeff Rosen with a totally unqualified attorney, Jeff Clark. Trump was warned by his counsel, Pat Cipollone that the top tier of the Justice Department would resign if he made this move. Trump listened to this advice, did the smart thing, and kept Rosen on.
- If your boss’s lack of integrity makes you lose sleep at night, seriously consider quitting. My best example occurred when I resigned from CNN in 1998. When a flawed boss produced a dishonest TV special (the Valley of Death) and would not issue a retraction, I quit and went public with my outrage.
- Before joining an organization, ask these two questions. Is the top boss someone of high integrity? Does this organization have safeguards against dishonest activity: Ethics training, leadership training, and an ombudsman?
- No matter how attractive the job may be, do not join an unethical organization.
A final note: Everyone in this article is flawed—including the author.
Perry Smith’s book, Rules, and Tools for Leaders has chapters on integrity and on how to deal with bosses. The third edition of this book reached #2 on the amazon.com best seller list. It is now in its 4thedition. Smith’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.