For those who may not have heard, Oregon’s Governor John Kitzhaber recently resigned due to ethics concerns, and today, former Oregon Secretary of State, Kate Brown, was sworn in as the new Governor. In his resignation speech, Kitzhaber said:
“I must also say that it is deeply troubling to me to realize that we have come to a place in the history of this great state of ours where a person can be charged, tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process and no independent verification of the allegations involved. But even more troubling—and on a very personal level as someone who has given 35 years of public service to Oregon—is that so many of my former allies in common cause have been willing to simply accept this judgment at its face value.”
He has a point. In our 24/7 news cycle, rumor and innuendo often become uncontested fact, bypassing investigation. Media, along with its all-too-willing consumers, are quicker and quicker to convict on little concrete evidence.
Nonetheless, Kitzhaber’s fall is a manifestation of one of the traps of the power I’ve written about before. He fell woefully out of touch with the impact his and his fiancee’s behavior caused. This is the result of one of the “trappings of power,” states of mind that keep others out, but also confine us in. In this case, his lengthy tenure—37 years in public service—most likely created a sense of disinhibition coupled with the ease and confidence that comes with having successfully navigated political power dynamics before. He assumed he could contend with whatever came his way.
Before we just point the finger at elected officials, all of us, regardless of rank or stature, have to manage the gap between what we intend to communicate and how it’s received. In a position of power, this becomes even more acute. We’re separated from others by layers and layers of staff, by bureaucracy. Everyone is prone to falling out of touch with the effect they’re having. But leaders—any leaders—by definition, are more upstream from the downstream of their behaviors. They have a harder time seeing how their behavior impacts others; or if they do see it, they can fail to evaluate it properly.
In Kitzhaber’s case, he minimized the severity of the situation. He was annoyed by it—perhaps because, in his mind, he was convinced he didn’t do anything wrong. And that might very well be the case. Kitzhaber thought this was a minor disturbance that would blow over, and he was caught completely by surprise by how it grew in intensity, until one day he looked around and found out he was alone. His advisors, his allies in the Capitol: everyone wanted him to resign. It’s just one example of how easy it is for a leader—or for any of us —to under-estimate the impact we’re having. To paraphrase one of my favorite theorists, Paul Watzlawick, we cannot not influence others. The lesson for us to master is to know what it is and what it’s impact is.