the optics of leadership

Screenshot: In my quarters there was a chromosomatic split: Those who thought a now resigned congressman’s career was salvageable after explicit photos of him rounded the public sphere, and that only any illegal conduct by him ultimately mattered, were mostly men. Those who immediately declared him finished mostly had 2 X chromosomes. And some of them—like me—said it’s all about the pictures and they matter really really hard.

When the story broke, Arianna Huffington called it (the end of the congressman’s House career) with one tweet, in that dark, succinct and characteristic 2 X style in which our finest aunts have ominously murmured when somebody went too far at the church supper.  And unquestionably, it was time to go.

The end of this congressman’s authority and House career was so foregone a conclusion for me, that some male acquaintances’ early protestations to the contrary—primarily because of some “ranking” they envisioned of the congressman’s infraction relative to that of other still-sitting legislators (none of whose foibles, however, had been photographically captured, never mind infinitely digitally disseminated)—made me want to lay it out nicely and prove it. Like a math theorem. Not to “make” one agree, but allow one to hear Aunt Julia—whose voice clearly had not gone off in their heads.  It was mostly with such fellows in mind that I originally wrote in calm consideration of what struck me as more than axiomatic—my earnest explanation that fire is indeed hot:

Leadership is part optics.

In a recently resigned congressman’s story people have talked law, lies, and other still-sitting politicians’ foibles. Unmentioned is how the New York congressman failed the optics test endemic to political leadership:

  • that Obama passed by not being photographed smoking on the campaign;
  • that Bush 1 failed by glancing at his watch during a debate;
  • that a paralyzed FDR passed by “walking” before a troubled country;
  • that frontrunner Nixon failed under television lights in the 1960 debate with Kennedy;
  • that Reagan passed by understanding cameras as an actor and staffing accordingly;
  • and that Gary Hart failed when pictured with a companion.

Knowing (for example that some other politician consummated an extramarital affair) and seeing (for example pictures as in the present case, in absence of such consummation) don’t drive the same optics or outcomes in politics. In court. In sales. In management. Or in courtship. What we see (and don’t see) regularly trumps what we know. Or becomes it. And leaders of duration generally know that.


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