Political types will undoubtedly see Hillary Clinton’s response to Diane Sawyer’s question about her and Bill Clinton’s wealth as either genuine or tone deaf, depending on whether they lean left or right. I see it very differently.
First, it struck me as whining about the financial struggles that came entirely as a result of legal debt from their various scandals. Regardless of whether the investigations and proceedings they had to defend against were politically motivated or legitimate, when you attain the highest political office in the land, it sort of comes with the territory.
That’s why leaders should never complain about having to deal with the repercussions of their own actions. It comes across as unjust and unfair when, of course, it’s neither. Better still, leaders simply shouldn’t whine. Period.
Second, the tired and trite platitude “Bill has worked really hard” just made Clinton sound apologetic about her husband’s enormous success and unduly modest about her own. Granted, humility is a good quality in powerful leaders, but it has to be genuine to be effective. It did not come across as genuine. It sounded like an excuse.
Leaders should never apologize for working hard every day of their lives, achieving great things, and making a fortune in the process. That’s called the American Dream. You should apologize when you’ve done something wrong, not when you’ve achieved great things and, as a result, can legitimately command six-figure speaking fees.
I guess this is the new face of leadership in America. Not to hang this entirely around Hillary’s neck or overreach on the basis of a single interview. Clinton’s rhetoric is just the most recent data point in a long-term cultural change: if you make lots of money, you have to find a way to spin it so you don’t appear to be part of the growing income inequality problem.
Not to sound overly cynical, but this latest installment of politically correct nonsense does set up a bizarre sort of challenge – a dichotomy, if you will – for business and political leaders. On the one hand, everyone wants to rule their own destiny, be remarkably successful, and make lots of money. That is, after all, the essence of capitalism.
But if you work your tail off and somehow manage to achieve those lofty goals, you have to feel or at least appear to feel guilty about it. So if your success presents some challenges – say, millions in legal bills, expensive mortgages, and Ivy League educations for your kids – then play the victim with a little diversionary tactic like, “don’t look at that $100 million bank account over there; look at all these expenses over here.”
There’s also a significant PR challenge for rich and powerful leaders to somehow come across as poor and miserable. The problem, of course, is all the transparency. All that information, news, and commentary everyone can access at the touch of a button. How exactly do you get around everyone being armed with all that information?
The answer is deceptively simple. The truth is, none of that 24/7 broadcast news media or online content has to be true. Not anymore. Everyone’s so busy and distracted texting, Tweeting, playing games, watching videos, watching reality TV, and generally wasting their real lives away in the virtual world, nobody has time to verify anything anymore.
So, if you’ve got a powerful PR machine with lots of money to spend, all you’ve really got to do is create a personal brand consisting of how you want to come across, hit those politically correct talking points right on the money, then sit back and watch it go viral all over the blogosphere and the Twitterverse.
OK, I admit, that did come across as more sardonic than I’d intended. But you’ve got to admit, political leaders have unlocked the secret of being selfish and greedy while coming across as men and women of the people.
Real leaders, on the other hand, don’t typically run into that sort of problem. Take Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, for example. They created tons of jobs and enormous wealth for thousands. Sure, they’re worth more money than God, but they commit their energy and billions to charity and to help make the world a better place. And they’re shining role models for young up-and-comers, as well. Everyone wins.
That’s why real leaders – business leaders – have nothing to apologize for and nothing to feel guilty about.
Wait … what am I saying. Work hard, innovate great products and services, create jobs, make a fortune for yourself and your stakeholders, and give back to society. That’s just crazy talk. What the heck was I thinking? Never mind.
Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive and author of "Real Leaders Don't Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur." Learn more, contact Tobak or follow his new blog at stevetobak.com. Any opinions expressed are those of the columnist.