Michael Jackson, Mark Sanford and the Human Condition

Posted 06.26.2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about the light side and the dark side of the human condition this week.  A lot of this has been driven by the news and some of it has been driven by some reading I’m doing.  For so many leaders, the passion and energy that drives them to the top of their fields has a dark side in the form of an ego that is looking for additional validation in all of the wrong places.

Until the death of Michael Jackson yesterday, the story of the week was South Carolina governor Mark Mark Sanford Sanford’s acknowledgement of a secret trip to Argentina to rendezvous with his girlfriend.  The Sanford story has some unusual elements with its hiking on the Appalachian Trail cover story, his unscripted press conference to admit his adulterous affair and his use of state funds to travel to Argentina.  Still, it seems like we have a politician cheating on his wife story about once or twice a month lately.  In fact, on Hardball last night, Chris Matthews’ Big Number was 23.  That’s the number of prominent political sex scandals (e.g. Elliott Spitzer, John Ensign, John Edwards to name a few) that have come to light since the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal in 1998.

It makes one wonder, what’s with these guys?  One of the standard answers I hear to this question is that their egos are out of control and they feel entitled to whatever they want.  Maybe so, but I think it could be something else.   Instead, it could be what Eckhart Tolle describes in his book, A New Earth:

“Whatever behavior the ego manifests, the hidden motivating force is always the same:  the need to stand out, be special, be in control; the need for power, for attention, for more…  The ego always wants something from other people or situations.  There is always a hidden agenda, always a sense of ‘not enough yet,’ of insufficiency and lack that needs to be filled.  It uses people and situations to get what it wants, and even when it succeeds, it is never satisfied for long.”

In other words, as Tolle goes to on to write, it’s about fear – the fear of not being enough.  That would seem to explain a lot of inexplicable behavior wouldn’t it?

Michael Jackson Pic Which, sadly, brings us to Michael Jackson.  As Joel Achenbach blogged for the Washington Post, “Michael Jackson may not have been perfect, but he was part of the soundtrack of our lives the last 40 years. At his best, he was the best.”  There has already been so much written in the past day about the deep contradictions in Jackson’s life.  If you just take a look at him as a 10 year old prodigy fronting the Jackson 5 or a phenomenon dancing in the video for “Beat It,” I don’t know how anyone could conclude other than he was a person with tremendous gifts that, for a time, made the absolute most of them.  Of course, we also observed in Jackson a life in which  “the insufficiency and lack that needs to be filled,” led to a series of choices which were deeply damaging to himself and others.  One of the more astute comments I read this morning came from Michael Levine, a publicist who worked for Jackson in the 1990s:

"I must confess I am not surprised by today's tragic news.  Michael has been on an impossibly difficult and often self-destructive journey for years. His talent was unquestionable but so too was his discomfort with the norms of the world. A human simply cannot withstand this level of prolonged stress."

So, by now, you may be asking yourself, “What does all of this have to do with leadership?  Isn’t this supposed to be a leadership blog?”  Yes, it is and here’s what I think the connection is.  To lead others, you first have to take care of yourself.  A big part of that, I think, is acknowledging to yourself that you’re already enough.  The opportunity that any of us have is to take whatever talents we’ve been given or developed and use them to the fullest.  And, then, to believe that that is enough.