Education Opinion

Leaders and Forgiveness

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 12, 2013 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Mark Sanford was reelected to Congress this week. Sanford was the Republican Governor of South Carolina when he was caught lying, claiming he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was actually visiting his mistress in Argentina. He is now divorced and engaged to the woman, a television reporter. His victory has been followed by claims of public vindication, forgiveness from his constituents. We have so many figures whose choices have caused them to fall into disgrace, arrest and even impeachment. A president, governors, fashion icons, superstar athletes, superintendents and educational consultants, no field is without example. It makes us think about leaders and forgiveness. Why do some return, almost energized by the fall, while others never return to positions of leadership? Is it the issue or the person or both?

Our society is one in which the media makes its living on front page stories of the indiscretions and bad judgments of leaders and of the well-known. TV shows with these plots gain popularity and enter our homes daily. Moral indiscretions and fortune seeking seem especially intriguing and forgettable.

It has been said that America is a forgiving place but forgetfulness and forgiveness are different. Or is it that the “public” offers a different kind of forgiveness than individuals who are personally impacted? Let’s bring this issue closer to our educational home.

Douglas Reeves is a household name in education circles as an author, speaker, and assessment guru, this despite the fact that he pleaded guilty to a securities fraud charge back in the early 1990’s. Earlier this year, we quoted Douglas Reeves in our blog. Quickly, we were contacted by a colleague to tell us that Reeves had been arrested last summer for indecent assault on a young child under the age of 14. The Boston press had covered the story and it had been picked up by other bloggers. Press updates regarding this serious accusation remain minimal. There has been no trial due to the filing of continuances. He was due back in court last week. There is no coverage we can find. In a Lance Armstrong way, the accusation itself has had significant impact on Reeves’ visibility, credibility and on the center he founded. Some things are less forgivable than others.

Questions face us. How do we place a betrayal of trust in a whole life story? What is the proper balance between punishment and forgiveness? Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, wrote centuries ago about the role of shame as punishment in our society. It persists. Who survives such events and who does not?

Will the accusation about Reeves, or his conviction should he be guilty, stand in our minds and give us pause when reaching for his books? Do we remove his books from our shelves, our courses, our reference libraries, like Penn State’s controversial removal of Joe Paterno’s statue? Does Reeves’ character tarnish his research?

On one hand, Reeves very well may be innocent and his withdrawal from public view and his professional roles may be an embarrassment of losses for him, and for the rest of us. On the other hand, Reeves may be guilty. In which case, we are witness to another prominent, intelligent, engaged member of our society choosing to ignore the moral compass, robbing himself and us of his contributions.

The Educational Leadership Policy Standards: ISLLC (2008) outline the professional standards by which educational leaders should be measured. Standard 5 reads: “An educational leader promotes the success of every student by acting with integrity, fairness, and in an ethical manner.” We hold ourselves to that standard. However, there are those among us who have had their career and their personal lives ruined because of either a terribly bad choice or a false accusation. As leaders in the public eye, we must anticipate there will be a price to pay that goes beyond any judgment of law.

It is hard to have one’s face touch the hard ground of humiliation for a personal bad choice. Anyone who has experienced it knows how life changing it is and how vulnerable one feels in those moments. Weren’t we raised as children by phrases like “you should be ashamed of yourself” or “don’t do anything you wouldn’t want your grandmother to know”? It is so much worse to commit a crime, to break the law we were called to obey and enforce. Perhaps forgiveness, if it is sought, is simply having enough generosity to extend a second chance...like the ones we give our students over and over and the ones we want for ourselves. Every lifetime has defining moments. Some of us learn from them and find that in America’s heart there are those who can forgive great transgressions and still welcome what we have left to offer.

In each of these leaders’ fall from grace lies the opportunity to reflect upon our own lives and choices, not to become righteous and arrogant but to remember the humility that inspires our call to serve. As Mark Sanford exemplifies, some will forget, others will forgive and, God willing, there is always tomorrow. The public in South Carolina decided overwhelmingly that Sanford could serve. His family values were not at issue when his fiscal conservatism was determined to be of value. As time passes and the truth is known, it will be ours to decide if Dr. Reeves can still contribute to our work. It will be an informed choice of conscience and it may require us to determine where we are with judgment, punishment and forgiveness.

You are invited to engage with Ann and Jill on Twitter

Update: After a two-day trial, a district court jury in Lynn, Mass., found Douglas Reeves not guilty April 4, 2014 of the one count that had been filed against him in 2012.

The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.