When Claudius poured literal poison into the ear of King Hamlet, figurative poison trickled down throughout the entirety of Denmark until there was a stage full of poisoned corpses and a new king who arrived in the mangled kingdom at just the right moment. Thus, Shakespeare demonstrated how corruption in high places has a way of infecting the whole state. Something was indeed rotten in the state of Denmark and that bad apple spoiled the bushel. The newly arrived king was going to have to be very careful with his words and actions to maintain credibility.
Most of us have observed the phenomenon of bad leadership infecting politics, business, education and even families. A bad apple at the top can and often does ruin a bunch of produce. We think of that fruit from the tree that our old progenitors were forbidden to eat. They ate and the poison of disobedience has flowed down the DNA ladder to every creature born.
As a longtime teacher, I used to think leadership by example was the ticket. I surmised that if a teacher set the tone of disciplined scholarship, students would catch it and become their own teachers. It worked for about 20 percent of the students, not a very good ratio. Then, I thought I would be a little heavy handed. That worked on about half of the students—some like to be prodded and cajoled into doing their best. Thus, for the last part of my career, let’s say my “mature” years, I quit thinking about leadership altogether and relaxed, enjoying the subject matter at hand and watching lightbulbs go off above my students’ heads. That relaxed and even playful attitude produced more fruit than the other methods and I liked teaching much better.
But I have come to believe that honesty and integrity are the hallmarks of truly good leadership. Acknowledging that we all have the dregs of forbidden fruit flowing in our veins, we should look for those who have settled upon lofty principles and responded to a high calling. In a democracy, a true leader should be a representative of the best deeds and words of the constituency and their agreed-upon creed, namely the Constitution.
For example, if that document is based on a worldview that acknowledges Providence, and if the folks who elected the leader largely subscribe to a Judeo-Christian credo, then the representative should exhibit a friendly attitude towards holy writ and principles set forth there, including the Ten Commandments. They should pay particular attention to the one forbidding bearing false witness. Nothing damages credibility more than being caught in a lie.
I damaged my credibility in my own household one time by trying to make a joke. I told our children a “polar bear mass” was coming, punning on “polar air mass.” When the ferocious white creatures did not materialize, the kids were disappointed, not just that the bears did not show up, but that Daddy had encouraged false expectations. From then on, when I said anything that sounded a little off, they would ask, “for real?”