Enron’s Andrew and Lea Fastow did it. Pete Rose did it, but he’s sorry (sort of), although he continues to engage in a form of it “recreationally.” Kobe Bryant claims he didn’t do it, but he did do something else he shouldn’t have. Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart say they didn’t do it.

“It” is moral failure, and these are but a handful of recent examples. Like most people, they denied or admitted to allegations only after perceived failures became apparent to others. These people receive a lot of attention because they are leaders in business, sports, entertainment and other arenas.

We no doubt expect more from leaders. But what exactly do we expect? Perfection, or honesty?

The biblical models are clear: people—all people—fail. None of us before or since Jesus has lived a completely blameless, righteous, godly life. We act selfishly, use poor judgment, inflict pain and harm on others, distort the truth, even blatantly lie. When we do, we must face the consequences for having made these choices, and often these extend beyond ourselves to family members, churches, communities, nations and even across generations. Repenting, asking for and receiving forgiveness do not automatically erase consequences.

Publicly admitting failure or weakness, we think, somehow lessens our marketability as leaders, experts or public favorites. Even when superstars, political candidates, religious leaders and others regularly in the spotlight make a significant misstep, their publicists quickly jump in and spin the facts to make even a ridiculous choice seem somehow reasonable.

Throughout the course of his life, Solomon made many choices, some of them quite foolish. But one wise thing he did early in his leadership career was to publicly acknowledge God as God and himself as someone who wanted to walk in God’s ways but who would inevitably stumble and need forgiveness.

Faithful leaders demand high moral standards not only from those they lead but first from themselves. They admit it when they are wrong, when they are dependent rather than powerful, when they are weak rather than confident. They acknowledge that the real source of wisdom, power and confidence lies not with them but with their God.

Many leaders will rise and fall this year, some on a single moral decision, others by vote of public opinion, still others as a result of a courtroom verdict. Those who fall but honestly repent deserve forgiveness. Those who arrogantly rise through dishonest means deserve unwavering scrutiny.

All of us, whether we lead or follow, need to remember that confession is most sincere when it precedes, instead of follows, being “outed.”

Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources.

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