“I don’t know why people don’t like me. I’m not perfect. The perception that I’m perfect I think got kind of mixed up with the idea that what we’re trying to teach is the best possible standard out there,” Martha Stewart told Barbara Walters of ABC News.

At one time a billionaire and a woman on Time magazine’s list of America’s 25 most influential people, Stewart’s seemingly perfect world has collapsed in the wake of criminal charges of conspiracy, securities fraud, obstruction of justice and making false statements. She faces trial in a few weeks but firmly maintains her innocence.

The charges against Stewart stem from her relationship to ImClone, a biotechnology company.

The FDA decided to reject the company’s application for a cancer drug. Stewart sold her ImClone stock just before that decision became public. If her claims are true that the amount of money she saved by selling the stock “amounted to approximately $40,000, about .0006 percent of my net worth,” her alleged actions were foolish indeed.

Stewart amassed her fortune by parlaying her creative abilities and business savvy into a how-to empire for all things domestic. Her publications and television shows made Martha Stewart a household name, synonymous with doing things to perfection. Hers became “the best possible standard.”

Now she joins a long line of business leaders who have been charged, fired, fined, convicted and/or imprisoned for financial wrongdoing. Leaders in sports, entertainment, government, religion and virtually every other arena also march in the scandal parade. Like Stewart, many still await courtroom decisions to determine their innocence or guilt.

Stewart’s reminder that she is not perfect points to a common temptation for those who follow the lead of others. We sometimes hold leaders in such high esteem that we forget that they, like we, are morally flawed. They make mistakes. They are not perfect. We cannot trust them blindly, as personable, likable and successful as they may be. They do not always act wisely or in the best interests of others like stockholders, employees, partners or church members.

Expecting leaders to exercise sound wisdom and critical judgment is but half of the leadership equation. Those who select, elect, appoint and place trust in them have a responsibility to question, critique, appraise and hold them accountable.

Leaders currently embroiled in scandal cause us to wonder: did they ignore the voices of those who suggested they make different decisions, or did those voices choose to remain silent?
Wisdom is the most important quality of leadership, but it’s not just for leaders. It’s for followers, too. When we fail to seek and apply it as leaders and as followers, we set the stage for failure.

Jan Turrentine is managing editor of Acacia Resources.

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