Why Are We Surprised When Leaders Fall?

I read an article this week about another leader who was found to be having an affair. This time a university president.

Apparently the man’s son caught footage of his father on his cell phone camera, and well, I think you can imagine how things went from there. I would tell you more about the unique circumstances—who wrote the article, what exactly happened, what university it was—but it wouldn’t really matter.

At the end of the day, they all come back sounding the same, don’t you think?


And this really isn’t intended to be an article about scandal, or sex, or men having affairs. Because the offense could have been anything really. And the leader could have been anyone. That’s the thing that struck me about the whole thing: how perfectly unoriginal it was. And yet, still, everyone seemed to be truly shocked it had happened.

Is it wrong that it didn’t shock me at all?

I don’t mean to sound jaded. I hope this doesn’t come across like, “they’re all corrupt, you can’t trust a single one of them!” because that certainly isn’t how I mean it. But it does sort of baffle me that we’re still so shocked when a leader falls off his pedestal, even though we were the ones who put him there.

People were never meant to be on pedestals. We were never meant to position ourselves above and below.

We’re meant to walk beside each other.

So, in the face of yet another prominent leader who, come to find out, is saying one thing and doing another; in the face of the names of 32 million Ashley Madison users being released to the world (400 of whom are pastors); and in a world where it seems like you can’t trust anyone—especially “leaders”—it’s important for us to remember a few things.

Here is what I know to be true.

Everybody’s s**t stinks.

If there is one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that people are people are people are people. Without exception. No matter what you do for a living, no matter how “noble” you seem, no matter how much good you do for the world, it doesn’t change the fact that you eat and sleep, get tired, and…yes, poop.

Sorry if this shocks you, but it’s true. You poop. I poop. We all poop. And all of our poop smells like… poop.

It’s a law of life.

So, all that to say, if someone’s life looks perfect from the outside—if it appears as if they don’t poop, for example—remind yourself of this: that simply means there are things you don’t know about them. It simply means there are dirty parts of their life they don’t show you.

You are a leader.

We get so focused on other people who are leaders who have totally screwed up that we forget we are leaders. Each of us, in our own way. And we forget how many ways, every single day, our actions don’t live up to our words.

We live duplicitous lives. Our actions do not live up to our ideals. We mean well, but we fall short.

We are incongruent and dishonest and hiding.

This is not to say that all inconsistencies are equal, or that lying about eating Twinkies is the same as lying about having an affair, but it is to say that we are all only a few steps away from a long, hard fall. And the only person we can control is ourselves, so we might as well focus on that.

We weren’t built for fame.

We weren’t built for fame. None of us. We were built for connection. So what happens when we put people on pedestals, or put ourselves on them, is we set everybody up for failure. We set the leader up to fall and we set the followers up to be disappointed.

That said, there is a reason we love the idea of pedestals and leaders who stand on them. It’s because it takes the responsibility off of us.

As long as we can point to the guy (or girl) standing on the pedestal and say, “he told me to do it!” we don’t have to take responsibility for our own actions or accept our own consequences. It’s one thing to admire people for character traits they have, or for accomplishments, or for the ways they inspire us.

It’s another to put them so high above you that you forget who you both are: human.

Environments that expect perfection breed deception.

Nobody is perfect. Not one person. So when perfection is what is expected of us and we are punished for anything less, no freaking wonder we go to great lengths to hide the truth. No wonder politicians, religious leaders and prominent families are the first ones to seemingly “fall”.

You’ve heard it said, “you’re only as sick as your secrets” right?

May we all learn to create environments where people feel free to come as they are, imperfections and all.

Rock bottom isn’t as bad as it sounds.

I’ve had a few “rock bottom” moments of my own in my life—where the disconnect between my words and actions comes to light and it feels like all is lost. I’ve been found out. And although these moments can be devastating to a leader’s “public” life, they are actually quite healing in their private life.

They set things right again.

They’re painful and miserable but full of grace.

Kathleen Norris says, “grace is not gentle or made-to-order. It often comes disguised as loss, or failure, or unwelcome change.” This has certainly been true in my life. Falling off a pedestal, as painful and awful as it looks from the outside, is usually the best thing that can happen to us.

Because again, we weren’t meant to stand on that pedestal in the first place.

Leaders need support.

One of the greatest detriments of putting leaders on pedestals is we forget, just like anyone, they get tired, they lose sight of what they’re doing, they feel lost, they wonder if they have what it takes, they worry they don’t know what they’re doing, they question if they’re making a difference… and we don’t support them.

We praise them, we applaud them, we silently envy them.

But we rarely support them. There’s a difference.

When was the last time you reached out to someone who leads you and told them what a difference they made in your life? When was the last time you asked them, totally without pretense, what you could do for them?

Maybe if we could begin supporting leaders instead of worshipping them, we wouldn’t be so surprised when they fall.

Because we all fall. Maybe then, we could help them get back up.


No, seriously, we can be friends...we can email back and forth and everything! :) 

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Allison Fallon

I write books. I help people write books. I believe a regular practice of writing can change your life.

17 thoughts on “Why Are We Surprised When Leaders Fall?”

  1. Very thought-provoking; every time a new scandal comes to light, I am less surprised and more sad. It very much depends on the situation though; on one hand, knowing that they’re human and that they’re going to mess up. I don’t think public figures owe their fans anything except gratitude. On the other hand, they have a lot of help getting to where they are, whether it be from mentors, coaches, friends/family, and so on. They have so much, and then a mistake (big or small) ends up costing them everything. I feel like asking “Do you not know what you have?”

    But from anger to flat out crucifiction, the amount of venom we spew toward fallen people is astounding. This is why I wish that more pastors, athletes, celebrities, and the like would be willing to talk openly about the challenges they face: “Life is hard. My job is awesome, but it’s hard. Managing and meeting expectations is hard. I’m not one to be worshipped, but one to be held and supported.”

    And I think the best thing that those on the outside can do is pray for healing, grace, and peace for all involved. God does amazing things, even in the bleakest of times.

    1. mm
      Allison Vesterfelt

      Alyx, great thoughts.

      So many public figures become public figures because of their or extreme personalities or willingness to take big risks. Then it’s those same qualities that often bring them down. I agree with you that our tendency to crucify them for their mistakes is misplaced.

      Thanks for reading and sharing.

  2. Great thoughts, Allison.

    I’m not sure if leaders are having more failures or if we’re just hearing about them more. Seems like every week brings a new scandal and another hero who fell.

    But we’re all flawed. Leaders should be held to a higher standard, but sometimes I think we expect too much of them. It seems like we expect them to be perfect. We’d hate to be held to that kind of standard, but we have no problem holding others there.

    I love what you said at the end about the best thing we can do is pray for grace and healing. That’s something I think we should all do more of.

    1. mm
      Allison Vesterfelt

      “We’d hate to be held to that kind of standard, but we have no problem holding others there.” Yes, exactly.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Jeff.

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