Leadership Lessons from Monica Lewinsky

Leaders aren’t ruined by their mistakes. They’re ruined by their response to their mistakes.

Monica Lewinsky’s recent TED talk, “The Price of Shame” illustrates how the right words with the right tone can reframe even the most demoralizing Monicaof situations.  In 22 short minutes Lewinsky transforms public perception, moving from a woman who was once narrowly defined by a youthful mistake to emerge as a commanding leader of a Noble cause.

As someone who coaches senior executives, here’s what I’ve observed:  Cowardly leaders try to deflect negative situations.  Courageous leaders take control of negative situations and turn them into something better.

Lewinsky is the latter; she took a personal, and embarrassing error and turned it into a rallying cry for compassion, and civility online.  Her powerful talk exemplifies the three ways courageous leaders handle a crisis:

1. Authentic ownership

Lewinsky addresses the audience saying “At the age of 22, I fell in love with my boss.” “At the age of 24, I learned the devastating consequences.” She doesn’t blame anyone else; she owns her own error.  She also provides context, asking the crowd,  “Can I see a show of hands of anyone here who didn’t make a mistake or do something they regretted at 22? “

People will forgive a mistake, but you have to acknowledge it.  Compare Lewinsky’s humble authenticity with the way leaders like former Massey Energy Company CEO Don Blankenship handle problems.  Massey continues to claim that he didn’t conceal evidence about safety and health hazards despite hundreds of deaths due to explosions and cancers, all associated in or near his company. 

Real leaders walk towards the problem, not away from it.  Lewinsky’s talk is going viral because people know real bravery when they see it.

2. Claim it and frame it

When explaining problems cowardly leaders tend to display what I call the three D’s of Denial: detached, defensive, or dismissive.  For example, six months before he was ousted, former CEO Sal Iannuzzi dismissed poor earnings, lack of innovation, and his own abysmal CEO ratings on Glass Door claiming to the Wall Street Journal, “The company is stronger today than it has been at any point in the last seven or eight years.”

Contrast Iannuzzi, and other “deflect the problem” leaders with Lewinsky, who addresses the elephant in the room telling the audience, “I was Patient Zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.”

She doesn’t whine or deny, instead, she frames her experience in the context of a shared human emotion, reminding us that, “Humiliation is a more intensely felt emotion than happiness or even anger.”  She galvanizes support by boldly embracing reality, and calling others to action.

3. Point the way

Real leadership is not about you.  Lewinsky says the recent tragic deaths due to cyber-bullying “served to re-contextualize my own experience.”  She braves public scrutiny, because she couldn’t stand on the sidelines while cyber-shaming continues. 

Compare the strength and resiliency Lewinsky has shown for the last 19 years since the scandal, with former BP CEO Tony Hayward.  After a mere month of dealing with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, that killed eleven people and came close to ruining an ocean, Hayward whined to the media, “I just want my life back.”

Monica Lewinsky had the guts and grace to own her mistake and turn it into something better.  That is the real definition of a leader.