James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of The Leadership Challenge, have studied organizations of all types for a generation to discover the characteristics people expect in their leaders. By far the number one trait over the years has been honesty. It’s more important to followers than vision, competence, accomplishments or the ability to inspire others.
In 1 Timothy 3, when Paul gives qualifications for that of an overseer, the first thing he says is that he must be “above reproach.” The original Greek carries the meaning of “a life without blame.” It doesn’t mean that the leader is without sin, but it does mean the leader’s life has not been marred by a sinful defect in character which would prevent him or her from setting an appropriate standard of conduct.
Within the past week two pivotal thought leaders have been accused of, and one has admitted, major lapses of honesty. How they, and we, respond to these people will say a lot about us.
The liberal punditrocacy was shaken Aug. 10 when Fareed Zakaria admitted plagiarizing part of his Aug. 20 column in Time magazine. Both Time and CNN, where Zakaria works as a contributor, suspended him for a month. Parts of the Time column, which also appeared on CNN’s website as a blog post, were lifted almost verbatim from an article on gun control by Jill Lepore that appeared in April in The New Yorker.
Eric Zuesse, writing in the Huffington Post website, notes that Zakaria may be the victim of sloppiness or corner-cutting by a research assistant or intern who may well have drafted the column. It’s actually commendable that as far as we’ve seen, Zakaria has not attempted to shift blame from this incident to anyone else. But it wouldn’t have mattered if he had. Zakaria, like other media stars, is responsible for everything that comes out under his name, whether it originated from someone in his employ or not.
This isn’t the first time Zakaria has been accused of rank dishonesty in his published or spoken work. In 2009 Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic noted that Zakaria used quotes from interviews Goldberg conducted with world figures, and wrote about them in such a way as to imply that Zakaria conducted the interviews. This practice, known as quote-stealing, is considered every bit as egregious as plagiarism, and is every bit as avoidable.
You may see columns or blog posts suggesting that plagiarism is not a big deal. Thankfully, that suggestion is a minority view. Plagiarism – the intellectual theft of ideas from others without attribution – is one of the most extreme offenses imaginable in any of the creative arts. And the saddest part of it is, it is wholly unnecessary. It’s understandable that Lepore’s piece came up in gun-control research, whether it was done by Zakaria himself or someone in his employ. Attributing the material to Lepore would have kept Zakaria out of trouble and would have been understandable given the broad range of topics he writes about. Anyone who writes for a living understand the gravity of plagiarism. It costs good men and women their careers, even on a first offense. Zakaria may never reach the career heights he enjoyed before this situation occurred, and that would be appropriate.
Separately, one of Christianity’s leading lights – historian David Barton – has come under fire for his book The Jefferson Lies, released in April. Barton has long been something of a lightning rod for his theologically conservative approach to history and for the popular success of his books. This is different. Historians of every political stripe have assailed The Jefferson Lies as historically inaccurate. Two conservative, evangelical historians, Warrant Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, have published a book to counter Barton’s claims, “Getting Jefferson Right.” Last week Barton’s publisher, Thomas Nelson, stopped selling and distributing the The Jefferson Lies out of concerns about its truthfulness.
Much of what you’ll see online today about the situation falls into the category of “Barton said, Throckmorton said, Thomas Nelson said,” and it reads about the way you’d expect. The fact remains that a prominent publisher doesn’t pull one of its books from the market very often, and never without being convinced that’s the only avenue available to it. Every book published is a risk for the author and the publisher, and Thomas Nelson decided Barton was no longer an acceptable risk. Even if he’s eventually vindicated, this is a setback for Barton and his organization, Wallbuilders, which is popular among Christian homeschooling families for its history curriculum.