06/13/2012 01:12 pm ET Updated Aug 13, 2012

Butlers, Burglars and Bunglers

Woodward and Bernstein took us on a walk down memory lane this past weekend with their 40 year retrospective on the idea that Richard Nixon was even worse than we thought, if that's possible. The Washington Post's Watergate duo's vivid new vivisection of the corrupt entrails of Nixon's presidency ironically coincided with the resignation of D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown for bank fraud and campaign finance shenanigans. And for those Washington wonks who can't get enough of the misdeeds of the kingpins inside the Beltway, the last few weeks also gave us the special treat of the Pope's butler and the "Vatileaks" escapades. (Intrigue at the Vatican? Shocking!)

Not to make light of political crimes or papal woes, but ordinary people can find some small comforts in these legendary morality plays about the foibles of leaders and those in their aura. While the impact of the D.C. corruption scandals is different in scale from Nixon's crimes or the back-stabbing ways of the Curia, at root these stories all follow the same script: powerful men (almost always men) blinded by arrogance, scheming to protect their power at all costs, feeling entitled to lie, steal or do real harm to others in order to protect their positions and perquisites.

Many of us spend our lives managing other people, or trying to, and quite often we despair of the infinite ways in which colleagues and co-workers can betray our hopes, our goals and our confidences. The "Vatileaks" story is remarkable not because the butler did it --- allegedly leaking the pope's private correspondence to a journalist, but we're not sure he did, and may never know --- but because the news wedges a slim crack of sunshine into the shadowy recesses of the Vatican. So the princes of the Church can whine like the steno pool, who knew?

The small comfort is the recognition of the universality of personnel challenges and the somewhat banal ways in which even powerful leaders express their exasperation with each other. Even the Pope has to absorb the lesson that all managers come to learn: don't trust the butler, or anyone else, too much.

In much the same way, the always-fascinating tales from the Nixon White House remind us that, absent ethical grownups on the scene, many workplaces can come to resemble the dystopian boys' camp of Lord of the Flies. Left on their own, the tribe exhibits remarkably primeval behaviors. Isolated from reality, whether on a desert island or in the Oval Office, the head boy orders increasingly bizarre actions to preserve his power. His minions are only too eager to prove their loyalty by staking the heads of the disloyal on pikes around the camp.

Four decades after the third-rate burglary, we still shake our heads at the remarkable crassness, stupidity and potent lust for power at any price that led to Nixon's demise. And yet, we still see politicians who, like Nixon, believe they are "bulletproof" to choose a word. Tape-recording unguarded conversations about your perceived enemies and plans to debilitate them makes lying about your income on a loan application seem like a rookie mistake. The lesson for citizens, of course, is that we have to catch them when they're rookies and stop voting them into office.

One other characteristic of notorious scandals and public embarrassments is the absolute belief among the protagonists that secrecy is possible, that nobody will ever find out what's really going on. When the news breaks, as invariably happens, the perpetrators first rush to blame the media --- as if all would be well if we simply didn't know about the enemies' lists, the payments to relatives, the vanity of the cardinals.

The small comfort --- no, the large satisfaction --- is that nothing is really secret anymore, if anything ever was. Secrecy is corrosive; sunshine is healing.

What remains hard to understand is why so many people in the public eye --- politicians or priests, bankers or college presidents and their boards, for that matter --- still believe they can misbehave and no one will find out. They may think they have power, but, ultimately, they come across as bunglers, missing one of the most fundamental lessons of power, which is perception.

Even if the pure motivation of acting ethically all the time is a large burden for some, surely any halfway educated leader has learned this fundamental leadership rule: don't do it if you don't want to see it on the front page of the Huffington Post.