A Lesson Learned

colson2Last week, one of the most brilliant scholars I’ve known and a dedicated public servant, Paul Wolfowitz, resigned from the presidency of the World Bank, ending a scandal that had riveted Washington. But even if it wasn’t a big deal where you live, there are still lessons about human fallibility we could all stand to learn. When taking over as Bank president two years ago—a plum job which pays $300,000 in salary and $140,000 in expenses—Wolfowitz disclosed his “personal relationship” with his companion Shaha Ali Riza, a Bank employee. He consulted the Bank’s ethics committee but didn’t like their advice, which he said could injure her career. So he ignored the ethics committee and directed a Bank vice president to reassign his companion to the State Department, avoiding the appearance of conflict. But it was at a substantial raise, more than Bank policy would allow, to $180,000 a year tax-free. Not bad. But I know Wolfowitz, and I’m certain that he believed that just moving her out of his sight was safe. He couldn’t affect her job, but the fact is, he didn’t clear it with anybody because it probably never occurred to him that he could do something wrong. He knew what was best, he thought. Well, that lasted only until—Washington-style—the press got hold of the story. Then it became a matter of when, not if, Wolfowitz would leave. It’s easy to dismiss this as an “inside the Beltway” story that has little, if anything, to do with the “real world,” and is all about the corruption of political power. But the truth is, we’re all capable of this same kind of arrogance and folly. Convinced of our own rightness, we don’t often listen to others. I speak from experience: When I was in the White House, the President and others sought my advice. I was surprised by my apparent persuasiveness and how it came naturally to me. Combined with my own self-righteousness and my belief in the rightness of my cause, I became dangerous, both to myself and others. We all have, I discovered, an infinite capacity for self-justification. I knew I could do no wrong, and I could persuade anyone I was right in any event. Well, I went to prison. People who are successful are particularly vulnerable. Nobody tells us “no,” and if we think we’re doing the right thing, as Wolfowitz thought he was, we are really then in peril. That’s why, after I got out of prison I committed to always have a group of people I respected around me and to submit to them for any major decision I had to make. For thirty years of ministry, this has protected me from myself. I’ve seen Christian leaders, sadly, without accountability, and often they fall hard. Everybody, at every level of life, needs an accountability group—people you can turn to and lean on and trust yourself to. The heart is infinitely deceitful. I suspect that the world will continue to produce men like Wolfowitz—brilliant men who go astray because they’re so confident of their own abilities, they become blind. The Wolfowitz story is a cautionary tale. Every Christian in authority, from a parent to a boss in the office, needs to find people who care more about God than our egos and who will tell us whether what we’re doing is advancing the Kingdom or our vanity—no matter how great we think we are.  
Today's BreakPoint Offer
Donate to Prison Fellowship and BreakPoint to help us continue strong in the new fiscal year. Donate online or by calling 1-877-322-5527.  
For Further Reading and Information
Wolfowitz to Resign From World Bank,” New York Times, 17 May 2007. Al Kamen, “Little Calm in Wolfowitz's Wake,” Washington Post, 23 May 2007. “The Right: Down, but Maybe Not Out,” New York Times, 20 May 2007. Stuart McKelvie, “By the Book: Lessons from the Enron Scandal,” BreakPoint Online, 19 May 2006. BreakPoint Commentary No. 060501, “Empty Monuments to Human Ego: The Scandal of Congressional ‘Earmarking’.”


Chuck Colson


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary