Leaders Who Lust – the Case of Bill Gates

My colleague (Todd Pittinsky) and I wrote a book about leaders who lust. It’s titled, Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy.

We defined lust as a psychological drive that produces intense wanting, even desperately needing to obtain an object, or to secure a circumstance. When the object has been obtained, or the circumstance secured, there is relief, but only briefly, temporarily.

Bill Gates is one of the leaders featured in the book. But his name does not, as recent headlines would suggest, appear in the chapter on lust for sex. It appears in the chapter on lust for legacy.

This is how the two different lusts are characterized:

  • “Leaders who lust for sex go on constant, countless hunts for sexual gratification.”
  • “Leaders who lust for legacy long, effectively lifelong, to leave an imprint that is permanent.”

I ask you, which better describes Gates? Is he really a leader who lusts for sex? Or is he instead a leader who lusts for legacy?

No one has accused Gates of going on “constant, countless hunts for sexual gratification.” Nevertheless, the recent headlines on Gates and sex have, for the moment at least, stained his reputation and tarnished what up to now has been his stellar name.

What exactly has Gates has been charged with?

  • That “in some circles” he developed a “reputation for questionable conduct in work-related settings.” (The quote is from the New York Times, though what exactly was his “questionable conduct” was not clear.)
  • That his wife, Melinda French Gates, from whom Gates is getting a divorce, was unhappy with how he handled a sexual harassment charge against one of his longtime money managers.
  • That on “at least a few occasions” Gates pursued women who worked for him either at Microsoft or at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Of what this “pursuit” consisted was also not spelled out – though it seems to have been no more than asking a woman out for a drink or dinner. Gates was said as well to have tried at least once to have an “intimate relationship with an employee.” But his try seems to have gone nowhere, possibly, obviously, because the woman said no.
  • Gates did admit to having one “affair almost 20 years ago that ended amicably.”  

“Small beer,” as the Brits would say.

I’m aware that by global standards Americans are particularly puritanical about monogamy. However, even in America for a male leader of such enormous prominence and worldliness to have stepped outside the bounds of what is conceived of as a conventional marriage is not exactly shocking.

For the record, Bill Gates did make one serious, related misstep. On a few occasions he spent time with Jeffrey Epstein – including at his palatial Manhattan home – the notorious, now deceased, sex offender. Moreover, Gates first met Epstein only after he had already been convicted of sex crimes. No excusing this relationship – and I do not for a moment minimize what in this instance was Gates’ dismal lack of judgement.

But Bill Gates does not now, and never did, lust for sex. His lust is now what it has always been – to leave an imprint that is permanent. This explains why he became one of America’s greatest innovators ever. This explains why he became one of America’s greatest businessmen ever. And this explains why he became one of America’s greatest philanthropists ever.

Given this and given we do not have great leaders to spare, seems to me we ought not be profligate with those we do have. The few who qualify should be brought to their knees only for mistakes far graver than the ones outlined above. It does not serve us well to have perfection as a standard for great leadership – lest only saints need apply.    

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