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The Fall of a Trusted Leader

Tue, November 13, 2012 1:06 PM | Deleted user

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Former CIA Director David Petraeus testifies on Capitol Hill in February. Petraeus has resigned because of an extramarital affair.

Cliff Owen/AP


Much has been written about the resignation of David Petraeus from the CIA due to revelations of an extramarital affair and the possibility that he exposed the Nation to security risks in the process.  Had Petraueus been a French or an Italian General, there would have not been nearly the media storm.  In the United States we expect moral rectitude in not only a leader’s professional life but his or her private life as well.  Americans see the General’s behavior as a trust breach due to an integrity violation – he was “unfaithful” to his wife, and he deceived her in hiding the affair.  To put the issue in context, from a trust repair perspective, Petraeus is well ahead of President Clinton because his offense was somewhat less egregious (Broadwell was not in his employ or an intern).  Rather than deny the charges, or redefine the word “sex,” he admitted the transgression and acknowledged that his behavior was “unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader.”

If anyone had suggested in 1998, at the height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, that Bill Clinton would emerge as a political rock star again in 2012, they would have been laughed off the pundit circuit.  How did Clinton repair his reputation so well?  First, he had no further betrayals of trust made public for over 10 years.  Second, he demonstrated two positive signs of trustworthiness (benevolent concern for others and competence) through his work after the Katrina and Haiti disasters and on an ongoing basis with the Clinton Global Initiative.  I suspect that David Petraeus will also repair his reputation, but there are deeper trust issues that are being glossed over in the media frenzy over Petraeus.

First, notice how much more attention is being paid in the media to Petraeus’s moral failing than was paid to his good works.  This happens with companies also.  Ask Jamie Dimon at JP Morgan Chase. Good works barely get covered but the failings make the front page.  Bill Bradley once said, “If it bleeds it leads, if it thinks it stinks.”  In a media age of intense competition for audience and clicks, a scandal is much more helpful than catching someone doing the right thing.  No wonder trust scores in leaders and institutions have been declining for decades.

Second, there are some major questions about human nature and the male species that are not being addressed in the conversation about Petraeus.  For example, how can a man whose career is filled with honors and careful and prudent decision-making, exercise such bad judgment?  Are men more susceptible than women to sexual temptations that lead to a betrayal of trust?  Are men in power presented with more temptations or is it that their feelings of being powerful make them think they can get away with more?  I think the answer to all of these questions is YES, but obviously each situation has unique elements.  What is not being said is that to maintain trust and standards of high integrity, men and women must have a regular discernment process to assess the degree to which they are living their values. Maintaining one’s integrity must be a daily exercise.  This is especially true for men in powerful positions.  There is a reason that all major religions emphasize the examination of conscience as an ongoing practice (Christian penance, Judaic atonement, and Islamic recollectedness).  Without an ongoing practice of discernment about whether we are living a virtuous life, we are likely to lose our way. This is no doubt a sentiment that David Petraeus is now feeling.

Finally, the Petraeus resignation is playing out in Washington where there has been a major loss of trust in the government.  Early on there was the suggestion that the White House had somehow put a lid on the story until after the election.  Then there was a strategic leak that Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, had known about the investigation months before it came out.  It seems some see this as an opportunity to weaken the White House post election.  As this drama unfolds, we march steadily toward the fiscal cliff.  In the end, trust requires manifesting benevolent concern for others’ welfare, integrity and competence.  The Washington spin machine that Petraeus is now in has a deficit of all three of these elements of trustworthiness.

David Petraeus did a dishonorable thing by cheating on his wife.  He admitted this and is now suffering great pain.  Fortunately, in the end, trust and integrity are judged over the long haul not on the basis of one event or action.  Perhaps if all of our leaders considered how they will be judged by history, when the media frenzy is no longer a factor, we would all have more faith in them.  General Petraeus seems to understand this.




  • Sat, November 17, 2012 4:28 PM | Jim Peterson -- Re:Balance
    Bob -- Thanks for this.
    What I have not seen yet brought to bear on the dynamics of the "Petraeus affair" is the contextual influence of hierarchies -- whether military, business, universities or the church -- where leaders become increasingly isolated in their decision-making and also persuaded of their own wisdom, and thus susceptible to decisions that would never be made in a collegial or collaborative environment. The pioneering work of Daniel Kahneman and Amost Tversky illuminates the difference between decisions made in a simple, primitive and intuitive manner -- fight or flight, friend or foe, nourishing or toxic -- which worked well enough for our ancestors, much of the time, but which are ill-suited to modern contexts -- and decisions that are more complex, nuanced and demanding, and which draw upon more sophisticated decision structures.
    Had Petraeus had the benefit of a credible source of timely counsel and advice -- like a corporate CEO who trusts his chairman, or a medieval king who heeds the advice of his fool, however unwelcome -- he would never have fallen into a simplistic trap, believing himself beyond society's scrutiny and reproach.
    All of which sits above several maxims of operational advice, of which perhaps the first is, "never put in email what you are unwilling to have published for the world to see."
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    • Tue, November 20, 2012 5:10 AM | Robert Hurley
      Jim - You raise an important point concerning trust and decision making in organizations. The research is clear that every level of hierarchy presents a filter of information and potentially erodes transparency. The effects can be very isolating and create blinders to truth. We can even apply this with a bit of adjustment to Petraeus's personal life. Did he have trusted advisors or friends who he could talk to as he slide down this very slippery slope? If trustworthiness only depends on personal discipline and is not supplemented with trust enhancing structures around us, even highly disciplined people like the General are apt to fall.
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