Did the Burden of Leadership Require Petraeus to Resign?

On Friday, November 9, 2012, CIA Director David Petraeus resigned, revealing that he had an affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, author of the biography, All In: The Education of General David Petraeus.  Before this revelation, Petraeus was virtually a synonym for discipline and integrity. Now, he has joined the ranks of the national figures who have ruined promising public careers with private conduct he characterized as “extremely poor judgment.”

A Private Affair is Never Private—at Least Not for Leaders

Leadership is a relationship between the leader and the led. Leaders affect their followers not only by what they do in public, but by what they do in private. Many Americans have accepted the notion that what happens in one’s private life does not affect professional performance. It does. Moreover, it is magnified when someone who holds a place of public trust commits the indiscretion.

If your dry-cleaner has an affair, your clothes will still get cleaned. In contrast, when a public official has an affair, his private actions impact his constituents. At best, the infidelity tarnishes his reputation, hampers his ability to operate, and damages trust. At its extreme, he exposes himself to blackmail and thereby exposes all of us to risk.


David Petraeus, Former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Photo courtesy of the US Government.

As a four-star general and the head of the CIA, Petraeus was in a position of incredible public trust. What if Paula Broadwell had been working for another intelligence agency? What if she had other nefarious motives such as blackmail? We know now that she had access to his personal G-mail account. What information may have been compromised?

The conspiracy theorist might justly ask how the Obama administration might decide to use the information to cause Petraeus to take or not take a particular position. Such blackmail sounds like a Hollywood script (e.g. The Sculls or The Firm), but it enters the realm of possibility. The point is that he is no longer an independent agent. He has been compromised.

Actions have Consequences

Christ told us that “Everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). This is true spiritually and effectually. Please allow me make two points here. First, we are all sinners and just in case you were feeling smug about the sins you have not committed (perhaps adultery) please recall that pride is also a sin.

Second, actions have consequences, and leadership amplifies these consequences for good or ill.  Petraeus became a “slave” to this past indiscretion from the time that he committed the first act. He was no longer free. I would imagine that the specter of being found out hung over him as a dark cloud.

In each case where a public figure’s infidelity comes to light, I feel terrible for the spouses who are often devastated. Hillary Clinton chose, in the words of the Tammy Wynette song, to stand by her man.  At the time, Clinton administration supporters hypnotically repeated the mantras: “It’s a private matter” and “It’s just about sex” as if these arguments somehow removed the consequences of his behavior for either Hillary or the country. The scandal crippled Bill Clinton. He lied under oath (perjury) and he was impeached (though the Senate did not remove him from office).

Jenny Sanford, wife of the disgraced former Republican governor of South Carolina chose to file for divorce after the media exposed her husband Mark’s flights to Argentina to rendezvous with his mistress, Maria Belen Chapur in June, 2009. Jenny discussed her experience in her book Staying True. Mark had also written a book nine years earlier ironically entitled The Trust Committed to Me.

In each case of public infidelity, the adulterer’s wife is the primary victim, but we are all secondary victims when leaders violate the trust committed to them. Shouldn’t we expect more from leadership? Is it fair to the people when their leaders expose themselves to blackmail? Isn’t this at least some form of negligence?

Private/Public Perspective for Leaders

There was a reason that the Reverend Billy Graham was hyper-cautious about placing himself in harm’s way. He had what appeared to be unreasonable standards of ethics. For example, he would not be alone with a woman in an elevator and he would have his team sweep his hotel room to be sure that no women were in the room before he would enter.

As it turns out, Billy Graham had the right idea.In 2001, Ellen Brataslavsky, Catrin Finkenanuer, and Kathleen Vohs penned an article in the Review of General Psychology entitled Bad is Stronger than Good. They explained how negative events far outweigh similar positive events. Reverend Graham understood that if he was not above reproach, all of the good that he did in 50 years of ministry could be destroyed 10 minutes.

Test this Hypothesis for Yourself

Need more evidence? Let’s try some free association. Read the bipartisan list of names below. For each, what is the first thing that comes to your mind?

  • Gary Hart (D-Co)
  • Bob Packwood (R-OR)
  • Henry Hyde (R-IL)
  • Newt Gingrich (R-GA)
  • Bill Clinton (D-AK)
  • John Edwards (D-NC)
  • John Ensign (R-NV)
  • Eric Massa (D-NY)
  • Mark Souter (R-IN)
  • Larry Craig (R-ID)
  • Jim McGreevy (R-NJ)
  • Eliot Spitzer (D-NY)
  • David Vitter (R-LA)
  • Al Gore (D-TN)
  • Anthony Weiner (D-NY)

Do we remember the legislative accomplishments of Anthony Weiner, or do we think of him sending racy tweets to a co-ed, lying about it repeatedly, and ultimately stepping down amidst the scandal? Now David Petraeus has added his name to the list. It is unfortunate because he previously had a sterling record.

Fall Out

But why now? His affair apparently happened well over a year ago. Why did he step down a few days after the election and a few days before he was supposed to testify about Benghazi? Was he pushed out by the administration or did he jump? Perhaps the Administration did not want him to testify and chose this moment to force him from his post. Or, maybe the administration is another victim of his private affair. We do not know at this time, but we may add the administration to the list of those affected by “private actions.”

Get your MBA Now from Charleston Southern UniversityMore details will come to light over time, but I would like to think that his decision to resign was voluntary. His life had been marked by duty, honor, and discipline. Perhaps, like Sampson pushing on the pillars, his resignation was his last defiant act to restore whatever honor he had left.

In either scenario, the burden of leadership requires a greater trust. Neither Bill Clinton nor Mark Sanford were big enough to take responsibility for their actions. At least Petraeus had the wisdom to tell his CIA employees that: “such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours.”

What do you think? Should leaders be held to a higher standard? If so, what should we expect from them?

-Darin Gerdes

November 11, 2012


Dr. Gerdes is the Director of the MBA Program at Charleston Southern University

Follow on Twitter @DarinGerdes



Filed under Current Events, Leadership, Organizational Behavior, Poltics

4 responses to “Did the Burden of Leadership Require Petraeus to Resign?

  1. daringerdes

    Update – Classified documents were found on Paula Broadwell’s computer

  2. Well written and thoughtful, Dr. Gerdes. Thank you. As a retired Navy Officer who held the highest security clearance issued, I would like to throw my two cents into the ring. Politicians aside, in the world of military service or law enforcement the rules of security are unwaivering and unforgiving. If I as an E-1 or an O-5, was found guilty of similar breaches of security, you can guarantee that I would be locked up . . . for a long time.

    Unfortunately, you cannot “undo” the damage on junior military members when they see different standards being enforced up the chain of command. As a recently minted recruit years ago, I remember well wondering why the standards weren’t “higher” for our senior officers.

    I know this comment is only tangentially related to your post, but I couldn’t resist offering my thoughts. Thanks again, Dr. Gerdes.

    Matt DiGeronimo

  3. I found your article through a link from elsewhere and read it with great interest. I strongly agree that a key facet of this issue is the lingering impact of immoral and dissolute behavior on the betrayer’s reputation and the reputation of the institution in which he serves.

    I do not have the expertise to know whether personal morality matters in a national security or military leader. I can see several different arguments about it. I know that standards are not uniformly applied despite the clarity of the law of the land (in the form of the CFR, UCMJ and various Executive Orders). These are issues (does it matter and do equal standards matter) that should be honestly addressed rather than tittering about the subject matter, as is sometimes seen.

    Just before this scandal broke, I wrote something about this. It’s been edited in ways that mean I’ll want to rewrite it for elsewhere but I thought I’d provide a link: http://www.usnwc.edu/Publications/Naval-War-College-Press/The-Conference-Room.aspx
    Thank you for your interesting post on this topic of public interest.

  4. Thanks a bunch for sharing this with all people you really recognize what you are speaking about! Bookmarked. Kindly additionally consult with my website =). We will have a link trade contract among us!

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