Why the Powerful Falter

It is potentially one of the largest scandals to come out of Washington DC in recent years. General David Petraeus, former head of the joint task forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and head of the CIA, confessed to being involved in a lengthy extramarital affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell, author of the now very unfortunately named biography on Petraeus entitled “All In.” The ensuing media circus has spawned a flurry of articles, raising arguments such as “The FBI’s Intrusion into People’s Personal Lives,” “A Phony Hero for a Phony War” (which smacks a little too much of Salinger for my taste), and even “How to keep your email’s secret when the CIA couldn’t[1].” Yet underneath all these articles lies a question that has not yet been answered: Why? Why would a man at the peak of his career, and with a wife and children throw it all away for an affair? Why would a woman with so much potential and promise[2] sleep with the subject of her greatest scholarly work to date?

Image courtesy of hectorir, © 2010, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of hectorir, © 2010, some rights reserved.

The answer lies not in the man (or woman), but in the very nature of success. In an article entitled “The Bathsheba Syndrome[3] published back in 2005 for the Journal of Business Ethics, Dr. Clinton Longnecker and Dean Ludwig theorised that immense personal and professional success could have negative psychological implications. Using the biblical example of King David[4], Longnecker and Ludwig theorised that there are four negative potential by-products of success: complacency and a loss of strategic focus, diverting attention to things other than their organization; privileged access to information, people and objects; unrestrained control of organisation resources; and an inflated perception that the leader can personally manipulate and control desired outcomes. These by-products can lead to imbalance in the leader’s personal life, causing them to loose the focus that initially got them to the position and to lose touch with reality. These effects can in turn lead to the leader feeling personal isolation or a lack of intimacy, with the inability to share their problems causing the leaders to become isolated from friends and family and loosing valuable personal balance. In addition, leaders at the peak of success find themselves without peers at work, causing an even greater need for personal connection and a greater divorce from reality.

While Longnecker and Ludwig use the biblical example of King David to illustrate their theory, all these indicators can be seen in the coverage of the Petraeus scandal. Before his posting in the CIA, David Petraeus was viewed as one of the greatest field commanders in US history, with many claiming that he ‘turned the tide’ of the Iraq occupation. As a result, he was given almost unilateral authority on the ground, providing him with a higher level of access to people and information than many other general officers. The admiration he received, both politically and from the press, earned him not only his political appointment as the head intelligence officer in the country, but also afforded him high profile speaking engagements around the world, exposing him to people such as Paula Broadwell whom he met at a speaking engagement in Harvard. His greater responsibility also removed him from his family for long periods of time, isolating him in a world completely divorced from grounded reality.

While the title of Longnecker and Ludwig’s argument gears the article subtly towards men, the psychological theories and assumptions it makes apply to both men and women. It can be all too common to attribute sexual scandals as simply the result of the offender’s gender, reducing stories involving infidelity or subversion of justice to either a masculine or feminine weakness. However, the psychological ramifications of success laid out by Longnecker and Ludwig can be applied to virtually any ethical violation in the news today. It can be seen in the political world with the examples of Richard Nixon or Bo Xilai. It is prevalent in the business world with such examples as the CEOs of ENRON, Lehman Brothers, and Rupert Murdoch. The entertainment industry, possibly the realm of the most sensationalised falls from grace, has examples ranging from Lindsey Lohan to Ziyi Zhang to Jimmy Savile.

It should be noted that I am in no way attempting to defend the actions of either David Petraeus, Paula Broadwell, or any other listed in this article.  While there is an explanation for their various crimes, it cannot expunge the simple truth that they have committed them. Indeed, at new general officer training for the US military, this article along with others about the ethics of command are examined and taught at length. But understanding the psychological rationale behind why these highly successful people felt that they could get away with such ethical violations is vitally important for those of us who intend on being successful in the future. Understanding the implications any success will bring can give us the opportunity to steal ourselves against such temptation, and learn from the mistakes of those who have given into them.

[1] All these listed were actual names of articles in the Washington Post in the weeks following the Petraeus scandal.

[2] Paula Broadwell was not only a Colonel in the US Army Reserves, but was a professor at Tufts University and an analyst for the FBI’s Counterterrorism Bureau as well as being the mother of two

[3] Ludwig, Dean C., and Clinton O. Longenecker. “The Bathsheba Syndrome: The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders.” Journal of Business Ethics 12.4 (1993): 265-73. Print

[4] If you are unfamiliar with the story of the fall of King David: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David#Bathsheba_and_Uriah_the_Hittite