David Petraeus: How does the sex scandal reflect on his leadership ability?

CIA Director, 4-Star General David Petraeus resigned this week because of implications that his extramarital affair jeopardized national security.

David Petraeus, AP Photograph

It’s a familiar story, although the ending of this one — the resignation — isn’t always inevitable. Presidents, Representatives, Governors, Deans, CEOs — many are tempted and many give in to temptation. A few resign over the scandal, others limp on for a little while, waiting it out and emerging bruised but still in power.

Powerful men seem to fall into this pattern all the time — or maybe it’s not just powerful men — it’s just men. And maybe it’s not just men — it’s people in general. So maybe we just notice it more with powerful people. I know, that’s a lot of maybes.

But I’m certain of this: people who have achieved a great deal often rise to powerful positions, achieving financial and personal influence along with celebrity and a very high pedestal. We hold them to high standards, and we love to see them fall.

Petraeus’ fall: sex scandal or political surgery?

News of Petraeus’ adulterous affair with his biographer Paula Broadwell comes at the same time as the scandal about allegedly inadequate response to the 9/11/2012 attack on the US Embassy in Libya. He will testify tomorrow in a hearing closed to media and the public. The two seem interwoven in complex ways, politically, organizationally and personally. It seems the first thread to unravel was Petraeus, but I expect he will not be the last.

Before I comment on that, I want to summarize the nitty gritty context so it’s clear how messy his world has become.

What US Military Law says about adultery

The affair is, technically, forbidden under US military law. Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice states that “adultery is clearly unacceptable conduct, and it reflects adversely on the service record of the military member.” The punishment: dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and confinement for one year.”  (According to About.com) Eugene Fidell, a military law scholar at Yale University noted in Time Magazine, that “retired regulars who draw pay are subject to the UCMJ, for life.”  Petraeus’ greater punishment might be the loss of political clout and his position as head of the CIA.

What we know so far about the “scandal” around the Embassy attack in Libya

As for the Libya scandal, it’s not yet clear if that’s a tempest in the Tea Party, or a legitimate problem worthy of investigation regarding the September 11, 2012 attack. There’s a lot of smoke being blown about, and it’s hard to see the fire. One issue is whether the terrorism behind the attack was acknowledged quickly enough.  That issue came up in one of the presidential debates, and is still being inexplicably bandied about, given that the president did acknowledge terrorism in his first public statement on September 12.

A good example of smoke: UN Representative Susan Rice is under the gun from Senator John McCain for her comments about the cause of the attack on the embassy — initially, with many caveats about waiting for a complete report, she blamed a protest against much discussed anti-Muslim video, and only later acknowledged the attack was terrorist in origin. Check out the Washington Post‘s thoroughly fact-checked blog by Glenn Kessler, who awards “Pinocchios” to politicians who stretch the truth and/or flat out lie. While Rice could have done better, McCain’s accusations are unfounded — she did not “mislead the American people,” as McCain claimed many times, misquoting her and exaggerating her confidence in the protester idea. It seems pretty clear that McCain is simply trying to block her nomination as Secretary of State, as loudly as he can.

The other issue around the attack is whether the US responded quickly enough. That may well be the fire, and it ought to be the main topic of the hearings on Capital Hill, but the smoke seems to be getting the most attention in the media. For details about speed and in/efficiency of response, read Fox News report on that question.

So, now that we know the context…. What do these scandals say about Petraeus and his leadership?

1. Powerful men whose power is in jeopardy fall more quickly from personal scandal than those who are securely entrenched. Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich kept their jobs, even though they slept around. In some ways, the General’s affair is a deal breaker because of our political context, not because it reflects badly on his leadership abilities.

2. Leaders are judged in the context of their personal and social contracts. The military code, in this case, makes his mistake not just a moral lapse, but almost criminal. Petraeus rose through a hierarchy of war-based rules to protect security, to create a moral code of conduct and to force public conformity to certain values. In this context, the lapse does reflect on his leadership abilities, and his response — to resign — acknowledges his carelessness as a character flaw.

3. Petraeus is a leader who has stepped from military structures into civilian politics. The closed world of the military is very different from the contested celebrity of government leadership. Perhaps he didn’t realize how visible he was, personally, or how fragile the leadership pedestal is in federal positions. All his skills in military strategy and wartime negotiations could not prepare him for the Washington cockfight and media frenzy. This is a classic example of the ways different styles of leadership thrive or fail in different contexts — his leadership practice is, indeed, shadowed by an adulterous affair, because of his rigid code of ethics and military background. Even if he weren’t politically implicated by the Libya attacks, this would be a difficult moment for him.

How does his response reflect on his leadership skill?

I think General Petraeus demonstrates authentic leadership in his measured, graceful response to this crisis. He’s doing his job, acknowledging fault, and dealing with the consequences without blaming others. He is allowing news of the strange scandal involving Jill Kelley, the whistle-blower, a military society matron with a questionable background herself, to be revealed without comment as the scandal expands to include other military and civilian players. He continues to behave as professionally as he did before his personal lapse was revealed. That’s a sign of an authentic leader.

Should he have resigned? I don’t know. It’s a much bigger picture than simple adultery, and we have yet to see what’s really happening in the whole smoky mess.


  1. […] source of the story is the Old Testament, and it’s much in the news because of the recent David Petraeus scandal. I’ve blogged in detail about both our ongoing fascination with the Bathsheba Syndrome and […]


  2. […] out of control. Unfortunately, there are and have been many in the past years. (Marion Barry, David Petraeus, George Bush II, to name a few!) Whether we diagnose the core problem as the Bathsheba Syndrome, or […]


  3. […] out of control. Unfortunately, there are and have been many in the past years. (Marion Barry, David Petraeus, George Bush II, to name a few!) Whether we diagnose the core problem as the Bathsheba Syndrome, or […]


  4. […] seeing Bathsheba bathing on the roof, only repenting when forced to by a punishing angel. As in General David Petraeus, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner, etc. etc. etc. But sex isn’t the only way to prove virility. […]


  5. […] Petraeus was forced to resign from his job as CIA director in 2012 after security breaches were revealed through his extramarital affair with biographer Paula […]


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