Bathsheba Syndrome: Leadership and Power, Lust and Sin

Carey Upton, in his blog Creating the 21st Century,  wrote a great essay about Bathsheba Syndrome, about the impact of leaders whose moral failings happen partly because of their success and power. Based on the myth of King David and Bathsheba from the Old Testament of the Bible, and other sources.

Upton does a great job of summarizing the myth of David and Bathsheba, and what it shows about leadership.

“David went from being a shepherd to the King. He slew the giant Goliath with his sling and a stone. He was a righteous man who believed in and spoke for the one true God. God rewarded David by having him replace King Saul to become King. He had a fast rise to power and wealth. After conquering everyone around Israel and Judah, expanding the boundaries of his Kingdom, and the pressures of ruling, King David grew complacent. When fighting season came around he sent his chief of command, Joab, out with the army to fight the Ammonites rather than go himself as Kings were expected to do. He stayed home. One night he was strolling on the terrace of his palace that built high to give him a vantage over his kingdom. While strolling, he looked down and saw a woman bathing on her rooftop. The bible says “She was very beautiful to look upon.” (The Jewish Midrash says that Satan came in the form of a bird and knocked down the screen shielding Bathsheba.)”

He called for her, she conceived, and he tried to cover up her pregnancy by bringing her husband back from war. When her husband refused because of social rules about wartime behavior, David had him killed, married Bathsheba, and pretended nothing had ever happened, which brought God’s wrath upon him and his house.

Upton writes: “Ludwig and Longenecker  (authors of the 1993 Business Ethics articlethat analyzed the Bathsheba Syndrome) analyzed the cause and conditions of these failings in their article. They found that they were not due to general low moral character. Actually the ones who were most egregious in their acts were those who had been the most moral and virtuous in their rise to success. The ethical violations did not lead to the success but followed in the wake of success, more of a by-product than a direct cause. It is the shadow side of success that is the potential pitfall.

Here are the causes they listed:
1.   Success often allows managers to become complacent and to lose focus, diverting attention to things other than the management of their business.
2.   Success whether personal or organizational, often leads to privileged access to information, people or objects.
3.  With success usually comes increasingly unrestrained control of organizational resources.
4.   Success can inflate a manager’s belief in his or her own personal ability to manipulate outcomes.

They found: “Even individuals with a highly developed moral sense can be challenged (tempted?) by the “opportunities” resulting in the convergence of these dynamics.”

I can’t really speak to what happened with General Petraeus, or Eliot Spitzer, or Clinton, or Madoff, or any of the countless others, but we might need to look at how our very system sets them up for fail in such a huge way.”

It’s a great question: how does our system set successful leaders up for a fall, especially around moral mistakes and temptations? I believe the answer is partly in the weakness of followers.

When a leader’s success makes him or her a hero, we want them to stay heroic, protecting us, inspiring us, becoming a beacon for us. We don’t really want that leader to be human, so we put them up on a pedestal that makes their continued success dependent on behaving like a hero. We give them power as a reward for this incredible burden of living up to our expectations. We wait for them to fix the problems we’ve created, or allowed to be created. We use our power as followers to disempower ourselves.

In this way, we give successful leaders a great deal of power and privilege, protecting them from consequences in smaller relationships and responsibilities, even as we expect them to live up to high standards. It’s a paradox that makes a fall from grace easy, once they get used to their protection and our respect. We tell them what they want to hear and they tell us what we want to hear, and the relationship between leader and followers becomes an empty show, a highly scripted performance. The only truth behind it is the leader’s past achievement as power isolates his ability to act. He has become a figurehead of a hero, not a hero.

Yet leaders enthroned in heroism must feel like they can get away with anything. In the “success envelope” they begin to believe the hype about themselves and their gifts. In addition, they get very very lonely because the relationships that helped them become great leaders aren’t the same. The performance is empty. Breaking moral rules gets easier under those conditions. And followers protect them until the heroic script becomes a soap opera script, at first justifying their smalller missteps, then turning a blind eye to ongoing bad behavior until the envelope tears.

These fragile envelopes always tear, because they are:
a.not real
b. impossible to maintain unless ts inhabitant dies in glory before followers find out s/he had human failings

So, whose fault is it? Leaders or followers?

That’s the big question — and the hardest one to answer, except with a sigh and a muttered, “Well both, duh!”

But how to measure blame when someone like Petraeus, who has served with distinction, suddenly falls into human proportions again? In our over-mediated culture, where the soap opera affair becomes an instant wildfire story, we don’t get a big picture about the fallen hero’s life. And in the US, where adultery in leaders seems to have inexplicably become a litmus test for bad leadership, bad followership is invisible. We are the victims in the melodrama of “betrayal.” It’s all a bit much.

I guess the lesson is pretty simple: it’s time to look at our culture of heroic leaders on their moral pedestals, and recognize the danger we’re putting ourselves and successful leaders in by holding them to a higher standard than mere mortal followers. On the most basic level, it’s a loss and a distraction.

Lust and sin are personal failings, made easier by hero-worship and unrestrained power.  Enough with hyped up “outrage” and “where has ethical leadership gone nowadays?” What’s really outrageous is our failure as followers to step up and participate in our democracy as informed, committed citizens, whatever level of influence we might have.


  1. […] discussed the Bathsheba Syndrome from a lot of different leadership perspectives, and recently discovered some interesting discussions particularly from a military perspective.  […]


  2. […] crisis goes beyond the Bathsheba Syndrome, where leaders with power and earned respect are protected by followers until unethical behavior becomes too egregious. It will probably earn its own name, the Rob Ford […]


  3. […] Christmas I was talking with my niece and nephew about the Bathsheba Syndrome, the story of King David and Queen Bathsheba in the Bible, and the implications of moral misconduct for leadership and morality. (Yes, I do have a remarkable […]


  4. […] news demonstrates that Petraeus was more than careless with his private life, but shared classified information that could have impacted national security. Although his […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: