The Bathsheba Syndrome, a Modern Obsession: Sexuality, Morality and Leadership

Ever since the David Petraeus Scandal last November, there’s been a lot of buzz about the Bathsheba Syndrome and the ethical lapses of powerful married men in the military and politics. The fall from grace is blamed mostly on the disconnection of the powerful from moral standards, a psychological disorder of power. But there’s levels and levels to this “Syndrome,” and we need to pay attention to the details of this mostly male problem.

Although writers give lip service to women’s leadership lapses, women are mostly represented by wanton lovers and jilted wives in this mythic drama. Given the dominance of men at the CEO and General level in our society, I think it would be fair to call this a man’s problem. (If you’re gasping here at my apparent sexism, see my final note at the end of the blog!)

Mackubin Thomas Owens recanted his positive review of the General’s lover’s great man biograpy noted: “Not all Davids who fall prey to the Bathsheba syndrome have an actual Bathsheba, but Petraeus did,” (The National Review Online,  Free Republic. ) But I have to say, this doesn’t make sense to me. If there were no Bathsheba,  wouldn’t we just call it Watergate?

Nope, this whole “syndrome thing” is about sex, despite the leadership scholarship that equates adultery with plagiarism, violence, embezzlement and other kinds of cheating. Petraeus’ fall from grace wouldn’t have been so absolute, so disappointing to so many, if it weren’t about sex with a temptress.

Yup, you heard me. In the myth, Bathsheba’s (read Paula’s) role is to tempt and David’s role is to fall, because he’s the one with all the power, and she’s only got — well, OK, Broadwell has a degree from Harvard, but really, what tempted him, according to the myth? Her feminine wiles.

So let’s talk about the military, masculinity and the paradox of public virtue and private entitlements.

A man whose power comes after long years climbing the military ranks, had better not get caught in a culture that publicly performs high moral ethics, but protects the lapses of its senior leaders. “Officers develop in the military watching their senior leaders . . . get away with it. Because of that, the example of King David, and Gen. Petraeus, becomes a cautionary tale, not a rule. The caution? “Don’t be stupid – because you CAN get away with it.” (Read more about this cultural paradox of the military in Armed and Ethical…)

And if you don’t get away with it, you apparently lose just about everything. If the culture protects ethical lapses (read here, demonstrations of manly prowess through multiple sexual partners), then sloppy affairs must be punished to protect the public image of the leadership hierarchy.

It’s manly to be virile, but it’s not manly to lose control of your secrets, and (apparently) fall in love with your Bathsheba.

The Personal is the Political

The whole scandal just goes to prove the classic feminist argument that the personal is political. Petraeus moral failures in his personal life reflect on his character, which makes us doubt his leadership abilities, which limits his ability to persuade others he should be followed. Therefore, he has to end his political career.

At this point, I want to say that I know that the scandal wasn’t just about an affair. It was about potential breaches of security, and the way the affair became gossip that revealed chinks and other excesses in the e-armor of the State Department and military culture. But the continued buzz points a moralistic finger to the affair, to the fatal flaw of adultery.

So it’s worth talking about, because our ongoing obsession demonstrates that we’re so interested in measuring the success and failure of our leaders through their public persona that all their accomplishments and friendships fall like a house of cards when we suddenly see a personal flaw. The personal becomes here, if nothing else, the way we interpret the political.

No matter what we say about leadership being more than character, as a culture we still put our leaders on very narrow pedestals, and feel a certain sad satisfaction when they fall off for awhile — then let them climb right on back! Wha?

Especially when they’ve promised to be role models for personal morality, as they vow in the military or the conservative movement.

Personal myth is a bad pedestal to stand on, because it only makes for victims in the end. Poor Bathsheba, who can only claim power by being seduced by it, marrying it, and bearing it children. Poor King David, who commits numerous crimes in order not to get caught. (I’d pity David’s wives, but polygamy was legal back then, so the parallels end rather abruptly.)

Is the test of leadership its personal sexual behavior? Maybe, if our sexual behavior reflects a lack of focus on vital leadership responsibilities. Certainly,  if we listen to the now much cited Ludwig and Longenecker article: to sum up, success leads to ethical failure because of ongoing, privileged access to infomation, people and objects. The leader develops an inflated belief in his own ability, has no direct supervision, and loses strategic focus. Sooner or later, Bathsheba. It’s what they call “the dark side of success” (270).

But it’s hard for me to be so deadly serious about the sexual transgressions of the Petraeus Scandal from a moral point of view. There are too many Sanduskys, Thomases, Clintons and Gingriches who stay in power despite their moral failures, forgiven by even the most conservative scions of our modern culture. Sure, they have to work to find a way back into the good graces of their public. Apologies, reconciliations and divorces must be performed so they can move on up again.

But move on up they do! So it seems, despite the buzz, that  the Bathsheba Syndrome is a passing flu for most men in leadership, despite the kerfuffle all over the internet and in the military communities. And followers let their leaders back up onto the pedestals they watched them topple off of so clumsily.

For me, the most interesting part of this scandal is this: when and how will General Petraeus climb back up to the top, following in the footsteps of so many Davids.

A Final Note: Of course, women aren’t perfect!

Let’s face it, women commit adultery, too —  it’s that two-to-tango thang.

But women in power are still generally more careful, more grateful and work harder to prove themselves six times more worthy for their jobs, so they generally don’t get comfortable enough to to fall prey to the David Syndrome…

Wait, the David Syndrome. That doesn’t work, does it!? That should be what we call the Bathsheba Syndrome, because after all, who summoned whom? (Actually, the King David Syndrome might be very interesting, from a different angle…)

Or maybe, when it happens to women, we should call it the Antony Syndrome? But wait, Cleopatra was only married to her Brother-Husband in order to hold the throne, and Antony’s wife was estranged, so were they cheating? Well, they did die in the end…. Oh, these myths are SO complicated when you pay attention to the details!

I for one simply wish our leaders would do their jobs.


  1. […] I received these responses to a post about David Petraeus and the recent scandal. (click to read it) […]


  2. […] Bathsheba Syndrome in leadership thought is basically the temptation of a powerful man to step outside of morality and sin, usually sexually […]


  3. […] discussed the Bathsheba Syndrome from a lot of different leadership perspectives, and recently discovered some interesting […]


  4. […] Another good theatre term applies to this process: the willing suspension of disbelief. That is, the audience, wooed by good storytelling, holds back the rational knowledge that it’s only a play, and for a moment, believes and feels for the characters on the stage. It’s the same for staged leadership recoveries: we’re supposed to suspend our disbelief, and believe good things about Petraeus and other men who have succumbed to the so-called Bathsheba Syndrome. […]


  5. […] written a lot about the temptation for leaders to go against their values, (The Bathsheba Syndrome, sports scandals). I’ve also looked at the dangers of leading integrally with our values and […]


  6. […] syndrome, which makes a roof-bathing neighbor into a symbol for all power-over temptations, and sex a stand-in for any and every business sin, from adultery to embezzlement. Which begs the question — when did adultery become a business sin? […]


  7. […] represents an extreme example of leaders out of control, and whether we diagnose the problem as the Bathsheba Syndrome, or a failure of personal discipline and integrity, there’s a lesson to be learned by looking […]


  8. […] Barry, David Petraeus, George Bush II, to name a few!) Whether we diagnose the core problem as the Bathsheba Syndrome, or a very human struggle with addiction and desire, there are two issues that affect rebound […]


  9. […] Barry, David Petraeus, George Bush II, to name a few!) Whether we diagnose the core problem as the Bathsheba Syndrome, or a very human struggle with addiction and desire, there are two issues that affect rebound — […]


  10. […] 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 […]


  11. Bathsheba knew what she was doing–she was the temptress. It is apparent that Bathsheba wanted to marry up. David was the one in power, but, being in power, David was responsible for the situation. And, David should have known that it isn’t smart to have an affair with someone who has less to lose than he did. This affair brought havoc to David’s family for generations–a good study for family-systems devotees.


    1. This is also a common interpretation of the Bible passage. She certainly adapted very well to being Queen, and managed to bring Solomon to the Kingship. I also agree that David should have known better — but not because Bathsheba necessarily had less to lose (I donʻt believe extramarital affairs are ever balanced), but because he undermined his position as anointed King, chosen leader.

      You raise an interesting point about family-systems being disrupted by this kind of betrayal. What patterns do you in the legacy of this leadership lapse in family-systems? Do you think that same analysis might help us understand the David Petraeus scandal? Or other leadership lapses?


  12. […] of us have wanted to change the name of the Bathsheba Syndrome to the David Syndrome — identifying the one who made the mess by his bad choices as the […]


  13. […] Danger Room senior reporter Spencer Ackerman wrote a fascinating article about his complicity in the media hype that made General David Petraeus a hero. Without that carefully constructed pedestal, Petraeus might not have risen so high, or fallen because of a personal moral lapse. Through this lens, it’s possible that Petraeus fall came from an entirely different leadership problem than the much mentioned Bathsheba Syndrome. […]


  14. […] about General David Petraeus, for example. What if it wasn’t the “Bathsheba Syndrome” affair that ended his career at the CIA, but mismanagement of the complex social and organizational […]


  15. […] extramarital affair with biographer Paula Broadwell. The scandal revitalized the leadership theory, the Bathsheba Syndrome, and made Petraeus a strange combination of laughing stock and poster child for an apparently […]


  16. […] and businessman David Petraeus has become the poster-dude for the David Syndrome (also known as the Bathsheba Syndrome, in popular parlance.) Now, thanks to CDR Stallard and Major Sanger, in the Marine Corps Gazette,  […]


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