The Bathsheba Syndrome in leadership thought is basically the temptation of a powerful man to step outside of morality and sin, usually sexually by committing adultery.
The 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 David Petraeus as a leader in this context. (follow the links to find out more!), but today I want to talk about King David, the one who invited Bathsheba to his bed and made mythic history.
The story of King David is an interesting one. It starts when he’s a child, a humble shepherd anointed to be the next king after Saul, and ends with his death and the rise of wise King Solomon (Bathsheba’s boy, their second son) as the next king. In between, he sooths King Saul with his beautiful harp playing, kills Goliath armed only with faith and a slingshot, writes many of the psalms, becomes King and declares Jerusalem the capital of Israel, dances nearly naked in the streets celebrating the Ark of the Covenant, wages war, claims Bathsheba as his wife, and grows old.
David proves his deep faith many times, offends God and repents many times. He is a renaissance man — a shepherd, a warrior, a lover, an ecstatic worshipper, a poet. He’s a bit of a madman for God, prone to excess during an excessive time — this was, after all, a period of great upheaval, terrible battles and awful punishments from on high.
King David was, by this account, an authentic and visionary leader, dedicated to transformation and service, and unafraid of following his instincts. When he made mistakes, he repented, and was forgiven by God.
So what’s this Bathsheba story all about, really? Since this is the Bible, it’s easier to say what it’s NOT about than to be absolutely certain to its message as a leadership parable. First, he was NOT committing adultery, technically, since Bathsheba was temporarily divorced from her husband because of the war. And, although he did sin, it was not merely greed and lust, because apparently he and Bathsheba were meant for each other by some interpretations, destined by God to create Solomon. One interpretation notes that his sin was not waiting until God had made her available to him.
So, how are we, as modern thinkers, to understand King David’s combination of impatience and arrogance, faith and repentance as a leadership story? He is the wild man leader, the one who broke the rules of combat to slay Goliath and save the Israelites, and broke the rules of moral decency to claim Bathsheba as his wife. He was tested by God, and sometimes failed the tests. His courage and willingness to leap and dance was the key to his success and the cause of his failures.
I think the King David Syndrome as a leadership parable teaches us that a leader’s gifts are always a double-edged sword. The visionary leader can be blind to consequences that will cause harm. The transformational leader can shatter systems that are needed. The moral leader can justify new moralities that break fundamental rules. The courageous leader can bravely fall from grace, caught in certainties and momentum as powerful as lust.
Morality is only one part of that lesson. Sure, breaking fundamental moral codes is the context that forces leaders to repent and face the consequences of our choices, reminding us that we are shaped by our culture even as we are transforming it. But transformation is a tricky process. It tests us all, forcing us to measure, by the results of our risk-taking, what needs to change, what must stay the same.
There is a bit of King David in all great leaders. A leader without wildness is a leader afraid to take risks. But wildness has its costs, and we see that in King David Syndrome.
Note: I used resources from Midrash in this article. I realize this resource is interpretive, not literal to the text. However, it is a fascinating and important form of historical and contextual Biblical scholarship, and as such, offers an interesting counterpoint to straightforward textual interpretation.