Enough about the Bathsheba Syndrome: Let’s Talk About King David Syndrome

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.

Susan Hayward as Bathsheba in the 1951 movie

Susan Hayward as Bathsheba in the 1951 movie

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.

Gregory Peck as David, 1951

Gregory Peck as David, 1951

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.

17 comments

  1. […] 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…) […]

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  2. […] also talks briefly about “the David Syndrome,” which many of us women have apparently brought up — and basically demonstrates that he brings […]

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  3. […] much for the Bathsheba Syndrome. Like King David, Petraeus faced personal challenges, lost some face, and stayed in power, big […]

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  4. […] revelation of their power-hungry erotic drives, have been compared in pop leadership circles to King David of Israel,  who added Bathsheba to his harem of  wives after she became pregnant. He paid the price, but later […]

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  5. […] to prove and even more to lose." That indeed, is the a question that's particularly pertinent with the David Syndrome, commonly known as the Bathsheba Syndrome. In everything I've written about this, I don't think […]

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  6. […] into the unconscious, because we over value the individualistic leader — in our case, the ruler, the warrior, and the sage. As with any quality, balance and discernment are key. Sometimes a smile may be […]

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  7. […] women leaders have affairs and ethical lapses, the David Syndrome (as many of us have renamed it!) seems to apply more to men, because they have inherited the […]

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  8. […] particular wisdom in contemporary culture and organizations. I’ve written extensively about the Bathsheba Syndrome, a warning to leaders tempted by false security and arrogance. But here, we have an even older divinity renewed in a positive message for men and women to work […]

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  9. […] 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 source of the problem. But until recently, I hadn’t realized that there are many renaming projects going on since […]

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  10. […] The General had no clothes — that is, the myth of his heroism could only last as long as no one commented on the fact that he is human, like the rest of us. It’s a leadership lesson that has more bite than the Bathsheba Syndrome’s sexist and individualistic moral finger shaking. […]

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  11. […] his career at the CIA, but mismanagement of the complex social and organizational relationships and a lack of self-awareness that made him miss important cues about the change of work culture from military hierarchies to CIA […]

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  12. […] forced to resign from his job as CIA director in 2012 after security breaches were revealed through his extramarital affair with biographer Paula Broadwell. The scandal revitalized the leadership theory, the Bathsheba Syndrome, and made Petraeus a strange […]

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  13. Kathleen · · Reply

    where is the reading of kind David. In the Old Testament?

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    1. Yes, it’s in the Old Testament. Here’s a good source! http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/04642b.htm for citations and story. But there are lots of interpretations, depending on the faith and the sermon! It’s an amazing story….

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  14. […] 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 […]

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  15. […] We just listened endlessly to Leonard Cohen state that Bathsheba’s beauty overthrew David. NO!! David’s lack of self-control overthrew David. Bathsheba was an innocent […]

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    1. Yes; between the power of the King and the King’s greed, she had to acquiesce. Even if she did become queen, he was the instigator. I agree, it was his responsibility. Beauty does not override reason, except in myth and metaphor. I love the Cohen song; it’s as much about his search for the divine as David’s fall from grace. But I think it’s time to stop letting men off the hook for their greed and manipulation, and that goes for powerful figures in politics.

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