Bathsheba Syndrome: the Military Challenges Itself

I’ve discussed the Bathsheba Syndrome from a lot of different leadership perspectives, and recently discovered some interesting discussions particularly from a military perspective.  These resources suggest that this “syndrome” is  “cured” or “prevented” by creating accountability in relationships  and having a clear sense of personal ethics.

The most thorough is a YouTube panel discussing the syndrome in a military context. In addition to three officers and a very talkative Dr. Longnecker, whose 1993 article is credited with naming this particular leadership syndrome.

Longnecker, whose business research has gone further than his thought piece on the Bathsheba Syndrome, is interested in discussing organizational change leadership and trustworthiness, a combination of competency and character. Together, there is “a compounding effect” that makes leaders more effective.

The video is about an hour long, and worth the listen, although Longnecker’s presentation is really a folksy training talk or a sermon. He also rambles a lot, about shaved heads, his life and work, and the fabulousness of the panelists, and depends too much on powerpoint slides. However, he covers some basic ideas and offers a good summary if you want to hear him speak about these ideas and his research clearly and to a military audience.

He also talks briefly about “the David Syndrome,” which many of us women have apparently brought up — and basically demonstrates that he brings up Bathsheba because he wants to talk about the temptation of leaders — it’s his “in” to catch our attention. And it sure has, since the fall from grace of General David Petraeus.

Ultimately, he encourages us to look at David’s abuse of “his resource base. Leadership failure in an ethical or competency perspective never happens in a vacuum.” He acknowledges that the issue of CEO/leader immorality isn’t only about sex — it’s about power. He concludes that everyone needs to “develop a personal code of conduct. Clearly articulate what you stand for as a leader, identifying your greater purpose and the temptations you face in your organization.  Finally, he argues that leaders need to develop “guard rails” to prevent giving into temptation. Useful advice to prevent lapses of moral judgement.

Listen to the whole talk, so you can hear the military scholars and thinkers reflecting on Longnecker’s presentation at the Naval War College.

In 2012, Stars and Stripes author Wyatt Olson commented that Longnecker’s ideas about the Bathsheba Syndrome are part of the military’s leadership and training program.

Primarily, the Syndrome entered the discussion in a 2010 Navy Inspector General’s report that noted: “While the review didn’t discover any systemic reasons for misconduct, it did find several “significant contributing factors,” among them the Bathsheba Syndrome. In cases of personal misconduct, the review concluded, “COs either did not possess the insight into their motives and weaknesses to prevent them from knowingly engaging in unacceptable behavior or they felt that they had the power to conceal their misdeeds.”

Olson also quotes research by Donelson Forsyth, from the Jepson School of Leadership: “A naval vessel is a “floating community,” Forsyth said, “and as a result the social relations among members likely are very different — more intense, more dense, more psychologically important — from those in other military settings. I would assume that this intensification of relationships can cause commanders to make mistakes in their judgment, as the work relationship becomes mixed with the personal relationship.”

A 2013 headline in the Examiner said, “Petraeus victim of Bathsheba Syndrome.”

It’s such an interesting way to frame a common ethical problem in our culture and particularly in military hierarchies of power. Calling it a syndrome makes leaders who fail into victims just because of the language we’re using, at least in our shorthand about the issue.

But it’s not a disease, or an individual problem, although it seems to be viral lately, and it is about an individual’s fall from grace. It’s as much an organizational failure, where blurred boundaries, reduced personal accountability and strategic errors are encouraged by structural protections for the upper ranks and “yes-sir” followers.

It’s ultimately the group dynamic that makes the fall feel inevitable. So the remedy must be more than Longnecker’s useful call to ethics and high character. The “cure” for this “disorder” is organizational change.

Easier said than done, of course. But with the Petraeus scandal still ringing in our ears and increased reports of sexual misconduct in the military, it’s a good time to consider the ways we can change our organizations to create more accountable leaders.

3 comments

  1. […] projects going on since General David Petraeus’ affair with his biographer was revealed, and Ludwig and Longenecker’s Bathsheba Syndrome became a “hot” mention in the media. Here are a few alternative […]

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  2. […] David 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 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 common problem in the military. […]

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  3. […] a great idea. So, how do we do it, and keep our jobs, inside and outside the military? That’s the big question, isn’t it!? What do you think? Is leadership training the […]

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