On Leadership: Petraeus Post-Scandal Reaps Privilege, Profit

David Petraeus has a lot of jobs lately, CUNY and KKR Global Institute. But Jena McGregor reports in the Washington Post’s On Leadership that he’s backed off on the impossibly lucrative $200,000 salary for adjunct work at CUNY, now claiming $1 for his class at Macauley Honors College.

McGregor notes that “the Ivory Tower has long been a reliable stop on the road to redemption for post scandal public figures.” But in a field where even famous adjuncts are lucky to get $5000 for one class, Petreaus got greedy. (Who can blame him, perhaps, when former presidents and politicos get a few hundred thousand to give speeches?)

Cliff Owen, AP

Cliff Owen, AP

It’s hard to imagine expecting such a lucrative salary when even the most successful professors generally receive less than half the initial offer. Here’s another sign of celebrity self-help, demonstrating that the performance of penitence after a scandal is just a way of moving forward, holding on to whatever power and influence he might save or regain.

It’s the art of the comebackaccording to McGregor. Academic jobs can help, but it’s really about managing public image and creating a non-sexualized, altruistic image to redeem them.

“The most critical ingredient for anyone trying to undergo image rehab is, ironically, that their focus turns away from themselves. That’s one reason the New York Times Magazine cover story on Weiner and his wife didn’t have the impact it might have. It felt like a therapy session at times, more than just an exercise in coming clean. It’s also why the 1,200-word, full-page ad from Mark Sanford rebutting the trespassing allegations against him backfired so badly. (“It’s been a rough week,” Sanford began, seemingly oblivious to how tone deaf he sounded at the end of a week that included a terrorist attack in Boston, a horrible fertilizer plant explosion in Texas and an attempt to poison the president.)

As a public, we’re willing to forgive, but we need a little help. Give us time. Take on a do-gooder job or two before you ask us to vote for you again. And when you do try to retake the stage, make sure the focus stays off of you, even if it is your image that’s really in need of the boost.”

Leadership image: it’s the heart of authenticity, isn’t it? At least the shallow kind of authentic leadership that pop culture celebrates, the kind where looking right and being consistent trumps being right. If we believe, we can forgive; and if we forgive, they can step back into the limelight.

The limelight: the source of that cliche is the harsh light made from burning quicklime that illuminated theaters before electricity in the 19th century.  Just as the cliche implies — it’s all about lighting up the illusion, the story that the fallen leader wants us to pay attention to. The magic of theatre and the magic of post-scandal image repair for leaders: it’s all about the story they want us to believe.

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.

These men, who suffer from the public 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 fathered the great King Solomon with her. Petraeus and his fellow transgressors aren’t as powerful or as blessed as King David; they have to rebuild their reputations with PR, and preserve their power with professorships.

It’s a big performance, which isn’t news to cynical followers, but always turns out to be a big disappointment for followers who had high hopes for their heroes. Whether we’re fooled again, well, that’s up to us, isn’t it?

Whatever happens, it’s a fascinating show, as our fallen heroes step back into the limelight and onto the stage of power.

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