It’s a Man’s World: the Bathsheba Syndrome, Moral Leadership and Cultural Differences

Over 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 for leadership and morality. (Yes, I do have a remarkable family, and am grateful every day!) They asked if it was a syndrome mostly suffered by men, and I had to say yes.

David Petraeus, AP Photograph

David Petraeus, AP Photograph

Although 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 privileged and problematic role of being a man in a man’s world. For leaders, being male creates an extra layer of insulation and temptation that makes it even easier to feel safe while breaking rules. Male leaders in high profile roles can more easily imagine they act in an invisible bubble, protected from the consequences of their choices.

Here are some interesting statistics:

Women are much less likely to commit corporate fraud, or at least be the ringleader of fraudulent behavior. “In a study published in April, researchers at Penn State and Washington State examined 83 cases of corporate fraud and 436 defendants indicted by the Corporate Fraud Task Force. Although women had fewer opportunities to engage in corporate fraud (either because they were less visible in high ranking positions or because they were excluded from participation in criminal enterprises), it’s telling that while nearly three out of four cases of corporate fraud involved all-male networks, not one single case involved a woman working on her own or a group of women conspiring together, and there was only one mixed-sex group that featured a female ringleader.” (From The Daily Beast…)

New research indicates that one of the reasons for this pattern is primarily cultural — because masculinity is on the line in negotiations on all level of the corporate ladder. (Another way of thinking about this is that conforming to male norms is part of a privilege network in a culture biased towards masculine values in public arenas.) There’s an interesting leadership paradox here: masculinity is a source of both protection and frailty for men in power.

hero-leadersAs reported in Scientific American, “Instead, a recent series of studies by Laura Kray and Michael Haselhuhn suggests that the root of this pattern may be more socio-cultural in nature, as men – at least in American culture – seem motivated to protect and defend their masculinity. These scientists suggest that losing a “battle,” particularly in contexts that are highly competitive and historically male oriented, presents a threat to masculine competency. Apparently manhood is relatively fragile and precarious, and when it is challenged, men tend to become more aggressive and defensive. So a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. To ensure victory, men will sacrifice moral standards if doing so means winning


Lance Armstrong, star athlete, disgraced by drug use to enhance his performance

“To test this theory, Kray and Haselhuhn conducted several experiments in which they examined not only the kinds of moral decisions made by men and women, but also the personal and situational factors that influenced those decisions…. Consistent with other findings, men in this investigation were more tolerant of withholding information from the seller. Moreover, this leniency was more prevalent for men who perceived negotiating as a masculine endeavor. Thus men found it more acceptable to deceive if they believed that successful negotiating was an indicator of male prowess.”

Male prowess. As in, King David, King and Warlord, giving in to temptation again and again after seeing Bathsheba bathing on the roof, only repenting when forced to by a punishing angel. As in General David Petraeus, Mark Sanford, Anthony Weiner, etc. etc. etc. But sex isn’t the only way to prove virility. Wealth, influence and winning all count in a man’s world.  So the seduction and trap of protecting male power makes it easier for men to fall into the David Syndrome, whether the transgression involves sex, money or influence.

The Scientific American article concludes: “Before we uniformly cast men as self-serving, cut-throat schemers devoid of moral backbones, it is important to consider the fact that these investigations all used competitive negotiation scenarios, where strong men have, stereotypically, been successful. Failure in these historically male-dominated situations is associated with diminished financial status, threat to professional rank, and – at least to some – weakness. It is possible that women may demonstrate similar vulnerabilities to their moral standards when faced with dilemmas that challenge their feminine competency or identity, or in arenas were women are (stereotypically) expected to be successful (e.g., skill as a mother, navigating social interactions, effectiveness as a writer). Nonetheless, these findings suggest that if ethical standards are a significant factor in your choice of financial advisors or real estate agents, it may be safer to go with Bernadette than with Bernie.”

Three thoughts about leadership, in the light of this research:

1. Leadership behavior and ethical standards are responses to cultural rules and roles. ( And we are always acting in a cultural context, so it takes great courage to step out of the stereotypical boxes that contain us.)
2. Men and women have different reasons and reactions to power. (No one is “superior” here — in the web of cultural privilege and the struggle of social change, we all behave differently, based on our moral, political and cultural values and roles.)
3. Leadership research that pretends to be gender neutral is incomplete, and perhaps even delusional.
Bottom Line: Acknowledging cultural difference might make all the difference for understanding the relationships of leadership, power and ethics. 


  1. […] In real life — that is, in the daily relationships between leaders, colleagues and followers, where people are people, playing roles but living them at the same time. And while this quote makes great sense, it’s easier said than done, because unmindful  leadership separates us from ourselves and others if we’re seduced by status. […]


  2. […] Granted, this childish poke at Cohen is more a silly twitter meme to entertain people uninterested in the facts than a commentary on the lawyer’s testimony. However, the rhetorically limp barb captures something important about what happens when bad leaders (liars) apparently try to change their behavior. They suddenly seem even more inauthentic than they ever did before, especially to those who were invested in their deceptive performance. […]


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