The Petraeus Syndrome and Leadership Stories: A Rotten Rose by Any Other Name?

Many of us 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 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 perspectives:

THE PETRAEUS SYNDROME is most notably proposed by Rachel Toor in her blog/Running Times article, “Petraeus Syndrome: It’s not right, but I understand.”  Her article reminded me to look at the person, and avoid abstracting the pattern into a “syndrome” that serves generalized – and malleable –  leadership theory.
Cliff Owen, AP

Cliff Owen, AP

Toor writes about her crushes on her running buddies, and Petraeus’ moral:  “When I read the headline scandals, the stories of men who have stumbled, usually I think, Really? Texting photos of your dooker? Embezzlement? Fraud? Not paying taxes? Maybe I just don’t understand greed, and find willy selfies silly.

But when Gen. David Petraeus tripped for his running buddy–that I got. Here was a woman who could keep up–physically and intellectually–and who made his life the subject of her work. They spent time together doing something they both loved, and those privileged, isolated moments provided a substrate for something unbidden to grow.

“Perhaps she was after something: access to power, fodder for a book, another shiny trophy. I don’t know; her public persona made me not like her. But my sympathies went hard with the general, who struck me as a stand-up guy. To some, his mistake might seem unimaginable, but I feel like I know the process he went through, could recite the lies he told himself to try to ignore the buzz and hum of what happened when they ran together.

“I know that buzz and hum–of wanting to do right, but not right now. The charge that passes when elbows accidentally brush, the intimacy of listening to another person breathe, the quiet that comes after hard effort. Maybe the general talked about his recovery from prostate cancer. Maybe he told her what scared him. Maybe he said he loved his wife but the passion had withered. Maybe he was a serial scumbag. I don’t know. But I feel I understand him better than I do the wiener-texters and Ponzi-schemers.”

I like the way she identifies Petraeus’ specific situation instead of layering a mythic story and a generalized idea about fraud and temptation on top of it. There’s a big difference between a Ponzi scheme and an extramarital affair, in the details and the big picture.

Toor wasn’t the first to use this phrase, though. In 2010, the Atlantic Monthly bemoaned “the PETRAEUS SYNDROME” as a General out of control, using beltway schmoozing to bury civilian priorities with military grandstanding and misinformation.  That same year, Tom Englehardt spun “the Vietnam Syndrome” into a critique of the US war in Afghanistan, calling it “the Petraeus Syndrome,” for his questionable leadership.

Others have called Petraeus fall, the ICARUS SYNDROME, or my personal favorite in the pop psychology category, the DISGRACED CELEBRITY SOCIOPATH SYNDROME. In this case, Petraeus seems more like Icarus than a sociopath (although it looks like the General will more than survive his fall from the heights.) On the other hand, the sociopath argument is amusing and media-savvy, naming all three participants (Petraeus, Kelly and Broadwell) celebrity sociopaths.

It’s quite a name game! In the spirit of viral thinking, I’m spinning the scandal/syndrome a few new names today:

The Sudden Hormone Syndrome
The Elephant-in-the-Room Syndrome
The Oops Syndrome
and from Broadwell’s point of view: The Hero Worship Syndrome

What would you call it, if you could name “the Petraeus Syndrome?”

One comment

  1. […] Think about General David Petraeus, for example. What if it wasn’t the “Bathsheba Syndrome” affair that ended 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 politics. […]


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