Antidote to the Bathsheba Syndrome: Nathan as Spiritual Leader

Soldier 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 Sanger, in the Marine Corps Gazette,  we have a spiritual view of the antidote, the Nathan Solution.

The Nathan Solution hearkens back to the Bible story that Ludwig and Longnecker used to illustrate their theory that power leads to failure because powerful men become insulated by influence — until they go too far, and fall of their pedestals. Nathan was a prophet, and one of King David’s advisors. and he used a seemingly innocuous story about a rich man stealing a poor man’s sheep to reframe King David’s crime of raping/seducing the already married Bathsheba and killing her husband. Sanger and Stallard call Nathan, “the reprover,” the man brave enough to stand up to power and name the transgression others ignore.

They mourn the need for such a role, naming many formerly strong leaders who chose misconduct over integrity. “GEN Petraeus’ resignation from the Central Intelligence Agency due to an extramarital affair, GEN William Ward’s demotion to major general for using government resources for personal agendas, and BG Jeffrey Sinclair, currently pending general court-martial for several sexual misconduct–related charges are public examples of moral and ethical failure. It seems this list is perennially refreshed by senior officers and enlisted servicememembers who, after honorable careers without blemish, commit misconduct worthy of relief and perhaps prosecution.”

But how can this cultural problem (by no means limited to the military!) be addressed before it results in suspension or dishonor? The answer is: courageous followers.

They go on to note that there are two roles in the military who might take on the burden of challenging and perhaps preventing these leaders from failing their call to duty: chaplains and, less formally, subordinates. This is an interesting vision of modern applications of spiritual and follower counsel in a moral crisis. And in the military, an organization marred by sexism and sexual abuse as women join the ranks, this is a refreshing and interesting vision of leadership behind the scenes.

“Chaplains have a burden to bear because they are bound by regulatory policy to keep confidential all matters pertaining to their advice and counsel to a commander. This does not mean the chaplain is a passive observer of a violation of law, and his silence is inaction; chaplains should remain on task to ensure the commander receives the support necessary to make a prudent decision while maintaining confidentiality.” They can be there before Bathsheba becomes a problem, if they have the courage and trust to lead like Nathan.

But when misconduct happens, subordinates must decide if they offer counsel or report their superior. In the latter case, “the Nathan Solution” becomes “the Nathan Obligation.” Best to avoid that altogether, and steer a superior back on the right path, like Nathan:

“Before conduct reaches a level in which law must be invoked, it would be wise for commanders to seek counsel and be open to receiving guidance. Likewise, a Marine in the position of providing counsel to a superior must have the courage to be candid and persuasive. If a leader gives any indication that he will even come close to committing misconduct, that leader’s counselors must not only raise the issue, but also have the fortitude and intelligence to make recommendations that are convincing.”

I like this argument about the David Syndrome, because it goes back to a point that needs to be made and made again, until we all finally get it — our leaders will do what we allow them to do, either by our passivity or our active support. Followers may not feel powerful, but we/they are very, very powerful.

Like Nathan (who answered to a higher power, and therefore did not fear the consequences of his challenge) we are called to stand up for what’s right when we see a wrong being committed by the King Davids above us. And we’re also called to stand up for integrity, before a wrong is committed, in our expectations of our leaders!

It’s 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 answer?







  1. Thank you, Carol. I very much appreciate your thoughts and your “words fitly spoken.” I think you’re absolutely right on many of your points in your article. I even extracted something that I thought of while pondering your thoughts: “Ego” is almost never leadership’s “amigo.”

    While I am a bit sympathetic to General Petraeus—primarily because his so-called
    “classified crime” is trumped many times over by Hillary Clinton and there seems to be no urgency of investigation and prosecution of her —I agree that history is crowed with men (and now women) who would be gods (but only one God who would be man).

    It used to be said that leaders, like organizations, would not be rescued from crises by their colleagues, board members, or even stockholders, but by the laity. And if the leader or organization was free of misconduct, dissension would always be from the outside; when the leader or organization is guilty of misconduct, dissension would be from within.

    As more and more people become takers, there become fewer and fewer givers to society. Ultimately, inner and external disaster always begins with even one person’s philosophy of doing less and wanting more. And as much as a society needs a prosperous economy, it also needs a “prosperity of kindness and decency.” The result is what repeats itself in history: A struggle between takers and givers. This continues until the “takers” become the majority, and society falls apart in moral decay and material bankruptcy.

    History does repeat itself. The human track record is, in fact, grim. Thus far, no society has survived its own success. Whenever any great society gets to the top for any period-of time, they forget how they got there. They rest on their laurels, playing “king and queen of the mountain,” and apathy, greed, laziness, and self-indulgence sets in…and they fall on their rears.

    Where’s leadership in all this? I believe creating more government for the takers, trying to be rescued by colleagues and insiders, and endeavoring to fix the dissension from within.

    Leaders must always remember the distinction between serving the organization vs.
    serving the GOAL of the organization.


  2. It’s interesting that you raise the connection between the email security problems with Hilary Clinton, and we need to add Jeb Bush (whose security breaches in personal email were far more serious than Clinton’s) and probably many others to the list. As far as my research has found, it may well be that our email habits need great scrutiny, and that our leaders, on the right and left, are being far too careless.

    As I understand it, the problem that got Petraeus fired/resigned was not so much the email issue, although that was the clue that led them to the scandal itself, that he had breached security in other ways, and broken trust on many levels, not just with his biographer.

    Your point about leaders who weaken their influence and integrity by becoming “takers” speaks to the culture of greed and individualism that makes it hard to serve either the organization or the goal of the organization, which ideally will be in alignment.


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