Leadership and General Petraeus

I received the following email from a participant in a recent leadership development program.

“You made a comment about general Petraeus today that surprised me.  You seemed genuinely disappointed in him that he was not leading by example – but his affair, to me, is largely a private matter and should have little effect on his ability to lead or dampen his accomplishments.  I was surprised that something so private and seemingly inconsequential to his job would garner such attention to the point of ruining his career.  If you have any thoughts I’d be interested to hear what you have to say.”

First of all let me start by saying that I have the utmost respect for the contributions that General Petraeus has made to this country. That, in part, amplifies my personal disappointment. But let me move beyond my own emotional reactions and address three reasons why General Petraeus’ extramarital affair directly impairs his ability to lead.

1. Leaders are in the Spotlight – The first reason why General Petraeus’ actions directly impact his ability to lead is related to where leadership in the military is different than in civilian life. In the military, leadership often crosses very deeply from the workplace and into personal matters. For example, when I was a young Army Officer, if one of my soldiers wrote a bad check or was abusing a family member at home, I was personally responsible for ensuring the solider found help. Likewise, my actions, both during and after work, reflected directly on me as an Officer. For example, it wasn’t uncommon for Officers who were found driving under the influence to be  dismissed from active military service within weeks of a conviction. The point in all of this is that military leaders are held to a higher standard, and that General Petraeus violated the standards that he probably worked so hard to abide by and hold other leaders accountable to throughout his career.

But, I think this issue also brings up an important element of leadership that all leaders, both military or civilian, should consider. You, as a leader, are in the spotlight whether you like it or not. People watch your every action and inaction. They listen to the words you use, and observe what you choose not to say. From there, they make decisions about whether they want to follow you.

NOTE: While General Petraeus wasn’t on active duty during the time when his extramarital affair emerged. He was, however, in the spotlight as head of the CIA which leads to my second point on why his actions impacted his ability to lead.

2. Making Personal Interests More Important than Organizational Interests – As of the time of this posting, the General Petraeus scandal didn’t seem to impact national security. But the potential for blackmail because of a conflict of interest, his relationship with Paula Broadwell, existed. Which brings up another leadership challenge. If our interests are in direct conflict with that of the organization, we ultimately end up focused on the wrong things. Imagine if General Petraeus continued to work for the CIA and one of his agents found herself in an inappropriate relationship that did impact national security. Would he have had the credibility to take action? Probably not. Leaders have to be resolutely focused on organizational goals first, because when individual agendas and egos take over, they not only lose their ability to lead effectively, they do a disservice to the organization and its people.

3. Loss of Credibility – The third reason why General Patreaus’ affair impairs his ability to lead is tied to an underlying factor of my personal philosophy on leadership – Leading by Example. While General Petraeus’ has arguably made the most significant contributions to our nation in modern military history, his actions undermined a very important aspect of leadership – credibility. And, credibility is the foundation of leading by example and of leadership itself. Without credibility, a leader has nothing. The leader no longer has the ability to lead by influence and has to rely on the executive power and authority of the position to get things done. And, when people are required to do things done through brute force instead of through influence, they tend to be compliant instead of committed.

So, back to the workshop participant who asked my why General Petraeus’ seemingly inconsequential act had such an impact on his career. This post really isn’t about General Petraeus. It’s about the fundamentals of leadership. And the fundamentals always matter – regardless of whether you are a 4-star general or a front line supervisor –  (1) Leaders can’t expect from others what they aren’t first willing to do themselves.  (2) A leader has to be resolutely focused on organizational objectives. (3) Leadership does’t exist without credibility.