The Warning Signs Of David Petraeus's Fall, And How To Find A Way Forward

World-class organizations—the U.S. military included—are greater than their high-performing leaders. Here are the warning signs that an organization may be susceptible to malfeasance, and how to recover after the fall.

The recent spate of transgressions, whether by high-profile CEOs or general officers, should elicit reflection about what we expect of top leaders, and what organizations should do when those leaders let us down. Our social networks are ablaze with laments by people who have lost their heroes—"first Lance Armstrong, now Generals Petraeus and Allen, who will be next, are there any heroes we can count on?" It’s a vulnerability we’ve brought on ourselves by viewing integrity as a heroic personal characteristic, rather than a pattern of daily decisions or a set of organizational standards.

As to the former view, America would be much better served by finding heroes closer to home, in teachers, coaches, police officers, grandparents, nurses, and other everyday champions who maintain integrity in our society every day. Famous personalities are idealized and will be undercut by human frailty, sometimes publicly, sometimes not. Great organizations—and Livestrong and the U.S. military are great organizations—gain their strength from the collective integrity of their everyday heroes.

The path ahead for great organizations that suffer senior leader malfeasance starts with accountability. David Petraeus's quick and decisive resignation was the first step back into his lifelong pattern of doing the right thing that will lead inevitably to personal reconciliation and future public contribution. Organizations need to take swift action to reestablish their collective integrity following a senior leader mistake, because great organizations are invariably greater than their high performing leaders. Does his loss make our country less safe? Hardly. Military leaders take great pride in building organizations that maintain high performance following the unexpected loss of a leader; it would be a leadership failure to create an organization that fell apart when the boss goes down. Leaders of Petraeus's stature are not isolated geniuses—they are a near movement, organizing and blending their intellect with those around them into systems of thinking and doing. Part of their success is reflected in the counterintuitive reality that the greatest can always be replaced. To think otherwise is to embrace the antiquated "great man" view of leaders through history.

Most explanations for bad personal decisions among top-tier leaders involve unchecked egos, and the expansion of a leader’s personal staff in organizations with otherwise austere personnel practices is a clear indication that the individual is taking precedence over the organization. In the military, tradition holds that flag officers have a small personal staff that includes an Aide-de-Camp. In the past 20 years, however, new follower roles have emerged around these military leaders—tiger teams, special initiatives groups, strategic communications advisors, protocol hostesses and social liaisons (a la Jill Kelley), special historians, biographers, videographers, all arguably focused more on the leaders themselves than on the organization broadly. Little wonder that egos expand to the breaking point. While regulations focus on the appropriate use of official aides, these sketchier positions have no such limitations. A general or admiral can literally surround themselves with buffers of personal staff, pulling advice and decision making closer to themselves and away from more formal organizational staff structures that are less likely to produce protective, fawning sycophants who are more tolerant of (or willing participants in) ethical transgression. The result is over-fed leader egos and limited access by others in the organization. This organizational phenomenon is worthy of scrutiny in all large organizations with powerful leaders, not just our military.

There are clear lessons here for those who can clear their heads and hearts of the schadenfreude that accompanies public scandal. Think of integrity as an organizational quality to be nurtured daily. Avoid hero worship and the false perception that integrity is a heroic personal characteristic. The best organizations hold leaders accountable, and the best leaders are quick to hold themselves accountable. Great leaders have already made themselves expendable. And if egos are at the core of senior leader transgression, be highly cautious of buffers that grow between the leader and the greater organization. Perhaps the most important lesson is that the ongoing and passing scandals are not a requiem for heroes, but a rare glimpse into the simple human frailty of some of our finest leaders.

—Retired Brigadier General Tom Kolditz is a professor in the practice of leadership at the Yale School of Management. He led the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, for 12 years, and was founding director of the West Point Leadership Center. He is the author of In Extremis Leadership: Leading As If Your Life Depended On It. Follow him on Twitter @thomaskolditz.

[Image: Flickr user Hector Alejandro]

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  • Superconsultant

    Hey Mark A Carbone, POTUS Obama is YOUR President too.  Your punkass candidate LOST,  big time.  Get over it.  

  • soccermom

    Aren't there several high ranking military officials on trial right now for raping, sodomizing and sexually harassing women in the military? It looks like they're going to walk away with their pensions intact. That would be a warning sign... what's at the top floats down through the ranks...

  • Gcook

    Excellent article.  One other idea to consider is to build in a process whereby the commanding office or CEO has a natural counterbalance, e.g., a more senior officer in the military or a lead Director in a company.  This creates both a dampening effect on potentially egregious behavior, and a strong feedback loop if such behavior takes place.

  • Latitude

    This "story" is not about leadership, it's about diversion.  You are feeding into the cesspool the mainstream media is putting in front of you, and you do not care to consider that this entire subject is intended to take focus from the deaths in Libya.  Don't be suckers America, think about why this entire story with considerable amounts of questionable evidence is even a story.  Americans died on Obama's watch.  Ask questions about Benghazi. It speaks to the bigger problem.

  • Uslostcs

    The real problem is that we as a nation have completely
    lost any common sense perspective of what is personal and private and what is
    professional and public. There are no perfect people – why do we expect
    otherwise – this is the root of our ‘hero’ disappointment. Society today demands
    our ‘leaders’ be perfect professionals with perfect and transparent private
    lives. Transgression in either area is quickly punished by a blindly black and
    white premise that any failure in either area demands that the person be damned
    as a failure across the board. We are particularly brutal when the private
    transgression involves sex or adultery (which it most always does).

     We conveniently
    forget the great history of our country built on brilliant but personally flawed
    leaders – or we refer to it as antiquated. In many cases it is the personal idiosyncrasies
    and failures which drive the professional brilliance. Why do we lament today
    about the lack of depth in our political leaders – we caused it by insuring
    that only the bland mediocre can survive the public/private witch hunt we call
    the election process. This attitude is now carrying over into our free market and
    portends very bad result for innovation. If your organization cannot take
    advantage of the errant but brilliant and only relies on the momentum of the collective
    it will not survive the surprises of the future.

    General Petraeus
    - Bill Clinton - Eliot Spitzer, these are the types of flawed but brilliant people
    we choose to throw away over their private sex lives. Yet these are the very
    people we need today to bring their flawed but tempered wisdom into the public/professional
    domain. These are the people who can inspire us to understand that everyone,
    even the flawed, can succeed professionally and move our economy and country
    forward. Do we really want to be managed and lead by people unmoved by emotion?
    Those perfect calculating folks who morph based on the cold logic of the moment
    and decide only based on the safe and predictable? When is the last time you
    were inspired by a committee?

    I realize that this
    article was about the dangers of organizational ego and leadership hubris but I
    do believe it misses the point because nothing is so black and white.

  • Howdy

    General Petraeus like Clinton and Spitzer their dismissal have nothing to do with their sexual affairs. Just a good excuse for the uninformed public.

  • Guest

    Is it really too much to expect honesty in a leader in their personal lives as well as their professional lives.  Should we resign ourselves to the fact that "transgressions" are to be expected.  Are these expectations REALLY too much to ask?

  • Deejay

    Very alarming when the resources and voices of "the system" marginalize great leaders, in blatant favor of the strength of the "collective" that is obviously and ultimately run by the highest inner circle.  Read history.  The next step will be similar "problems" among certain state governors.  Current political elites, and their proxies and operative, have not simply criticized specific actions and decisions of the "other side" but they have been for some time *demonizing* and *ridiculing* them as some allegedly homogeneous group that should be simultaneously feared, despised and mocked.  How natural is it for you to come to such a perspective about *any* individual on your own ?  Read history (especially 1930s and 1940s).  Google "tribal conflict" and Sociology.  

    How can the people-in-opposition arise if there are no recognizable, credible and admired leaders among them ?

  • Mark A Carbone

    Wait a minute, let's not be contributors to trying to forget about 4 american heroes who died while your President Obama knew and saw it happening live.  This is just smoke and mirrors and you writing a rehash of a few other articles that popped up over last few days tells me you are not original and not investing your time in the reporting and news that matters.  I'd think you would have some courage and don't let their deaths be for not instead of a silly article like you just did.  

  • You know nothing

     Gotta love how Republicans are so quick to jump on a story of 4 dead Americans in a terrorist attack when not one of them will talk at all about what George W. Bush knew about Bin Laden before 9/11 and the 4,000 Americans that died.  Not to mention the thousands that have died or been injured because of Republican wars in the Middle East.  Trying to make a story out of Libya is ridiculous.  Look in the mirror.

  • Howdy

    Virtually everyone in Washington is having or has had an affair. This is the nature of power, and no good reason to fire all politicians. General Petraeus was guilty of much worse.

  • Arlen Meyers

    Great CEO's make themselves expendable as quickly as possible. Beware those who don't.