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

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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