The Week in Ethics: Petraeus’ Derailment Invites Focus on the Heart of Leadership

Too many assumptions are made about leaders once they reach the highest levels of their organization: that they are at the top of their game, operating out professional clarity, and have themselves figured out.

Ivy league educated, storied-career David Petraeus is a poignant illustration.

As director of the CIA, and one of the most acclaimed and highest ranking generals, he seemed among the least likely to derail his career in an ethics scandal. He resigned last week (11/9/12) when an affair, allegedly with his biographer Paula Broadwell, became public.

Beyond issues of national security — which Petraeus said he didn’t violate — the critical question here is a very human one. It gets to the heart of leadership.

How do high achievers driven to achieve, fueled by the desire to have the achievement matter, consistently stay committed to their values and highest aspirations for themselves as a human being?

That is one of the most important questions leaders can ask themselves on a regular basis.

Reflecting on it, they have a better sense of how to unite the pieces of their lives into a wholeness, an integrated self. They can notice more consciously the interplay of their ego and how it may be at loggerheads with their values, or what they say they stand for. It is more possible for them to detect red flags about what is going on within them and around them. It is the essence of being self aware.

Nearly 20 years ago, Daniel Goleman’s “What Makes a Leader” identified emotional intelligence (self awareness, self regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills) as a critical dimension of leadership that one can continually learn and develop.

Leaders’ vulnerability to ethical lapses, mistakes in judgment, and a sense of entitlement increase when self awareness and self regulation are low, or there is complacency about one’s own ethical development.

Consider very recent exits for CEOs who’ve lied on resumes (Scott Thompson at Yahoo), had “inappropriate relationships with subordinates,” (Christopher Kubasick at Lockheed Martin and Brian Dunn at Best Buy ), or committed “serious financial violations” (Ernst Lieb at Mercedes-Benz USA).

When caught in an ethical lapse, responses like “I regret my conduct in this matter did not meet the standards to which I have always held myself” reflect the language of detachment from self-awareness. On one side — the standards I say I hold myself to; on the other side — how I behave.

Values that become passive do us no good.

In his new book The Pause Principle: Step Back to Lead Forward, leadership development expert Kevin Cashman writes about the importance of a leader’s ongoing focus on self-knowledge and how to expand self-awareness. I interviewed him recently about ways leaders can mitigate vulnerability to ethical lapses.

Leaders reach their career pinnacle for many reasons, often because of their track record, business acumen, strategic ability, and ability to influence and get others to follow.

As mistakes are all too human, what is a safety net?

At the heart of leadership is what sustains leadership.

It is the questions we ask ourselves as we deepen self-awareness that provide answers to how we stay aligned with the values and purpose that express who we are. It a creates the foundation for a leadership that is conscious, authentic, and ethical.

Gael O’Brien November 16, 2012

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine. Her November 2012 column is “When CEOs Self-Destruct: Lessons in Values for Corporate Boards.

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5 Comments on “The Week in Ethics: Petraeus’ Derailment Invites Focus on the Heart of Leadership”

  1. Murray Schrantz Says:

    Excellent and topical! My only comments are: 1) Cashman could have added “potential” to his list of how/why leaders reach career pinnacle. What the leader is done is essential, but the possibility of succeeding with additional responsibility is even more critical. 2) Petraeus’ Ivy League education may be important, but being imbued with a sense honor from his time at West Point should have helped him avoid his error in judgement.

  2. Gael O'Brien Says:

    Thank very much for you addition of “potential” to how/why leaders reach career pinnacles — to clarify, that is my list, not Cashman’s.

    Also thanks for pointing out the West Point background of Petraeus — a reminder that even those with a solid foundation in honor and ethics need ongoing awareness and intention to reinforce and act out of that.

  3. Adrian Urias Says:

    “On one side — the standards I say I hold myself to; on the other side — how I behave. Values that become passive do us no good.”

    Uh. No. Values aren’t passive or active. People are passive or active, and to think otherwise is a category fallacy. What is the point of the values or ethics? To guide. Yet it is up to the human to either submit or rebel.

    But lets run with this thought. Values that are active are good. So, what if I were Hitler and my values were to kill the Jews? My values are active, but dear Lord, you wouldn’t say they are good! Values, then, are good or bad independent of their application.

    I suggest, therefore, you rethink your meta-ethics. What are your foundations for ethics and values?

    • Gael O'Brien Says:

      Thanks for your comment. In the context of someone caught in an ethical lapse who says in defending himself I have high standards to which I hold myself, and his behavior isn’t congruent with those standards, then what he says he stands for has become passive, doing him no good.


  4. [...] to use their influence in ways to keep trust with  their constituencies: former CIA Director David Petraeus (an affair with his biographer); former Penn State University President Graham Spanier (criminal [...]


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