Lessons Learned from the Petraeus Affair

A highly-decorated four star general with a terminal degree from a major university joins the club, that ignoble band of brothers who gave in to their lusts.  To be sure, his letter of resignation hit the right notes, admitting he “showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair.”  Oh, would that the majority of people I have sought to help over the years with their moral failings simply name the thing and admit that their behavior was wrong!  Not only that, General David Petraeus bypassed the moral indifference camp by adding, “Such behavior is unacceptable…” (rather than spin out one or more extenuations or justifications) “… both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as [the CIA].”  Before God, wife, his subordinates and the nation a deceptive but “outed” man faced his error forthrightly.  Nevertheless, the nation, subordinates, wife, and one can safely assume even the Divine, rightly concluded of the officer NPR likened to the Kennedy era’s esteemed Maxwell Taylor:  “Petraeus betrayed us.”

We should not approach his post-mortem with anything like goody-goody or tut-tut; smug condemnations are just as unhelpful as moral equivocation (surprisingly, the Wall Street Journal editorialized against his resignation). I propose we view his fall in that old-fashioned morality play category of sober warning.

If the book of Proverbs teaches anything, it is to learn from others’ experience and our own observations of it rather than allow our own folly to be exposed and be viewed by others.  To put my advice succinctly:  If a man of Petraeus’ stature and insight—“greatest officer of his generation”—falls in the autumn of a stellar career, then who am I not to heed my own potential undoing?

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

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At the height of the Tiger Woods scandal, I was traveling and stopped to eat at a favorite restaurant.  Overhearing a fairly large gathering of locals excoriate the athlete in a self-righteous way, I grew annoyed.  As I left to pay the bill and continue down the road, I approached one of the older men in the group, saying to him that “I travel as an unknown and if I had even one tenth of the opportunities to do wrong as Tiger had, I would have been sidelined years ago.”

Again, if he lost his integrity, who am I to be careless about my own?whether the he is Woods, Bakker, Edwards or any number of others who could be mentioned.

I offer three general observations, one key principle and three warnings.

Three General Observations
A higher profile brings with it greater risks to the one elevated. 
The fleas come with the dog.  As one rises in leadership, he or she generally begins to have more opportunities not only for good, but—alas—also for mischief.  In the former category:  enhanced resources of many kinds, larger reach through delegation of authority, accumulated trust yielding expanded influence.  In the latter:  time at one’s discretion, opportunities to travel, subordinates willing and able to cover wayward tracks—not to mention more excuses to bump into that certain person.  King David long ago, Bill Clinton more recently.

Leaders are always targets to some evil-eyed aspirants not yet promoted.  Who needs moral failure when enemies are right there (national security, anyone?) to pounce even on the best motive, the worst outcome?  With respect to ethics, some seek to compromise the leader’s conviction.  With respect to the intellect, others seek to give bad counsel.  With respect to action, still others disobey blatantly or hinder passive-aggressively.  The CIA chief need not shoot himself in the crotch (figuratively) when plenty under his command or in the peanut gallery would have shot him in the back (figuratively or literally), if they could have safely avoided harmful repercussions.

No one is the exception.  At this juncture one thinks of Eliot Spitzer, who hired out prostitutes while acting as New York’s attorney general (for crying out loud).  Only a personality capable of compartmentalizing conflicting aspects of life could have gone from courtroom to bedroom without cracking up.  But such is the mindset of arrogant men (high-profile or not):  that convention concerns the conventional; rules are for others; consequences are suffered by peons with lesser egos.  But eventually each Mark Sanford who unzips his suit pants finds out to his profound personal pain that the law of gravity applies to him too.  Which observation ineluctably carries us toward the one principle drawn from our scholar-soldier who lost the long strategic view….

…The deeper and darker a secret now, the higher and more exposed common knowledge later.  None other than the lawgiver and warrior Moses put it more directly:  know that your sin will find you out.  All the care America’s highest ranking adulterer took—adequate time, secure place, lover’s silence, a bogus e-mail identity—was negated by his squeeze’s vicious cyber stalking of another female perceived as her rival.  That’s right:  quick e-mails fired off like virtual cannon, those casual missives as common as a Chicago cold in winter, was the means by which months of deceit unraveled.

I am repeatedly amazed at how many careful stratagems by various over-clever men prove immaterial and inadequate in hindsight because the simplest thing nearly always comes to the surface … somehow … by somebody.  A jilted paramour is a buried IED of a less lethal, though still dangerous, kind to that found in Middle Eastern war zones, the Princeton insurgency expert has learned.

Three Warnings
At this juncture, I should note that men have confessed to me variously their adultery, fornication, engagement of prostitutes, solo sexual activity and homosex practice.  I think part of the reason why is because I carry real compassion for my brothers of the flesh while—at the same time—I hold men to historic Christianity’s high sexual standard.  Not only that, like each man on the face of the earth, I too have been urged from within and without to cheat in multiple areas of public and private life.  Sex, of course, is but one of many temptations.  This reminder of common human weakness is a prelude to the following three pastoral warnings:

1.  Beware of both a rapid rise and lengthy string of successes.  The former we might call the Hollywood phenomenon.  What had been fleetingly fantasized alone or bantered about as a “what if” in company of lusty lads suddenly gives way to a brazen opportunity to actualize what was before only a thought.  Now someone in the flesh is willing to grant the long-imagined wish.  This brings to the fore a corollary:  Resolve in safety what your response will be in danger.  In other words:  Guard the mind at neutral moments to reinforce right behavior in highly-charged moments.

The latter we might call the career crescendo pitfall.  This is exactly the play from which Petraeus has been forced to make a sudden exit.  Other sources can lay out the exact timeline of his expanding profile and responsibilities; I simply point out that as anyone reaches a certain stature, he or she can quickly lose perspective because so much of life has been positive for so long.  Indeed, unmitigated winning and promotion are truly dangerous things, heady experiences which eclipse judgment and discretion.  Just ask former Best Buy CEO Brian Dunn or Harry Stonecipher, ex-CEO of Boeing.

2.  Beware of reading one’s own press.  Let’s call this the Jack Welch trap.  All that venerable Jack did at GE was thrown away (not to mention his marriage) because someone from the outside came to interview the high-flyer.  Sound familiar?  It was a biographer who became the former CIA director’s double adulteress (Broadwell is married too).  It was a PR videographer who became baby momma to a North Carolina lawyer, senator and presidential candidate not half a decade ago.  We are so easily seduced by the flatterer, whether at a bar or in a boardroom.

3.  Beware of betraying those who got you where you are.  Again, a tag so that the point is memorable:  here in the Carolinas we call it the NASCAR First Wife thing.  A young racer finds a honey.  She faithfully comes to the dirt track endless Friday nights as her man slowly makes it up the bush league ranks.  But then one day—now that he’s at Charlotte or Bristol or Talladega—she’s no longer viewed as trophy wife material, so Honey is ditched for a new and improved Second Wife. Viewed at its fundamental level, Petraeus violated a marriage commitment made 37 years earlier.

Phrased positively, the loyal ones close to a given man or woman up there upon a certain perch of prominence—those who can provide ballast—are ignored only at cost, to that male or female leader’s eventual peril.

Petraeus may be a byword for the moment, but if taken as an object lesson, not a few readers (and their families) could be spared untold heartache.  I have met many men who—at a later rational moment, the passion of furtive hours seen for the folly that it always was—would never again trade the ephemeral thrill of being in the Other Woman’s arms for his own wife … and kids … and all that pertain to confining one’s self to the circle which God allows, conscience affirms and society expects.

An old Chinese proverb is as current as Italian fashion’s latest dress:  honorable man use same name far away as at home.


  • Dr. Raymond A. Craig

    Dr. Craig is the author of the forthcoming Leading In: Seven Essays on Accomplishing High Priority Goals. He also created From Guys to Gentlemen retreats and fora to foster balanced, biblical masculinity. He earned his doctorate in church ministry.

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