This past Friday, David Petraeus, a retired 4-star general in the U.S. Army, resigned from his position as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Apparently, evidence had surfaced of his involvement with his biographer in an extramarital affair.
On the surface, of course, this is just another example of a powerful man succumbing, as all too many seem to do, to an all too common temptation. And, again on the surface, it raises questions about whether private foibles are sufficient reason to think a man unfit for public office. Petraeus himself, in his letter of resignation to President Obama, said he had shown “extremely poor judgment.” The question that always arises—remember Clinton/Lewinski?—is whether poor judgment in personal matters necessarily implies poor judgment in public matters, or whether it really amounts to just a puerile bit of titillation.
But the fact is that Petraeus is not just another man, and not even just another man in a leadership position. He was, until November 9th, Director of the CIA, the most important intelligence organization on the planet. He was, in other words, one of the world’s most desirable candidates for blackmail. And so any transgression that could serve as fodder for blackmail is immediately amplified in magnitude. Clearly, marital infidelity is pretty high on that list. Someone in a position like the one Petraeus had has to stay squeaky clean, not for moralistic reasons, but for national security reasons.
And the seedier details that have been emerging seem to bear this worry out, at least to some extent. The woman with whom Petraeus is said to have had the affair, Paula Broadwell, is now said to have sent threatening letters to another woman who she saw as a rival for the general’s affections. That’s not to say that anything like blackmail was in the offing. But it suggests that the Petraeus/Broadwell affair had dark edges to it beyond your standard tale of marital infidelity.
There will surely be, in the coming weeks and months of analysis, plenty of talk about the demands of leadership and the character and integrity it requires. But what leadership at the highest level really requires is not just character, but an acute awareness of your own weaknesses—including weaknesses you share with the rest of the human population—and the ability to foresee and forestall the risks the flow from those.
Chris MacDonald is Director of the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Education & Research Program at the Ted Rogers School of Management.