Power and the Fallen Man

November 2012


A couple of years ago here, I posted about the danger of getting too close to the media, I described what is the downfall of many GOFO;

Vanity. Non-mission related, non-value added vanity that degraded or destroyed the “brand” of men who gave decades of service to their nation and rose to its highest levels.

In his self-immolation, General Petraeus, USA, has provided, in a fashion, a very good object lesson for leaders from LPO to CNO. It is not a new lesson, it is not a unique lesson – as a matter of fact it is a lesson that echoes throughout human history. It isn’t limited to the military environment either, it is just part of the human condition; ego, power, and sex.

Do we talk about this enough? Not really. Not in the direct manner we need to. We talk around it. As it can be a bit touchy for some in a socio-political context, usually we only discuss the second and third order effects after it all goes south. We are more than willing to talk about the externalized manifestation of the ego-power-sex dynamic; the person who abuses their power to gain sexual favors or to force themselves on subordinates, but we do not talk enough about the internalized version of it; the magnetic draw and seductive nature of power itself, how it warps the ego, and how it morphs in to the emotional and mammalian drive towards sex.

Power is an aphrodisiac that can make even the physically or personally repulsive person attractive. It draws in certain personalities to men with power and influence. Can it happen male to female as well as female to male? Sure, I’ve see the “scalp hunters” in action – but that would be the extreme exception to the rule, and frankly silly to discuss. In the real world we are talking about the man in power and the women who are drawn to them. We see that dynamic at NJP, in the relief of Commanding Officers, and all the way to the 4-star level.

Perhaps some leaders who are not fully self-aware may have missed it, but in a gender mixed environment, almost all male leaders will have females of lower status attempt to get closer than they should – in a heterosexual context via a way a male colleague cannot. We are all adults here, we know how the bouncing ball goes from that brief moment of enjoying the company of a woman’s voice a little longer than one should.

About the whirlwind unleashed by General Petraeus’s very human weakness, more details will come out, and others will be writing about every aspect of this for awhile. Get used to it, as this has all the aspects of power, sex, infidelity, and intrigue that a story with legs needs. It is much more interesting to the general public than sequestration, the Afghanistan withdraw, or fiscal cliffs. Let that work its way out, but for us – what is the base lesson that should come out of this at the deckplate level – specifically for male leaders?

It is simply this; you will find yourself in a place sooner more than later where a female subordinate will make herself available to you. It can cover the entire spectrum from raw and physical immediacy, to a slow growing relationship based on professional respect and friendship that intensifies with proximity.

There was more than one decision point in the relationship that brought down General Petraeus where he should have diverted then-Major Broadwell back to the gym solo, but he didn’t. As a result, a reputation is in tatters, a critical agency has lost a leader, a war’s leaders are distracted, and two families are in turmoil. In time I am sure we will all know more than we want to, but one thing is clear. He is the person responsible for this. He was senior in age (almost two decades) and position (at the start we think O-4 to O-10). It was his inability to control his weakness, his ego, and his actions that brought him here. He knows this too, or at least he does now.

As young leaders grow in positions of authority they need to keep simple human nature in mind. You will be tempted, even if you try to avoid it. You can end it as quickly as it comes up, and all will go along as before. We are all human, and at a weak moment, you may pause – but don’t pause long – there are too many lives, families, and careers that are riding on you being a leader and doing the right thing.

If you fail, that is on you. Same with General Petraeus; this is on him. Not the woman on the other side of the story; not the media; not the FBI; not his staff; not anyone above him in the chain of command, other agencies, or political parties.

There are many positive things to benchmark with General Petraeus’s career, and now you have a negative one. Don’t want to have all your hard work blow up in your face? Look at the poor decisions he made, and look for those decision points in your life where you will have to make the call – you will be there – do it right.

Posted by CDRSalamander in Army

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  • I remember the first time I talked via email with a rather brilliant guy who became something of a mentor. The email was long, and it was detailed. It gave advice that helped with what was immediately before me, as well as gave life lessons.

    One of those life lessons was along the lines of ‘she’s not worth it.’ Though, everything that was said in the email has strongly resonated at various times through my career.

    Over the last year I’ve learned just how important personality is. It’s one thing to intellectually understand that. But, the nuance isn’t there unless you’ve experienced it. Personalities change based on circumstance and environment. It behooves everyone to constantly give themselves (and each other) head-checks.

    • FoilHatWearer

      This is something that just isn’t talked about enough in this context (at least from my experience). We get browbeat to death about sexual harassment and sexual assault (I’m not against that, either) but the talk about dating co-workers, superiors, and subordinates always seems to be an afterthought that gets about 15 seconds of attention. But we keep seeing the terrible damage that it does to people.

      For a middle-management guy like me, it can be difficult to relate to 4-star generals and the CEO of Lockheed-Martin, but I’m in just as much danger to make those same mistakes. I have tons of female co-workers and subordinates. I’ve gone TAD with some of them and wound up in the lobby of the Marriott enjoying free alcoholic drinks. You better have a plan in your head up-front or you can get in trouble real quick. Life is hard enough without this kind of problem.

      We’re all primed on NOT committing sexual harassment or assault. But what are you going to do when you’ve got a few beers in you, you’ve been working a lot of long stressful hours, she’s asking you up to her suite and making it obvious that it’s not to play checkers, and your wife and all other coworkers are 1500 miles away? That situation had better not be the first time that you’ve ever even considered what you’d do.

  • More than “she’s not worth it” is the value of the counsel of friends, built through years of trust who can approach you and wave the red flag that you may have stowed away. The value of a peer – or subordinate, who can approach you in complete confidence with a “Boss – we need to talk.” It won’t make you bullet proof, but if added with an outlook founded on a servant’s heart, it will substantially reduce the chances of being subject to the temptations of power arrayed before you.

  • I learned a valuable lesson a long time ago: Never put your d___ where your money comes from. I’ve seen this happen so many times its not funny and it NEVER ends good. A friend of mine at work is doing it with a young lady that works for him, a not so open secret. And even though I’ve warned him, he just doesn’t listen to the head on his shoulders. It will not end well.

    • FoilHatWearer

      Sorry to say, it happens a lot. Even if the person is a co-worker of equal rank and nothing comes of it administratively, it’s terribly awkward to date that person, break up with them, and have to work with them every day. Who needs that kind of pain and distraction at work? And my scenario is the BEST that will come of it. Not good.

  • hnrypalmer

    I remember, maybe 10 years ago, when Billy Graham was asked what he feared. He feared he would do something that would bring discredit on himself and tarnish all the good work he had done in his life.

    • Stormy

      Billy Graham also cited 3 rules he always stuck to:
      1) Never be alone with a woman other than your wife
      2) Never be alone with a woman other than your wife
      3) Never be alone with a woman other than your wife
      It’s old fashioned, you can call it, “unrealistic in the modern age.” So be it. It worked.

      • hnrypalmer


      • LarryInIowa

        In today’s new and inclusive military do we need to add “Never be alone with another man?”

      • RightCowLeftCoast

        Not as an excuse to the leaders that fall victim to their own internal drives, it is unfortunate that I am not surprised that these events have become more common. When even our highest leaders, such as POTUS Kennedy, can continue to serve publically while conducting personal side relationships, such actions become more accepted.

        This is completely countered by the higher standards that the military, and other organizations, hold themselves to. This is why actions, that would otherwise be considered as acceptable, is a major infraction elsewhere.

    • TheMightyQ

      You can build a thousand bridges…

  • Cupojoe

    Sal, what do you think is the responsibility of staff officers in these types of things. I’m not talking about the Flag LT, but the chiefs of staff who have been around a while and know all of which you say is true. Do you think they have the ability to step in and tell someone like Gen. Petraeus that he needs to put the brakes on?

    I have to believe that they wouldn’t have had at least an inkling about their relationship, and even the perception of one would have been bad enough for everybody.

  • As my DI said:”Always think with the right end of your body”.

  • TruthfulJames

    The story is incomplete. I do believe that some time ago, well before the email cover story surfaced, the General had gotten a folder with his ‘errors’ collected inside put into an DIRFBI eyes only safe along with many others — not unlike Hoover’s safe. Holder, the AG and POTUS would be the sole people who had this information. Petraeus knew it as well and was told to knock it off, which he did

    The Administration had a hold on him, but when some of his people died in Benghazi, he refused to go along. Instead he blew the whistle on himself and resign rather than befoul his testimony.

    The question that needs to reverberate among our senior people is, how many have the honor to do so?

    Reading T.S. Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral.” we see Thomas a’Becket who went carousing with the King before being appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Now he criticizes him ex cathedra. Tempters are sent to offer many things, including continuing ear of King Henry.. Becket chooses the certain death of resisting temptation and is martyred.

    • Really?!?! Benghazi!?!?! Dude, can’t this be about a senior who slipped the sausage to a shipmate and then got caught? CIA Directors (as well as 4 star GO’s) should be upright people. The simple fact that he was doing secretive things that could have compromised him is more that ample reason for him to step down.

  • Andy

    I was once told by a RADM of my acquaintance that one of the very first talks his “class” of Flags received was about this very topic. They were told, he related, very bluntly that if they were espoused and in an intimate relationship with someone not their spouse, they needed to terminate that relationship immediately. It was related that this was termed their “amnesty moment.” After that, I was told, if something untoward happened, they were “dead meat.” Don’t know if that same talk was given in other services. As historians have related, at least one CNO thought of himself as quite the ladies man, so I guess some don’t consider the rules as applying to themselves; or perhaps a different era’s morays applied.

    • This discussion occurs to all newly minted Limited Duty and Chief Warrant Officers… Unfortunately, many still fall trap to their personal weaknesses.

  • Diogenes_of_NJ

    Perhaps if castration were an initiation requirement for flag rank, but then again what would we do for female flag officers?

  • Dale R. Wilson

    As a leader, which way will you go when your moral compass brings you to the intersection of human nature and temptation? Your life’s experiences and lessons learned, as well as your attentiveness (remaining aware of your surroundings) should provide you the sense of direction necessary to make the right decision. Your moral compass will point you in the direction of the right path toward the intersection of character and integrity, and your ultimate destination of success and victory.

  • Charity Armstrong

    What if men and women are both equally responsible for their choices regardless? Why should this be focused “specifically for male leaders?” Yes, “he (General Petraeus) is the person responsible for this” from the standpoint of his career, but aren’t both parties as “adults” equally responsible for their own behavior? The helpless man who will always be tempted, vs the woman who will do anything to snare him. It’s borderline Adam and Eve. Isn’t viewing women as power hungry whores, and men as individuals with no self control a little outdated? At least for the majority of us?

    • Charity,

      I recommend you re-read this post again. Nowhere in there is this concept, “… viewing women as power hungry whores, and men as individuals with no self control …” Also, the male to female dynamic was addressed, but the female to male dynamic is a much greater problem. It is very real and is a very touchy subject – mostly because when you do try to talk about this, people who for whatever reason don’t want to engage in a discussion on this aspect of the male in a position of power and influence that has been a topic of stories, books, and movies for as long as there has been a written record – those individuals will try to turn the discussion in to something it is not. This is about one very specific challenge that almost every male leader will run in to – often more than a few times in their career. All dynamics are not the same, and to discuss one is not to deny the existence of others. If you want more leaders to not be prepared to deal with this challenge because they have not discussed it in an open and candid forum, then by all means inaccurately accuse those who will bring the topic up as “… viewing women as power hungry whores …” – the will drive the discussion underground, silence different views, and ironically – reinforce some people’s biases on the utility of even trying to treat all leaders regardless of gender as equals. That doesn’t help anyone.

      The women on the other side of the issue is worth a post all her own, but she is not equally guilty in this case, for all the reasons outlined in the post and more. It is also ironic that someone who probably thought was on the cutting edge of setting a positive example for women has actually set women back, and made it even more difficult for our female leaders to be seen as equals on equal status. That also is a great loss in all this; the thousands of outstanding, serious female leaders who now have to deal with this almost cliche story.

  • My father used to say “Until a man’s about 80, all his brains are in the head of his penis”. Sad, but true, and proven time and again.

  • When I arrived as a fairly senior LCDR to the Army Command and Staff College in 1996 I was coming from a Navy where our CNO had just committed suicide (in part because of an extramarital affair), had been through the five year catharsis known as Tailhook, and had taken huge, but shaky, steps (forward and sometimes backward) in bringing women into the fleet and into combat jobs in the fleet. It was not a pretty path. A reminder of all that occurred several years ago when those days caught up to a friend of mine, then a 3-star admiral, who was forced to quietly retire because of a long running investigation of sexual misconduct or harrassment.
    Back to 1996 and Leavenworth. The Army was at least a generation behind the Navy culturally when it came to how males, especially male officers, viewed the role of women in the military and inside their culture. They had not been through Tailhook. That is my comment, they have not been through tailhook–but instead of a mix of mostly junior officers with some of the more senior ranks, this scandal has combined with the sexual assaults issue and is really a scandal from the top-down. I just finished grading student papers here on ethics (as a collateral duty, I normally teach history). This was the first year we did this, mandated by General Odierno. Most of them had the same comment offline (although not so much in writing)–“Dr. ___, why do we have to do this when the problem is really our leaders, our generals?”

  • vtbikerider

    No matter what, a person who engages in an affair makes a choice to do so. However, with that being said, the consequences should not be played out in the public eye. Two spouses have been badly hurt by the person they’ve sworn to remain faithful to and that is a pain that should not be in the public eye.

  • anon

    As a former officer and intel guy its black and white to me. We can talk about all the second order effects and ramifications we want, but simple answers are best. They included adultery in the UCMJ to protect families when units are on long deployments; they included it for intel to help prevent blackmail. The higher we go in rank, the more potential damage to the system and less it can be tolerated. Easy.

  • Phil Candreva

    I look forward to the day when folks climb on their high horse of moral outrage over senior officers who drive multi-billion dollar programs into the ground or who propose new ways of operating that actually degrade readiness or are simply ineffectual and not just over those whose human frailties are exposed. I believe that a poor executive manager has a greater, and more lasting, detrimental effect on the force than a leader who fails to live up to a puritanical ideal. Yet the latter are fired without hesitation and many of the former are given medals and promoted.

  • darragh scully

    Just posted this to Colin Barnett. Id charge my master card to see his face the moment he gets to the end. Not that I am one for talking T Roy you stud.

    • darragh scully

      So much for Audacity!