David Petraeus may be considering writing a book on leadership.
According to reporting by Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times, authoring a book is among the many things the former CIA director is considering doing next, after of course repairing the relationship with his wife. Contained in the same report was a comment from a friend who said it was unlikely that Petraeus would write about own experiences.
Too bad! Because if I were to read a book on leadership by a man who enabled the United States to exit Iraq diplomatically, commanded forces in Afghanistan and headed the CIA, I would want to know what it took to accomplish such feats. Likely the friend quoted was referring to the affair that led to Petraeus’s fall from grace, but to me that’s important, too. In fact it could be the most important part of any leadership tome he might write. Here’s why: It would offer insight into something that everyone in a position of power faces — temptation.
Personally I could care less about the details of the general’s dalliance with his biographer, but what I would like him to address is the notion of character and its effect on leadership. Character, as I am certain Petraeus believes and which he had exhibited in public throughout his career, is fundamental to creating the bond of trust between leader and follower.
Temptation, while not the antithesis of character, can be (and often is) its shaper. Every human being is at some point tempted to do things that aren’t right. But when such temptation comes to a leader, its lure may be more potent and its effect, if indulged, more catastrophic. The result is often a loss of that trust, which was the very source of leverage the leader had to get things done in an organization.
This is precisely what happened to Petraeus. Adultery is bad enough, but the fact that the chief spymaster of the world’s greatest intelligence agency believed he could get away with it shatters credulity. It’s proof of how aggressively temptation can twist its ways into our psyche.
Temptation, of course, need not be sexual in nature. Call it the arrogance of power, or hubris. When people rise to positions of authority, they grow accustomed to having things their way. One of the unfortunate effects of this is that they often develop a soft spot for flattery and a blind spot for criticism and warnings.
My advice to General Petraeus is to reflect on his experience and write a book that addresses how a leader can recognize when he is too full of himself, and too tempted by indulgence, that it harms not only his character but also the organization’s. Let’s take this opportunity to learn something about the warning signs of an outsized ego.
Of course, such a book on leadership need not dwell only on temptation. Yet having experienced the heights of power, as well as the fall from it due to his own indiscretion, Petraeus now has insights that could benefit anyone in a position of authority. It would take a lot of courage to delve into such an exposition, but that, at least, is one of the character virtues David Petraeus could prove he still has.
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