As a teenager, I read this statement from “The Lessons of History” by historians Will and Ariel Durant and knew it was true:
“A youth boiling with hormones will wonder why he should not give full freedom to his sexual desires; and if he's unchecked by custom, morals or laws, he may ruin his life before he matures sufficiently to understand that sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints if it is not to consume in chaos both the individual and the group.”
We need our CEOs to know this truth, as well.
A week ago, three top American executives resigned or were cashiered over allegations and admissions of sexual misconduct — Gen. David Patraeus of the CIA, Chris Kubasik of Lockheed Martin and Joe Rogers Jr. of Waffle House.
They forgot that stewardship is moral responsibility for yourself, others and the resources we share. By its very nature, leadership puts pressure on the relationship between stewardship and self-interest. When the two collide, we call it an ethical dilemma. In the 21st century, leaders are subject to an ongoing stream of ethical dilemmas, and infidelity is at the center of it all.
Putting stewardship above self-interest is an act of leadership. Putting self-interest above stewardship is an abdication of leadership. Every leader who has ever committed a moral infraction has to some extent abdicated his role and damaged his contribution as a leader. The danger is that sexual misconduct can lead to impaired judgment, and impaired judgment can lead to poor decision-making. When a leader missteps sexually, he is emotionally compromised and becomes less suited to the task of making decisions on behalf of other people.
As William McGurn observed in his article “Sex, Lies and Gmail,” “The questions involve less moral judgment than a practical recognition that sexual intimacy is more than a physical act; it leads to emotional entanglements that can take even the most judicious of us to reckless and irresponsible places.”
One of Petraeus’ own “rules for living” states, “Be humble. The people you’ll be leading already have on-the-ground conflict experience. Listen and learn.”
To betray a spouse and break the most solemn vow a person can make to another person is an act of gross arrogance and profound selfishness. Once a leader has done this, that leader is estranged from humility, which is necessary for balanced and wise judgment.
Of course, not everyone agrees with me. In “The New Rules of the Game for CEOs,” Daniel Gross of the popular website the Daily Beast describes a more, shall we say, sophisticated point of view, which holds that “Evolved people generally accept that marriage is complicated, and that things happen. And so as a general rule, when top professionals admit to, or are caught in, extramarital activity, it is regarded as a sign of human frailty or failing — not as a disqualification or reason to retire.”
Yes, and would you put your life on the line for Patraeus before or after his “evolved” behavior? That’s what I thought.
It’s not just a priggish, puritanical point of view that says infidelity is not a good thing. There is simply a much greater risk that the next lapse in judgment will affect you and me. Some people do a pretty good job of compartmentalizing their lives. But eventually public and private lives bleed into each other.
If you exercise poor judgment in personal life, if you’re indiscreet sexually, you become willingly susceptible to the improper influence of another person. Worse yet, what happens if you carry on in that behavior? Chances are you’ll go until you’re caught and then you’ll be sorry — and not for your behavior. And if you don’t get caught, you will lack judgment until you are caught, like former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, who patronized prostitutes. Or like former presidential candidate John Edwards, who had an aide accept the blame for the pregnancy of his campaign worker.
In his article “Petraeus and the Rise of Narcissistic Leaders,” Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer confirms, “Research shows that people with more power tend to pay less attention to others. They are more action-oriented, pursue their own goals, and exhibit disinhibited behavior in part because they believe that rules don't apply to them; they are special and invulnerable.”
It’s still a river of fire even though you’re not a teenager anymore.
Timothy R. Clark is the CEO of TRClark LLC, a management consulting and leadership development organization. His newest book, "The Employee Engagement Mindset," has been released from McGraw-Hill. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org