Whatever Happened to Being Human? General Petraeus and Public Leadership

“Mr. Petraeus issued a statement acknowledging the affair after President Obama accepted his resignation and it was announced by the C.I.A. The disclosure ended a triumphant re-election week for the president with an unfolding scandal.” This New York Times article was my first introduction to General David Petraeus’ resignation on Friday, November 9. Soon after his resignation, the floodgates opened on the blogosphere, the Twitter-universe, in conversation with strangers on the subway. ‘Did you hear what happened to General Petraeus?” has been a common refrain for the last few weeks.

That same New York Times article said, “Mr. Petraeus’s admission and resignation represent a remarkable fall from grace for one of the most prominent figures in America’s modern military and intelligence community…”

The Wall Street Journal article phrases it as, “the destruction of Mr. Petraeus’s painstakingly crafted image as a storied Army general.” The article goes on, “Mr. Petraeus believed he should resign because the CIA would have viewed a lower-level employee engaged in an affair to be improper and that the director should set an example by publicly accepting responsibility, according to a person familiar with the events.

The Washington Post reported that Congress was uproarious that they were not informed of the scandal sooner. According to the article, Senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) said, “This is something that could have had an effect on national security, I think we should have been told.” She said the panel will “absolutely” investigate why the FBI did not notify relevant officials sooner.” Between the Congressional complaints about lack of information, the questions raised about potential breaches in national security, and President Obama being forced to focus his election victory week on the resignation of the head of the nation’s premier intelligence agency, there is more than enough news to go around.

I want to focus this piece a bit differently – on the question of what this episode might teach us about leadership. I want to ask us to reconsider what, and how, we learn from General Petraeus’ resignation. Certainly Washington loves its fair share of scandal. Certainly we are right to be concerned about the potential intelligence compromised by deceitful conduct. But there is a gleeful tone in the news these past few weeks about Mr. Petraeus and this affair that I want to counter with some appreciation for his leadership: particularly his leadership in resigning his position the way that he did.

In his speech, Mr. Petraeus said it better than any of the blogs or media outlets. “ ‘After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair,’ Petraeus said in a statement distributed to the CIA workforce Friday. ‘Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours. This afternoon, the president graciously accepted my resignation,’ he said” (The Washington Post).

I don’t admire his behavior. But I do admire his admission of his decision and behavior as unacceptable. He showed a willingness to declare his behavior wrong on a personal and a professional level. Leadership is not never doing anything wrong; it must be acknowledging mistakes as mistakes and taking the appropriate steps to fix them.

We seem to have this belief that to be a leader means to own with perfection, or something close to it, the public responsibility we have been given. And there is a heavy burden on our public leaders to do this, and we are right to call them to account when we learn that they have failed. But failure should not so completely dismantle a leader; it should be a moment for sober reckoning but, ultimately, for rebuilding. Mr. Petraeus did not behave as I want leaders in public office to behave; but he did not cease to be a leader because of it. And he gave us the beginning of rebuilding: resigning his position, meeting with Congress, and helping to answer the many questions we now must ask.

Mr. Petraeus’s conduct is disappointing, but his resignation is honest. So when the Times or the Post or the Journal report a remarkable fall from grace, or the destruction of his image, we betray a lack of grace in ourselves for our leaders. We should be reckoning (as I image Congress will do in the next few days) with his mistakes; we should also not revel in his downfall. We should learn from him. We should learn from his public ownership of his mistake. We should learn from his actions to withdraw from a position he had compromised.

The affair and potential security breaches make Mr. Petraeus a person who made grave mistakes that have consequences. His resignation makes him a person willing to own those mistakes, and for that, we can still have some respect. 

-Hilary Sherratt is a recent graduate from Gordon College, where she majored in Religion, Ethics and Politics. She is currently working as a grant writer at Gordon, and loves all kinds of writing. She hopes to eventually get her PhD in theology or history. She blogs about everyday life at http://thewildlove.wordpress.com and tweets at @hilarysherratt