Petraeus affair provides lessons on leadership

Issues around judgment, character, motivation: Experts
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 12/18/2012

He was a four-star general in the United States military and director at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) but, in admitting to an extra-marital affair, David Petraeus ended a prestigious career in a cloud of deceit. And with his resignation, the ex-military officer provided further proof any leader is fallible.

The fall of such a leader is about issues around motivation, judgment, trust and character — and holds valuable lessons, according to leadership experts.

The Petraeus situation was about morality and a leader’s ability to do his job, according to Seonaid Charlesworth, Calgary-based principal of leadership solutions at Knightsbridge Human Capital Solutions and market lead for the Western region.

“The public attention to this situation and the way the affair was leaked so threatened his credibility, it would make it impossible for his employees and stakeholders to trust him.”

With this kind of scandal, it would be hard for anybody to perform his job, she said.

“At that level of CEO, you’re not making decisions, not making plans — you’re really inspiring the enterprise to align with a vision and bring managers and stakeholders along the way, and a fundamental piece there is your ability to be trusted by others.”

The higher up a person goes, the more trust and credibility are important to his ability to lead, said Charlesworth.

“They become essentially your value to the organization because they allow you to do things like inspiring teams, aligning different areas of business, building strong stakeholder relationships. So, once your stakeholder credibility is gone, it becomes almost impossible to do your job.”

If you strip out the political posturing, it’s fundamentally a question of trust, said Jeffrey Gandz, professor of strategic leadership at the Richard Ivey School of Business at Western University in London.

“Really, the issue between a CEO and a board is do you trust this person to exercise good judgment? Because a staggering amount… of the information that a director gets, for example, comes through the management of the organization and you’re trusting that they’re gathering the right information, that they’re interpreting it, that they’re presenting it. And so, in the end, you’re putting your trust in their judgment and their integrity. So when that has a cloud over it, I don’t know that the relationship is workable.”

It’s also about lousy judgment, he said.

“By the time you get to a senior executive level, your judgment is what it’s about. And obviously then you get to somebody who’s in the public domain and it’s a matter of public trust — then it becomes a different matter again.”

Personal vs. professional life

But it would be hard to link the errors in judgment that lead to an affair to errors in the course of work, said Charlesworth.

“What causes you to have an affair isn’t likely to cause you to underperform in any key area, but I think it’s this issue of most people would have a hard time trusting someone who has intentionally deceived a significant person in their life,” she said. “It underlines that employees won’t trust you, they won’t follow your direction, they won’t commit the energy.”

Sometimes leaders in influential roles, such as former U.S. presidents Bill Clinton or John F. Kennedy, develop a capacity for compartmentalizing, said Rick Lash, practice leader for leadership and talent, Canada, at Hay Group in Toronto.

“On the one hand, they have a very public face and yet they can do things that are somewhat reprehensible... It’s almost like they split their personalities and, in certain ways, that’s what good leaders have to develop is a capability to compartmentalize in order to be able to get things done under very tense or difficult situations,” he said. “(But) it leads to the risk that they end up almost creating dual lives which, ultimately, comes back to haunt them.”

Assessing a true leader

Motivation is a big factor when looking at leadership, according to Lash. There are three primary motivators that tend to energize people and determine their choices and actions, he said, citing the work of psychologist David McClelland. One is a need for achievement, the second is a need for affiliation — to have harmony with others and avoid conflict — while the third is a need for power or influence.

“For any individual, whether you’re in a formal leadership role or not, the need for achievement, the need for affiliation and the need for power are all present, and it’s just like a fingerprint — they’re all present in different degrees,” said Lash.

“Once you help people to understand what we call their ‘motive profile,’ the penny starts to drop because they now start to recognize why they’ve been doing what they’ve been doing and never really put a finger on it.”

People also have a need both for personal power — where they want to elevate their own status — and socialized power, where they want to help others, he said. To assess whether a person has an appropriate balance, during interviews, have them write stories about ambiguous pictures and then analyze these for underlying themes of achievement, affiliation and power.

“We tend to hire for above-the-waterline capabilities, things you read on a CV, but we (fail) on below-the-line stuff, which is harder to see,” he said. “A psychological assessment or providing a more thorough assessment is not a guarantee. However, what it does do is it minimizes the risk of hiring the wrong person. So, what you’re really trying to do here is you’re trying to manage risk.”

Historically, there has been a huge emphasis on competencies because these are relatively easy to define, to describe in behavioural terms and to measure, said Gandz. But good leadership is also about character and commitment.

“Character has actually been more elusive and yet pretty well everybody we talk to about this says character is critical,” he said. “We talk about all of those elements of character, such as humility and competitiveness and justice and humanity, integrity.”

Right in the middle of those is judgment, said Gandz.

“Judgment is kind of the uber dimension of character in that it influences how the other elements play out.”

But having to anticipate whether somebody will have good judgment in the future is obviously a challenge, he said.

“We pour over the entrails of past behaviour, we do multiple, deep reference checks and we, as best we can, size up an individual’s character.”

Commitment is also really significant, said Gandz.

“If you commit to becoming a high-profile leader, you’re committing to exercise a degree of judgment in your life that puts you in a rarified position.”

Another common trait among leaders who have conducted unethical behaviour is an apparent lack of empathy, said Charlesworth.

“They tend to have an ability to anticipate the impact their behaviour will have on people around them. And, at the root of that, is a lack of empathy. That and conscientiousness are probably the best predictors.”

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