A Flawed Leader as Mirror

The David Petraeus affair might be the first national-level sex scandal where I’ve heard more people say “What’s the big deal? I don’t condone adultery, but what does that have to do with the job he’s doing?” than I’ve heard condemnation. Aside from a few ignorant comments and some innuendo here and there, most people seem very focused on the stellar work of the man as opposed to the adulterous lover.

Since this news broke we now know, if we didn’t already, that when it comes to military and intelligence work, adultery is a very big deal in terms of organizational trust, national security and decorum and so it was in fact a necessity that he resign. I’ll save any judgments on that for the analysts/experts who are entrenched in the details of such matters. There will be much more to come, we can be sure.

However, as a life coach, I find these kinds of stories fascinating because of the people aspect. The bare bones factual pieces and reactions to them intrigue me and almost beg for deconstruction.

I was stunned at first when I heard the Petraeus news, but then quickly got to here: Has another human being gone and ‘sinned’? Oh, what will we do?

I don’t mean to take these transgressions – his and hers – lightly, but shouldn’t we expect this periodically? Have we learned anything about human nature since the beginning of time?

Often people surprise us, not always in a positive way. Maybe no one is who we think they are. Why is it so important for us to elevate people to such exemplary status? Or, by contrast, to glory in their fall? Why do we assume, stereotype, put blinders on, whip out the rose-colored specs?

One of my favorite artistic statements to this effect was the one conveyed in the movie American Beauty. No one is who the audience initially thinks they are in that film. The girl who likes to talk about sex is a virgin, the one who doesn’t is sexually active, the boring-looking corporate guy is anything but, the homophobic military man is gay, and naturally it all takes place in an idyllic looking suburb.

Of late, in real life, we’ve had a highly-respected university upended by a pedophile scandal that reached the most powerful forces on campus and we’ve had one-time top heroes like Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong dropped to human status after great feats that inspired and then disappointing transgressions.

Maybe we’re finally starting to lower our expectations. Is that what this one is telling us? I don’t mean that in a glass-half-empty way. More like in a realistic, these-are-the-facts way. There’s an awful lot in the mix in this life, isn’t there?

Sometimes powerful attraction sparks middle school-level behavior. Soldiers are flawed people too. Leaders can be charismatic magnets. Attention is flattering. People get hurt and often act out in the process. Resisting temptation can be very difficult. Bad judgment happens a lot. Remorse will only get us so far but it’s a start. Ego left unchecked can lead to recklessness and willful arrogance. Email is permanent. Conspiracy theories are plentiful. Where there are big stakes and big emotions there is potential for a big fall. Scandals hold up a mirror to all of us.

What do we see in that reflection? What do we make of all this? Again, not from a legal or strategic standpoint, as I’ll leave that for the experts. But from a societal standpoint?

We see people’s lives obliterated because of their choices. And, unlike most of us, their pain and humiliation plays out on a global stage.

So now what, for them and for us in our most vulnerable times?

There is nothing left to do but come completely clean. Search your soul but good. Take your lumps with dignity. Make amends to your family. And then figure out what you’re going to do with it all.

As most always, I recommend going the way of authenticity. That is the only thing that can breathe new life into a shattered life.

Much ado has been made about General Petraeus’ 12 Rules for Living, particularly the one about learning from your mistakes. Yes, that’s particularly apt here, but so is the very first one on his list:

Lead by example from the front of the formation. Take your performance personally -- if you are proud to be average, so too will be your troops.

This is no time to be average. Many still consider the general a great leader. He needs to continue to lead by example. He’s not the first man to cheat and he won’t be the last. How he handles it is his choice and we’ll all be watching.

From the front of the formation sounds like a plan.

Nancy Colasurdo is a practicing life coach and freelance writer. Her Web site is www.nancola.com and you can follow her on Twitter @nancola. Please direct all questions/comments to FOXGamePlan@gmail.com.