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Petraeus, the Bathsheba Syndrome and You

David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell (U.S. Navy photo from Wikimedia Commons)

David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell: Did he experience the Bathsheba syndrome?

The unfolding saga of the downfall of a great man should be a caution to us all. What can we learn as the news echoes the story of David and Bathsheba?

If you’re like me, you were shocked and dismayed to learn that General David Petraeus resigned in disgrace after an extramarital affair came to light. He was a true American hero:

  • Top of his class at the Army Command and General Staff College.
  • A Ph.D. from Princeton.
  • The brilliant mind behind the surge that brought relative stability to seething Iraq.
  • The commander of all forces in Afghanistan.
  • Finally, the head of the CIA.

Another career ended in disgrace

But General Petraeus took the CIA post only 14 months before this amazing career trajectory ended in disgrace. For all his intelligence, his discipline, his drive and his vision, he fell prey to one of the oldest traps into which people can fall. He added his name to a long and pitiful list of business, government and religious leaders who abruptly and publicly fell from grace. Why?

It isn’t hard to understand how he could have been tempted. Paula Broadwell was an attractive, younger woman, talented and accomplished in her own right; and as his biographer, she had special access to him and apparently idolized him—an intoxicating potion.

But there may have been even more at work than that. A recent article by Mackubin Thomas Owens linked this scandal to what two business ethicists have called the Bathsheba syndrome.

The Bathsheba syndrome

The biblical story of David and Bathsheba is unforgettable: a giant-killing warrior, a brilliant and successful king beloved by his nation and by God, sees a beautiful woman bathing on her roof; and in a moment of weakness he has her brought to the palace and commits adultery with her.

She conceives and, frantic to hide their sin, over the course of anguished weeks David resorts to subterfuge and finally the murder of her husband.

God doesn’t give David a pass. Although his sin was forgiven by God after his heartfelt repentance, for the rest of his life David paid an agonizing price in shame, misery and family horror.

In their paper “The Bathsheba Syndrome: The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders” published in the Journal of Business Ethics almost 20 years ago, authors Dean Ludwig and Clinton Longenecker suggest that what is behind the downfall of many powerful and successful people, whatever the nature of the ethical violation, is the Bathsheba syndrome. That is to say, people can be unprepared for success and what it entails. The authors explain the causes of the syndrome in business terms, but it can apply to success in any field.

“First, success often allows managers to become complacent and to lose focus, diverting attention to things other than the management of their business. Second, success, whether personal or organizational, often leads to privileged access to information, people, or objects. Third, with success usually comes increasingly unrestrained control of organizational resources. And fourth, success can inflate a manager’s belief in his or her personal ability to manipulate outcomes. Even individuals with a highly developed moral sense can be challenged (tempted?) by the ‘opportunities’ resulting from the convergence of these dynamics” (emphasis in the original).

Our feet of clay

In other words, success can lead us to believe the rules no longer apply to us. All human beings have feet of clay, and we are wise to beware our own weakness and treat our fallibility with fear and respect.

“Your sin will find you out”

The Bible warns us: “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7).

We live our lives in part to learn a crucial lesson: Sin, the violation of God’s laws, brings painful consequences—always. Like David, our sins can be forgiven upon repentance and baptism, but certain physical consequences often remain to sear that lesson into our souls.

God warns that sin, like a boomerang, always returns to haunt us: “Be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23).

We would do well to heed these warnings and take object lessons from those who have been snared like David. As the apostle Paul warned: “Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

Learn more about God’s view of the Bathsheba syndrome in the articles “Seventh Commandment: You Shall Not Commit Adultery” and “What Is Repentance?”

About the Author

Joel Meeker

Joel Meeker

Joel Meeker is a pastor, writer, editor and administrator. He serves as regional director for the French-speaking regions of the Church of God, a Worldwide Association (a position he’s had for over 20 years). He is also chairman of its Ministerial Board of Directors.  

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