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Partners and Senior Advisors use the firm's blog to write on current ethics and leadership topics.

How the Mighty Have Fallen … And Continue to Fall

In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army.  They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah.  But David remained in Jerusalem.

One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace.  From the roof he saw a woman bathing.  The woman was very beautiful, and David sent someone to find out about her.  The man said, “She is Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” Then David sent messengers to get her.  She came to him, and he slept with her.                    2 Samuel 11: 1 – 4 (New International Bible)

What is it about extraordinary achievement that seems to have inspired extraordinary ethical failures throughout all of human history?  Names from contemporary headlines … David Petraeus, John Edwards, Graham Spanier, Christopher Kubasik … have different circumstances but their fall from the pinnacle of success and their actions are as dramatic and inexplicable as those of King David. 

Professors Dean C. Ludwig and Clinton D. Longenecker in their 1993 Journal of Ethics article The Bathsheba Syndrome: The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders remind us that accounts of King David “describe a leader with a humble past, a dramatic and rapid rise to power, strong organizational skills, a charismatic personality, an eclectic approach to problem solving, a strategic vision for his people, and a man of high moral character.”  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?   

Ludwig and Longenecker argue that the ethical violations of highly successful leaders are not because these leaders lack operational principles or because they cave into competitive pressures.  Rather, they believe these violations “are the by-product of success.”  While top level leaders are educated, trained, and experienced in a variety of ways for their responsibilities, they are “poorly prepared to deal with success.”  According to Ludwig and Longenecker, this lack of readiness for success often leads to four dangerous dynamics:

 1)  Success often allows leaders to become complacent and to lose focus.  Why wasn’t King David in the field leading     his army where he was supposed to be?

 2)  Success often leads to privileged access to information, people, and objects.  Only King David was privileged to walk around on the roof his palace and thus, view Bathsheba bathing.

 3)  Success brings increasingly unrestrained control of organizational resources.  Only King David could order Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah the Hittite, to the front of battle where he would be killed. 

 4)  Success can inflate a leader’s belief in his or her ability to manipulate outcomes.  King David sent word to Joab, his general, not to view the death (murder) of Uriah as evil … and so, King David took Bathsheba as his wife.

 Success inevitably leads to increased power, discretion, control, and freedom.  It is exhilarating … and dangerous.  “Power corrupts” and it takes a balanced, thoughtful, and humble person to stay focused on the work at hand while avoiding the dark side of success.  And, it takes ethics education in preparation for success rather than ethics education focused on operational principles or competitive pressures.

Psychologist Roderick M. Kramer has spent his career researching the process of getting to the top of the organizational ladder.  In a 2003 Harvard Business Review article titled The Harder They Fall, Kramer discussed his “genius to folly syndrome.”  This syndrome describes “a swift and steady rise by a brilliant, hard-driving, politically adept individual followed by surprising stints of miscalculation or recklessness.”  Like Ludwig and Longenecker, Kramer also believes that a lack of preparation for success has all too often given organizations “leaders who lacked the prudence, sense of proportion, and self-restraint needed to cope with the trappings of power.”

Kramer interviewed many leaders who made it to the top and remained there without a fall from grace.  While different in personality, experience, and management styles, they were quite similar in developing a set of habits that helped them keep their perspective, their positions, and their feet planted firmly on the ground.  His interviews revealed:

 1)  Keep your life simple.  Perhaps no one speaks more eloquently here than Warren Buffett, “I live now the way I lived 30 years ago.”

 2)  Hang a lantern on your foibles.  It isn’t the mistake that causes all the trouble, it is the cover-up.

 3)  Float trial balloons.  Check and re-check information, review assumptions, and protect contrary voices and opinions.

 4)  Sweat the small stuff.  Ignore the management books that counsel leaders to leave the small stuff to others … it is often what seemed like the small stuff that comes back to haunt even the best leaders.

 5)  Reflect more, not less.  Self-awareness may be the sine qua non of successful long term, ethical leadership.

Most of us want to believe that if granted great success and power, we would be able to navigate without falling prey to the Bathsheba Syndrome or the Genius to Folly Syndrome.  We want to believe we would remain the same person when successful that we are now, and that success and power would not change our basic character, values, or principles. 

May it be so … but some reflection on and preparation for the price of success may also be useful.

Posted in Leadership