All Out

Posted on Nov 12, 2012 | 3 Comments

We expect to read a lot more about the circumstances surrounding the resignation of David Petraeus, director of the CIA, who was revealed to have had an affair with his biographer. Already in some quarters, however, questions have arisen over why so drastic a step as quitting should be necessary.

“I just have to ask why do we have to lose him over this?” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “That actually makes no sense.”

Baltimore Sun columnist Susan Reimer has the same question. “The list of public and private men and women—and Secret Service agents—caught cheating is long and it will only grow, especially in the digital age, where lipstick can never be erased from a collar,” she writes. “We have to find a way to get past this human frailty or we face a shrinking talent pool.”

Peter Drucker had a forgiving stance toward human frailty, which he considered to be inescapable. The manager of tomorrow, he believed, would surely be as flawed a human being as the manager of yesterday. “He will be possessed of the same endowments, beset by the same frailties and hedged in by the same limitations,” Drucker wrote in The Practice of Management.

U.S. Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and his wfe Holly. Image source: The U.S. Army

But Drucker would almost certainly have added that Petraeus had to go. Even if susceptibility to blackmail or security breaches weren’t an issue (and some claim they are not), the leader of an organization must be governed by what Drucker called an “Ethics of Prudence.”

Its spirit, Drucker wrote in The Changing World of the Executive, could best be summed up by a word of advice from Harry Truman: “Generals should never do anything needs to be explained to a Senate Committee—there is nothing one can explain to a Senate Committee.”

Generals, or anyone of similar rank, are very visible. “They must expect their behavior to be seen, scrutinized, analyzed, discussed and questioned,” Drucker explained. “Prudence thus demands that they shun actions that cannot easily be understood, explained or justified. But generals, being visible, are also examples. They are leaders by their very position and visibility. Their only choice is between direction and misdirection, between leadership and misleadership. They thus have an ethical obligation to give the example of right behavior and to avoid giving the example of wrong behavior.”

Do you think Petraeus was obligated to step down? Why or why not?


  1. Greg Basham
    November 15, 2012

    Clearly there was no choice facing the head of the CIA or his superiors but for him to resign primarily on the breach of trust inherent in such a position and the related potential of blackmail and exposure to security breaches which seems to have developed with a biographer external to the organization.

    If the above weren’t a problem clearly General Petraeus had several other problems that Drucker would undoubtedly have pointed out if he were providing counsel in such a situation.

    First off, I place no judgment here on the private morality of the man as this to is not at all the issue. Even if there was no sex there is a major problem here. What is an issue are the circumstances where this was not a private, outside business relationship, but one that must have been clearly visible as the photos seem to suggest right there in the work place. This must have been a bit concerning to his direct reports and close members of staff as those at the top of the organization know the standards and operating guidelines that must be present at all levels of the CIA.

    At the risk of possibly taking Peter Drucker out of context he might use a variation of this statement about leaders to explain why the resignation had to occur: “Taking responsibility for relationships…is an absolute necessity.” If we are to believe the media descriptions about the biographer’s access and presence, the General’s ability to carry on in a leadership role left no way out of this mess.

    While the headlines will often focus on the “affair” or “sex scandal” the real issues involve the danger Petraeus created for himself and the organizations he served during the time this situation was happening.

    There are not many situations where a leader of an organization or major business unit can survive these affairs at work as it renders the leader ineffective in engaging followers and setting and ensuring high standards of integrity prevail in the organization.

  2. Maverick18
    November 17, 2012

    One needs to distinguish morals from ethics. If the General had an affair during his military career, he violated military rules and that was an ethical violation. After his retirement, it was no longer unethical to cheat on his wife, although that would certainly be considered immoral by many (including his wife). There were two good reasons for the General to resign as head of the CIA. First, to minimize the investigations, and second, to minimize the embarassment or the administration. The problem is simply one of disclosure. Multiple former US presidents managed to keep their affairs out of the news during their terms in office. Clinton, on the other hand, managed to complicate his affair by adding perjury resulting in impeachment. That was at a high public cost. Petraeus, who really is ethical, smart, and a patriot, simply handled the matter in the most expedient fashion, making any question of whether he was obligated to resign simply conjecture.

  3. What Peter Drucker Would Be Reading | The Drucker Exchange | Daily Blog by The Drucker Institute
    November 20, 2012

    [...] Comment of the Week: When we asked whether David Petraeus had an obligation to step down as head of the CIA, reader Greg [...]


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