All Out

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?