Does a leader’s private morality matter?

This morning, we had Thomas Ricks on to discuss his new book, The Generals. Since generals are in the news these days, the talk turned to Gen. David Petraeus.

Here’s what Ricks said:

I think we should be careful about casually throwing away good leaders. especially on the grounds of personal, private business. I think we pay too much attention to the private lives of our officials. And too little attention to the public execution of their duties.

I don’t understand why we are so harsh about holding people accountable on their private lives. And so permissible and lax with how they actually do their job.

He added, “We should be careful about throwing out good leaders.”

What do you think? We’ll discuss Ricks’ take, Petraeus and moral leadership tomorrow morning on the Friday Roundtable.

–Stephanie Curtis, social media host

  • Erik

    not unless it’s regarding something that is directly related to their leadership role.

  • Ben

    IF the private e-mail of the head of the CIA isn’t safe from FBI snooping, then NOBODY’s e-mail is private.

    and why didn’t Petraeus know this???

  • dave gardner

    why wasn’t General Eisenhower chastised in this way for his behavior with his female aid durring WW2. He later was elected president!

  • mark

    How about indescretions by FDR, Eisenhower, Kennedy (multiple?) and Clinton? Does Amy Ihlan think they should all hve resigned?

  • Peter

    Man according to the standards the guests on the round table are laying nearly every member in congress should quit on the grounds of not being a virtuous person. They are humans. It is impossible to be “Virtuous” all the time as the guest claims. “virtuous” is also such a relative term.

    I love the line from the author of the Generals, he said something like…they put up with raging alcoholics, womanizers…because they were great leaders in the military.

  • Richard

    I believe that moral ethics does matter, but different situations should be judged differently: for example, a one time affair should have a penalty but not necessarily being fired. But someone with a history of affairs or of having affairs with someone you have power over, should be judged more strongly. People aren’t perfect, so we should separate different kinds of moral failings.


  • Scott

    Petraeus acted unethically by breaking his promise to his nation. He possessed the nation’s top security clearance and had a responsibility to not be susceptible to compromise by outside actors. This sounds dramatic, but individuals with security clearances can be mal-influenced (such as through blackmail) if their indiscretions are known by others.

    Potential for compromise is what security clearance investigators look for — is the person in financial trouble? Do they meet other obligations in their life? For decades, being homosexual (secretly or otherwise) was considered potential for compromise through blackmail.

  • Daniel


    Shouldn’t the FBI be investigating, like, crime?

  • Carrie

    I’d like to hear the guests address the notion that power corrupts. It seems that particularly in cases of men in positions of power, the temptation of sexual escapades is often irresistible. Does this indicate something about the nature of the relationships between men of power and others? Or does it call into question our social mores? Is it even reasonable to expect monogamy, when this particular failing seems more common than any other?

  • Joseph Miller

    The ethical analysis that “if a leader cannot distinguish between right and wrong in their personal life, it will effect their professional life” is extremely simplistic.

    People are capable in different ways. Some people are excellent at making ethical decisions in one area and terrible in others. A person may be personally generous but mistreat their close friends. They may be very responsible in dealing with their superiors but have a private gambling problem. As long as a person is ethically capable in the areas that relate to their job, I don’t think it matters if they are ethically less capable in unrelated areas.

    Furthermore, one personal mistake does not disqualify someone from making other good decisions. You invite “smart people” to the Roundtable to discuss the news of the week. Do you disqualify anyone who has ever said anything dumb? Does the fact that they may have made an irrational statement in their personal life disqualify all their comments as unreliable? Of course not. You judge guests based on whether or not, in the course of their official duties, they make sound arguments about what’s going on in the world.

  • Scott

    @Dan — investigating a potentially compromised security clearance is exactly what the FBI should be doing.

  • Jefferson

    The real issue is how was Petraeus confronted about his affair? Did the FBI threaten to go public unless he stepped down, did the Attorney General? Did the Obama administration discuss this issue with Petraeus and ask him to step down? Did Petraeus simply come out of the blue and admit to this and decide on his own to step down?

    We must remember all the men who had affairs and their contributions to history…should we really have dismissed Jefferson, JFK, Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush (also head of the CIA and very likely had an affair while in the White House) and Clinton. I would be very cautious about dismissing an individual from public office due to moral missteps.

  • Joe in Minneapolis

    Look at the private moral failiings of eminent people in other positions: athletes and movie/music celebrities. We see several inccidents of these people failing personally (or succeeding personally too), and we overlook them (to some degree) in the interests of the quality of their public perfomances. The same exact rationale applies to our leaders in the public sector (& the private industry sector too), only with the stakes raised in terms of the life & death/livelihood & impoverishment results dependent upon these leaders’ performances within their offices.

  • Peter

    Is anyone else thinking of spiderman?

  • Dave

    If we judge public figures by their private lives, we are ignoring a great reservoir of talent. We used to consider gay people a security risk because of the potential for blackmail. Thankfully, that is in the past. It is better to have disclosure without penalty than to create an incentive to conceal an affair.

    Private and public lives are very different. Many people succeed in one and fail in the other. Think Bill Clinton, John F. Kennedy, Wilbur Mills, Jack Welch Dwight Eisenhower on the one hand. Then think of a friend with a wonderful family and a lousy job.

  • ray

    Should a sexual relation between consenting adults be public discussion material or should it be between those who it affects?

    I want to hear a discussion of whether the GOP + its funders believe in the Divine Right of The Rich as demonstrated by Romney comments + GOP policies

  • GregX

    the morality of leadership is always a matter of black and white extremism once the light of public scrutiny finds it. I think our culture obsesses on an overt sense of complete sanctity/purity when in reality we are a nation of gray values. We almost deify our fore-fathers – but in fact they were rife with vices, pettiness and fears. Had our “fore-followers” known them better – they would have chucked them from office and we would not exist.

    the greater problem is that the public sentiment executes every leader for the 1st offense instead of working through the process of corrective moderation. the public needs to learn and adapt as much as the leader.

  • Anne

    I believe that certain behaviors can be judged ‘bad’ in an absolute way (e.g., rape, murder, fraud). However, we must be careful on two counts: 1) to separate the behavior from the person (as in pronouncing a person not to have integrity or character based on a single incident, and 2) to separate our judgments from the consequences of the actions.

    If we simply base the ‘punishment’ on our judgment alone, we could miss mitigating variables (such as was their coercion to perform the act? what actions did the individual take to amend for their actions, etc.)

  • Annie Perkins

    Great discussion.

    I might have this wrong, but I recall an airline executive resigning in protest of his airline going into bankruptcy, and I was absolutely overwhelmed with appreciation for that. (I think it was American Airlines a year or two ago.)

    I think sometimes we do revere the business leaders who make the decision that will help the people rather than the bottom line.

  • mike paulson

    This type of behavior is nothing new. What is new is this mock outrage over the behavior, and the willingness to sacrifice a great “leader”. The idea that nobody knew about Kennedy, or Eisenhauer is infantile, and that somhow they were protected due to the lack of the internet is laughable. Let’s look at a leader prior to either of those folks. General Grant. He was known as a womanizing drunk when he was a General…and then was elected President. What is sad is that your guests pretend they are somehow untarnished and have never engaged in activity that is questionable . We are all flawed. We may not have affairs, we may not lie, but we have all done something that others would consider immoral or unethical. To continue to push forth the idea that our “leaders” should be held to a higher standard is the problem. Maybe this changed when the “moral” majority came into being, or possibly when we started referring to ourr epresentatives as “leaders”.

  • jackson

    People make mistakes. I agree with Mr. Ricks. We need people that know how to do their jobs. Have these guests never made a mistake in their personal lives?

  • gary

    Let’s start by holding the Catholic church and Pope to these standards.

  • Leo

    Persons of power & priveledge held to a higher standard: think Wall Street Bankers; cocaine and hookers. We trust them with our money & economy? More seriously, everyone is vulnerable to personal failure. What one does when one fails is a measure of character. Petraeus stood up and resigned, Clinton…well, you know what he said. Both are still great leaders. I think our character is honed from a lifetime of training, education, trial and error. Then we make another mistake, and get up again. If you have a conscience you do better. If not, you may be a sociopath. (sort of tongue in cheek). The guests seemt to be talking about real saints, not regular people. Remember Academia shouting down a call for ‘not dating’ your TA’s? 🙂

  • Anne

    Having examples of moral leadership in public life is very important to model good judgment. However, there is benefit in piercing the myth of hero worship that expects leaders in high positions to be faultless or beyond question. We all have feet of clay.

  • Stephanie Curtis, The Daily Circuit

    Here are the book picks from our guests:

    Brian Rosenberg – Nate Silver “The Signal and the Noise” and Jeffrey Toobin “The Oath”

    Amy Ihlan – Charlotte Rogan “The Lifeboat” and “Climate Matters” by John Broom

    Dawn Elm – Mary Ann Glendon “Rights Matters” and “Defending Jacob” by William Landay

  • Doug

    Is the general morally flawed? Absolutely, but the members of the round table lose their argument when they say for example Kennedy was a wonderful leader. He was, as was Eisenhower, as was FDR. The history books are full of great leaders who were morally flawed, the problem is these days there are too many people that have this morbid fascination with what goes on in people’s personal lives. This is something that if you are doing your job, while morally reprehensible perhaps, has no place in the news.

  • Melody

    More leaders than we can count throughout history have behaved this way. That is not to say it is right, it is to say we need to examine better ways of achieving fulfillment through relationship that ARE worthy of emulation, and that do not hurt others. We also need to stop pretending that marriage is the complete answer to that for anyone.

    From Pierre Teilhard De Chardin:

    “I am far from denying the destructive and disintegrating forces of passion. I will go so far as to agree that apart from the reproductive function, men have hitherto used love, on the whole, as an instrument of self-corruption and intoxication. But what do these excesses prove? Because fire consumes and electricity can kill are we to stop using them? The feminine is the most formidable of the forces of matter. True enough. “Very well, then,” say the moralists, “we must avoid it.” “Not at all,” I reply, “we take hold of it.” In every domain of the real (physical, affective, intellectual) “danger” is a sign of power. Only a mountain can create a terrifying drop. The customary education of the Christian conscience tends to make us confuse tutiorism with prudence, safety with truth. Avoiding the risk of transgression has become more important to us than carrying a difficult position for God. And it is this that is killing us. “The more dangerous a thing, the more is its conquest ordained by life”: it is from that conviction that the modern world has emerged; and from that our religion, too, must be reborn.