There are some lessons that HR professionals can draw from the saga of Gen. David Petraeus, who resigned as head of the CIA after an FBI investigation found that he had an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.
The importance of choosing leaders with integrity--and the realization that there is virtually no privacy when it comes to electronic communications--jump out as key takeaways for HR. However, how HR staffs can apply these principles in their day-to-day work isn’t cut and dried. And the scandal illuminates aspects of human nature that will challenge HR professionals for decades, researchers warn.
Once being discussed as a potential presidential candidate, Petraeus managed military battles, his career and the news media astutely. Some have labeled him a narcissist, particularly in light of the Broadwell affair. Did Broadwell’s intense interest in Petraeus blind the general to his duties—his duties to his country, to his family, and even to his own best interests? Only he can answer. His departure from public service is unfortunate, given his talent. His damage to his family, and Broadwell’s damage to hers, are more significant and more lasting, I suspect.
Had Petraeus worked for the private sector, and had the investigation begun with a tip to HR instead of a call to the FBI, how would the situation have played out? A lot differently, I believe. Broadwell wasn’t working for Petraeus or his organization, though she was an Army Reserve officer. All indications are that it was a consensual relationship free from harassment. When the affair was discovered, according to news reports, neither party denied it or tried to cover it up. This is not a Penn State or Catholic Church scandal.
Reportedly, by leaving personal messages in the drafts folder of a Gmail account, the pair thought that their communications would remain anonymous. They didn’t. Even if Petraeus used a government computer to access the drafts folder, it’s not the most massive violation of HR rules—unless evidence shows that he revealed classified information.
If you were the HR chief dealing with these discoveries in the private sector, what would you do? Fire Petraeus? For showing poor moral judgment? That might be a decision for the Board of Directors. For misusing e-mail? You’d probably give him a warning or make him take more training.
The paramount takeaway for HR is that we need to understand a leader’s character before we hire him or her. Unfortunately, we often overlook character flaws because they can be embedded in otherwise desirable skill sets. Some of the most effective leaders in terms of business performance are narcissists—narcissists who often get themselves and their organizations into trouble, according to researchers Arijit Chatterjee and Donald Hambrick. They found that narcissism in CEOs is correlated with “strategic dynamism.”
Two more researchers, Joris Lammers and Adam Galinsky, came up with another disturbing finding about power seekers: People with power break rules not just because they think that they can get away with doing so, but also because they believe that they are entitled to do so.
Finally, researchers at the University of Michigan and the University of Virginia assessed more than 100 graduate students and concluded that the level of narcissism in the United States is increasing. Taken together, these studies suggest that preventing situations such as that of Petraeus and Broadwell won’t be easy. Men and women are going to cheat. They’re going to try to hide their affairs. The only “bright” side is that they’re going to find it ever more difficult to conceal the electronic evidence.
How effectively HR manages situations such as the Petraeus affair will help demonstrate just how strategic the profession has become.
Steve Bates is a freelance journalist and former writer and editor for SHRM. Any investigation of his e-mails would reveal many pages of discussion of baseball, gardening and troublesome editors.
[Links to research noted above:]