Sex and Power… A toxic mix?

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General David Petraeus is not the first man in power to be dishonoured and to fall from grace over a sex scandal and he certainly won’t be the last. We don’t have to go too far back in history to find examples of this trend.

The former California governor and one time movie action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger found himself maligned and divorced after it emerged that he had fathered a child with his children’s nanny. Former U.S President Bill Clinton faced impeachment over his sexual indiscretion with White House intern Monica Lewinsky a few years ago.

The list is endless, now the four star General David Petraeus finds himself in the same murky and overcrowded boat. All men in the examples cited were in leadership positions and should have known better, so why didn’t they?

David Petraeus

Author and professor at the Harvard business School Rosabeth Moss Kanter  lists this failure as one of five self- defeating tendencies in both companies and individuals ;Thinking you’ll get away with it…

“Whatever “it” is — lying, cheating, foreign corrupt practices, or swallowing extra bites of chocolate — lapses cannot remain secret for long in the digital age. Believing otherwise is delusional. The mistake will show up somewhere — in routine audits, unrelated FBI investigations, smartphone photos by strangers, or the bathroom scale. In the ultimate example of self-defeating behavior, too many otherwise-intelligent politicians, military leaders, and CEOs think with their zippers, thereby jeopardizing companies, countries, and careers.”

Kanter‘s advice for new leaders or for existing ones to avoid such downfalls is simple.

“Happily, there’s a cure for self-defeating behavior: Get over yourself. Humility prevents self-defeat. A desire to serve others, an emphasis on values and purpose, a sense of responsibility for long-term consequences, and knowledge of both strengths and limitations can make it easier to avoid these traps”

So it seems that once in positions of power, there is a tendency towards hubris and a sense of invincibility. General Petreaus seems to have displayed this tendency given his lackadaisical approach to the frequent e-mail communications between him and the woman he had an affair with Paula Broadwell.

Being the country’s chief spy, presumably he would’ve known any online communication is easy to intercept. The situation could easily be manipulated by those who may want to blackmail someone in his position. What also alludes to his ego is the fact that he was able to grant Broadwell so much access when someone in his position should be guarded and reticent with such approaches by the media.

One writer suggests he would’ve agreed to such overtures because it massaged his ego, to have someone keen to write his biography.

2 years ago, the Washington post surveyed a few leaders and CEO’s over the issue of power and sexual indiscretions. Linda Larson is the founder and president of Larson and partners. Larson argues that by virtue of their achievements, people in leadership would most likely have been the hard working sorts who never really had much social interaction, once in power, that all changes.

She offered two explanations for the power/sex dynamic:

“The first is what I call “Revenge of the Nerds.” This is when someone who could achieve great things academically but suffered through romantic rejection during youth suddenly finds himself in a position to get what he wants. It’s analogous to the lottery winners who spend a lot of their new money on tacky and ostentatious things — neither money nor power equals class.”

The second is what Larson refers to as  the Sally Field syndrome — “you like me, you really like me.” “We are all insecure human beings who want the approval of others. Power is sexy, and people in positions of power often find themselves recognized in public, praised and flattered as never before. The people who have known you since before you were fabulous probably don’t gush and fawn and make you feel so darn good about yourself all the time.”

So it was that Broadwell did indeed fawn over Petraeus as her glowing biography ‘ All in. The education of General Petraeus ‘ now shows.

If ego, hubris are one of the reasons for sexual recklessness in people in positions of power, why don’t women leaders fall into the same trap as far as sex and power is concerned. It is not as if they don’t have the same urges.

Some writers attribute this to narcissism.

Narcissistic leaders, as research by Stanford professor Charles O’Reilly and colleagues’ note, are characterized by the “traits of dominance, self-confidence, a sense of entitlement, grandiosity, and low empathy.”

Organisational Behaviour professor at Stanford University’s graduate school of business,Jeffrey Pfeffer argues that  we are choosing more narcissistic leaders than we did in the past and those leaders  are likely to be male.

“Past research suggests that exploitive tendencies and open displays of feelings of entitlement will be less integral to narcissism for females than for males simply because women face more social constraints and social sanctions for grandiosity and self-aggrandizement than do men”

Larson adds another dimension, “One could argue that they are too smart to get caught. I believe it is more likely that women have had to overcome so many obstacles to achieve positions of power that they do not take them lightly or for granted. In the absence of an “old girls’ club” with a history of looking the other way at bad behavior, women are more likely to act based on their moral compasses and life experiences.”

The deduction to make from the Petreaus downfall is that leaders whether male or female must constantly remember why they are in power; that is to serve and not put their own interests first. Putting this top of mind,allows them to have more foresight as to how their decisions will impact others.

-Nikiwe (with Kibnesh, Kareem, Oonagh and Sam)