All Articles Leadership Management Mistakes leaders can and can't make

Mistakes leaders can and can’t make

4 min read


Gen. David Petraeus Gen. David Petraeus (credit: Wikipedia)

Everything we thought we knew about erstwhile CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus is now up for debate — his leadership qualities, motivations, future and his reputation for being disciplined and loyal in his personal life.

We question everything: How can a man with such a reputation for self-discipline display such disregard for protocol in his dealings with amour Paula Broadwell? Was this merely Petraeus finally being exposed for being what critics called “a bit of a showboat” — or worse, a fraud? Was his resignation letter a sign of a patriot or too little, too late?

Those concerns don’t even include questions about the tenor and transparency of the FBI’s investigation, Petraeus’ post-election resignation timing and the extent of his responsibility for the Benghazi, Libya, attack where Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others died.

Within the more limited universe of SmartBlog on Leadership, I’d like to focus on some of Petraeus’ recent words on leadership as told to Broadwell, which are both insightful and, after the fact, tragicomic:

4. There is an exception to every rule, standard operating procedure and policy; it is up to leaders to determine when exceptions should be made and to explain why they made them.
5. We all will make mistakes. The key is to recognize them and admit them, to learn from them and to take off the rear view mirrors — drive on and avoid making them again.

Rule No. 4 is certainly true insomuch as that the world is not lived on paper, and wars are not fought in scenarios and in computer models but on battlefields. As long as the unpredictability of life exists, we must leave room for improvisation in our decision-making. But — and there’s always a but — such a rule can also lead to self-justification, to promoting one’s desire-driven preferred outcomes over rules, morality and the common good. When that happens, the explanation for the exception becomes self-serving or nonexistent — and people who notice are often unable to hold the leader responsible.

Petraeus followed the first half of rule No. 4; he distinctly ignored the last part. His resignation appears to be a step toward following No. 5. Only time will tell whether he follows through.

Let me be clear that I’m a fan of making mistakes, as mistakes demonstrate that you’re taking risks, pushing for innovation and progress — in short, they demonstrate effort and commitment, even if flawed. Furthermore, to make a mistake is not shameful, and we should encourage an environment where risks are admirable and where mistakes are allowed. But not all mistakes are equal.

Petraeus’ affair, and the events (and e-mails) that followed, created a security risk that was personal and professional, with potential ramifications for the CIA, U.S. citizens and even other nations. However unlikely that such a risk would come to fruition, and regardless of the politics surrounding this matter, this was a mistake that undercut Petraeus’ ability to meet his core job functions and the ability of others to trust him. This was not, say, a company project that falls short of expectations despite best efforts but leaves the company relatively intact financially and unscathed ethically.

To put it in a business context (borrowing from Enrique P. Fiallo), Petraeus made these critical errors:

  • “pride and arrogance”
  • “lacking integrity”
  • “avoiding,” as in ending the affair many months before taking responsibility
  • “blindly trusting people”
  • “short-cutting”

If we learn anything from Petraeus, it ought to be that none of us is immune to temptation, the mistakes that come from it or the consequences. And, if we’re making a mistake we’re not willing to acknowledge or immediately work to fix, it’s probably the kind of mistake that will not — and should not — be tolerated.