Sunday, September 5, 2010

IRT The Bathsheba Syndrome

It has been a long, very long, time since I last posted. I only have two words to support my unauthorized absence - Sea and Duty! I would have probably went another few months without writing, but a couple postings over at "Cut of His Jib" beckoned me to respond.

The good Captain has been highlighting the leadership failures of recent Commanding Officers that have been relieved since the inception of the new year. Many of those firings have came as a result of some ethical shortcomings. One theory presented to explain these moral compromises is what Dr. John Rice calls "The David and Bathsheba Syndrome." Explained at CoHJ this is the theory "named after King David of Israel and his affair with Bathsheba, the wife of one of his army officers. It describes how a leader’s success can cause unethical acts that the leader knows to be wrong. When the leader becomes successful, that person is given privileged access to information and the control over organizational resources. . . a leader might come to think that these tools of top leadership are in fact rewards for past successes. The leader may relax and enjoy the privileges and control of the position. When the leader succumbs to temptations that abound at the top, strategic focus may be lost."

In essence the Bathsheba Syndrome justifies ethical failures of senior leaders because of their inability to avoid the temptations common to men once they have achieved their position of authority. This explanation continues at the initial post: "'In short, too many of the perpetrators of the violations we have recently witnessed are men and women of strong personal integrity and intelligence – men and women who have climbed the ladder through hard work and ‘keeping their noses clean.’ But just at the moment of seemingly ‘having it all,’ they have thrown it away by engaging in an activity which is wrong, which they know is wrong, which they know would lead to their downfall if discovered, and which they mistakenly believe they have the power to conceal. This, in essence, is what we have labeled the ‘Bathsheba Syndrome.'"

It is necessary to stop and consider the underlying assumption in this statement. The author believes these leaders to have once possessed strong integrity and intelligence and a record of upstanding morality that resulted in their rise to power. Hmmm . . . I would love to hear your thoughts on that one. Here's a few of mine:

First, there is considerable blame shifting existing in the entire notion of the Bathsheba Syndrome theory. Essentially, this theory claims that what is outside the man is responsible for the actions of that man. [This is a very common response from all of us, rather it is the husband that yells at his wife because "she is always nagging me" or the child that hits another because "he called me a name" - we are all saying that "_______ made me do it" - fill in the blank - it is a result of my childhood or my stressful job or my health or my wife, child, boss, or . . . or . . . or . . .] Back to these unethical COs - it was not the power they experienced that produced their immoral actions - it was their corrupt nature, their rotten heart.

Let me describe a powerful word picture that illustrates my point - once you understand it, your perspective on their actions (and your own) will be completely transformed. It is my response to the Bathsheba Syndrome theory, you can call it the Shaken Glass theory

If I held a glass half full of water before you and began to shake it, what would happen? Well, water would go all over the place and make a mess, right? Now, what if I asked you - what caused the mess? How do you suppose you would respond? Before you continue - think about it. I'm willing to bet you would tell me the mess was a result of me shaking the glass - am I right? Well, you would be wrong! The mess was created by the water that existed in the glass prior to me shaking it. Now, stop and think . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . did you make the connection?

You see, when a person (or Commanding Officer) is shaken by the power, stress, etc. of their position, a mess cannot be created if the fundamental "stuff" that makes messes were not already contained within their hearts. These Captains had junk in their hearts - their character, the essence of who they are - and when they faced these temptations they sadly made a mess of their personal and professional lives.

I know of a Navy Captain, recently screened for Major Command of a Cruiser who taught leadership. He was a successful Destroyer CO who would take all of his students into his office and show off his huge montage of pictures, with his beautiful wife and four lovely children in it. I really bought into this leader - thought he was an ethical leader and an example to follow. Well, I recently learned that he has had the notorious "unduly familiar" relationship with one of his students - guess the temptation was just too much, huh? So, what do you do with that - the guy will still go on and Command again - but, standby; we may be seeing his name added to the list of relieved COs soon enough. So, often these firings are a result of what was done in darkness finally coming to light. "He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men's hearts." (1st Cor. 4:5) Leadership sanctifies - that sanctification process can be painful to some. But, nothing reveals character quite like leading at a high level of visibility.

So, the Bathsheba Syndrome theory is wrong - character was finally revealed - they were shaken - and everyone watching saw the mess within finally come out.

By the way, if Dr. Rice read and truly understood the entire David and Bathsheba story he would have recalled King David's own analysis of what happened found in Psalm 51 (the public declaration of repentance he made after his immoral actions were made known to all). His response in the Psalm is the lesson that should be gleaned from leadership failure - repent in Godly sorrow and turn to the One who will restore and redeem.

Psalm 51
1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.

2 Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.

4 Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are proved right when you speak
and justified when you judge.

5 Surely I was sinful at birth,
sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

6 Surely you desire truth in the inner parts a]">[a] ;
you teach b]">[b] me wisdom in the inmost place.

7 Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.

8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.

9 Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.

10 Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

11 Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.

12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will turn back to you.

14 Save me from bloodguilt, O God,
the God who saves me,
and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.

15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.

16 You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.

17 The sacrifices of God are c]">[c] a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart,
O God, you will not despise.

18 In your good pleasure make Zion prosper;
build up the walls of Jerusalem.

19 Then there will be righteous sacrifices,
whole burnt offerings to delight you;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.


  1. I agree with every point you've made here. If fact, I appreciate your explanation more. I think that the Navy needs to take a closer look at the water (character of the CO) before the put it in the glass (command/position of authority). The Navy is focused on stopping the glass from being shaken as opposed to the quality of the water.

  2. This would seem to be an over-analysis of a fairly simple situation: the CO knew the rules and broke them. Before I got to command, one of my mentors - a splendid commanding officer at sea - pointed out that 'when you're in command, you're on stage; never forget that.'

    If you run your command well ('a taut ship is a happy ship') you will have some who don't like you. Even the best and most careful CO needs to watch his back and be wary of knives. But friggin' in the riggin'? abuse of privilege? petty theft? Nero-like arrogance? (all at play in recent firings). You're playing in traffic, bubba, and you're gonna get hit.

    In my first DC tour and first shore duty as an officer, lots of travel, lots of opportunity to get mixed up with members of the opposite sex not my wife, a wise civil servant gave me the best rule for such temptations: Never get your honey where you get your money. I suspect a couple submarine captains in Bangor wish they'd followed that rule.

    This ain't rocket science. One does not need to delve deeply into the human psyche to see the cause. Don't be a jerk, don't steal from the government, don't diddle with the help or the help's wives. Now, is that difficult?

  3. Just to make sure we give proper credit, the quoted section of your third paragraph came from the article, “The Bathsheba Syndrome: The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders” by Dean C. Ludwig and Clinton O. Longenecker (Journal of Business Ethics 12: 265-273, 1993).

    That's a fascinating counter to the Bathsheba article. I think both your Shaken Glass theory and the Bathsheba Syndrome theory have merit. Certainly, there are those who have "water in their glass" so to speak and cause a mess when shaken. I would like to think that the Navy's fitrep system is good at discovering those individuals and not putting them in a position where they will be shaken. Am I naive for thinking that?

    I've watched two of my previous CO's rising-star careers go down in flames due to immoral behavior (both promoted to O-6, both selected for major command). Both were well respected, great COs. The first was very active in his church, too. Reading the Bathsheba article, I said to myself, "checks with chart." I'm NOT saying it wasn't their fault or that they didn't deserve the punishment they received. I DO think the Bathsheba article was useful in understanding some of the underlying causes (aside from the "water in the glass") and potential pitfalls our leaders face and what measures can be put in place to avoid those pitfalls.

  4. I've got to disagree with both the characterization and dismissal of the Bathsheba Syndrome in this post. First, the Bathsheba Syndrome is not trying to excuse anything. It's trying to bring to light how behaviors can change in relation to the positions of power. With that light individuals can be introspective and recognize the potential failings that he/she may have and stop it prior to an unacceptable behavior.

    Every good and every failed leader is human, has human frailties and will err during the course of their career and life. Or, tying to the over religiosity in the post, every individual is a sinner, has potential impure thoughts, and is trying to avoid violating one or more of the ten commandments on a daily basis. Some fail this test and the Bathsheba Syndrome does not attempt to divert blame or absolve personal responsibility but tries to provide insight.

    Only by true insight can an individual hope to avoid similar pitfalls. If, as stated above, the failings were the result of a fundamental character flaw that was always there, always will be there, and can't be corrected, therefore the individual was unfit for command and the only recourse is to delve deeper into looking for those character flaws in prospective leaders, then there is no hope of redemption or of overcoming the nature of being human to rise above base desires. Fundamentally, I reject that theory and would use the Bathsheba Syndrome to help shed a light on how I and others might fail with the goal of avoiding that failure once it is illuminated.


  5. Wow. You said, "These Captains had junk in their hearts - their character, the essence of who they are - and when they faced these temptations they sadly made a mess of their personal and professional lives."

    I ask HOW did that 'junk' come to be in their hearts? I'm to believe from your analysis that it was always present?

    What do we do when/if we identify our so-called 'junk' in our hearts?


    1. Read the part of the article about King David's repentance and do the same.
      "King David's own analysis of what happened found in Psalm 51 (the public declaration of repentance he made after his immoral actions were made known to all). His response in the Psalm is the lesson that should be gleaned from leadership failure - repent in Godly sorrow and turn to the One who will restore and redeem.

      Psalm 51
      1 Have mercy on me, O God,
      according to your unfailing love;
      according to your great compassion
      blot out my transgressions. "

  6. Carl - very well said. I had the same thoughts, and you stated them very clearly.

  7. Did you see this?

    Been away for a while, how are you brother? Since Google Reader went away and I was on patrol, I lost track of all the blogs I used to read like yours. I hope this finds you well.