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By First Lieutenant Matthew McGoffin
Much has been written about how organizations may unintentionally nurture bad, or “toxic,” leaders. However, this writing neglects an important point. Without continuous reflection, even successful leaders can very well start down the path to ethical failure. Management researchers from the University of Toledo call this the Bathsheba syndrome, after the Old Testament and Torah story of the successful, yet doomed, Israelite king David. The researchers summarize the story as follows:
These accounts describe a leader with a humble past, a dramatic and rapid rise to power, strong organizational skills, a charismatic personality, an ecclectic approach to problem solving, a strategic vision for his people, and a man of high moral character. In his day, he was a man who had it all. He had power, influence, wealth, physical comforts, loyal servants, a strong army, and a growing prosperous country. He was a king. Yet despite both the quality of his life and his moral character, King David was a leader who got caught up in a downward spiral of unethical decisions that had grave consequences for both his personal life and the organization that he was called upon to lead and protect.
David’s failings as a leader were dramatic even by today’s standards and included an affair, the corruption of other leaders, deception, drunkenness, murder, the loss of innocent lives, and a “we beat the system” attitude when he thought he had managed to cover-up his crimes. The good, bright, successful, popular, visionary king, David, was nearly destroyed because he could not control his desire to have something that he knew it was wrong for him to have Bathsheba.
David first saw the beautiful Bathsheba while surveying his kingdom from his peak of power, the citadel in Jerusalem. He so desired Bathsheba that he sent her husband, one of his subordinate military commanders, to his death in battle. David covered up the death and took Bathsheba as his own wife. In doing so David fell into the trap of ethical complacency, ceasing to view himself as someone who must remain within the law and lead by example, as opposed to merely being a man of privilege. The good, successful king David came to believe that the same standards which applied to everyone else did not apply to him.
This dangerous complacency is an easy trap for a leader to fall into. All it takes is no longer reflecting on one’s own actions and their impact on others. David ignored the good advice of his counselors—which would have kept him out of trouble—and instead pursued his own desires single-mindedly, with little thought to their impact on the kingdom. David’s story illustrates the dangers of unintentional tunnel-vision, a fixed mindset, and failing to respect and encourage candor within top levels of management and command. If we as leaders don’t regularly think about these dangers and critically reflect on our own behavior, we may set the conditions for a poor climate to inch its way into our organizations. Ethical death-by-a-thousand-cuts is the most foolproof way to destroy a superb, existing climate. As Napoleon Bonaparte once fortuitously said, “the most dangerous moment comes after victory.”