What General Petraeus Teaches Us About Leadership

November 19th, 2012

General David Petraeus is certainly not the first high-profile leader to fall from grace, and he won't be the last. Adultery and deceit are not vices limited to people in power, of course, but positions of authority—and the personal characteristics that tend to get people into such positions of power—make indiscretions all the more tempting and devastating for all involved. As the saying goes, "the bigger they are, the harder they fall."

Here are a few things we in church leadership can learn from Gen. Petraeus' mistakes:

Just because you're in ministry does not mean you won't be tempted. Your position may symbolize moral leadership, integrity, and faithfulness, but you are still human. After numerous scandals (think Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard, and some priests in the Boston diocese), clergy these days don't get put on quite the pedestal they used to. Military leaders generally still get such regard, but Petraeus reminds us that no one is above temptation.

Secrets are never secrets long. You may think damage will be limited and feelings will be spared if you can keep things under wraps, but things will come out sooner or later, and the consequences will be worse, the harder you've tried to hide it. If the head of the CIA can't keep something secret, who can?

Our choices will follow us. What is it about church people that we love to get that tongue a-waggin'? We may not have global news outlets broadcasting our mistakes, but local gossip can do even more damage. It's hard to start fresh when our past is just a Google-search away.

The choices we make don't just affect us. Everyone around us, from our families to our friends and colleagues, are injured by them. And in ministry, the choices we make affect the whole church family and create the potential to divide or even destroy our church. When politicians and military leaders cheat and lie, national security can be compromised; when ministry leaders fail, people's faith can crumble right along with their trust in you.

We need accountability. We need a person or group to help us work through our struggles and to help us remember we aren't all that. That we can and do make mistakes. And that admitting our weaknesses in a safe place with safe people can keep us from doing really dumb things. People in power tend to be surrounded by "yes men," but you need people who will be tough with you when necessary.

Any good we've done will be tainted by the bad choices we make. Let's face it, for some of us, the desire to be admired and remembered well is enough motivation to walk the line. We are more than the sum of our mistakes, but for most of us, the bad tends to stick in people's minds more than the good, and a legacy can be undone before you know it.

We need to ask tough questions. Ask yourself, "What's going on in my life that I would jeopardize everything?" Are you feeling lonely or unappreciated? Does your ego need a boost? Is power and pride going to your head? Nip temptation in the bud by taking a close look inside yourself.

Only time will tell how David Petraeus will be portrayed in history, but we've seen enough leaders rise and fall to know what's at stake. Not just our marriages, families, and careers, but legacies of good and the confidence of all whose faith you've helped to build. Rightly or wrongly, many people will judge the church and the Christ it represents by the way its leaders behave.

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