Is it Ever Alright for a Leader to Have an Affair?

Posted on November 12, 2012.

The Petraeus affair has lit up twitter, Facebook and every other type of media. There seems to be a 50/50 split over whether he should have resigned or not.  Sen. Dianne Feinstein appears anti-resignation, as does Diane Brady, a contributor for Business Week. But when you’re in a position of power, is it ever okay?

I understand why these women are defending Petraeus. After all, unlike Lockheed CEO, Christopher Kubasik, Best Buy’s Brian Dunn, Restoration Hardware’s Gary Friedman and Boeing’s Phil Condit, Patraeus wasn’t having an affair with an employee. Should that be the litmus test for resigning or not resigning?  Or as Feinstein and Brady point out, Patraeus was “second to none”, when it came to intelligence issues.  So if you’re really good at your job, you get a pass? Is that why Clinton wasn’t forced to resign?

It’s like splitting hairs. You either live by a code of conduct or you don’t. And while no one is perfect, leaders should lead by example. If you don’t think you can do that- don’t lead.  If you’ve ascended to the rank of General, CEO, of President, your personal conduct is no longer a choice. You have an obligation to walk the talk and embody the high standards you expect others to follow. 

So whether you’re great at your job, or the affair is with a subordinate or peer is not the issue. Once you’ve crossed the line and decided that the code of conduct expected of others doesn’t apply to you, you’ve given up your right to lead others.