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FIRST-PERSON: Adultery & leadership: lessons from the Petraeus-Broadwell scandal

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- It's somewhat surprising that the media is making a fuss about the David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell affair. After all, adultery is normative according to most media standards. This time, however, there is the potential damage of compromising highly sensitive security information. And there are the unanswered questions of "Who knew?" and "When did they know?"

But the spectacle does raise the question: What is the impact on a leader and his or her leadership when he or she is involved in an affair? I have been disgusted as I heard different pundits attempt to answer this question.

It's not a private matter

The typical perspective regurgitated about the Petraeus and Broadwell affair is that, outside of the security concerns, it's really no big deal. After all, it is argued, this relationship is a private matter between two consenting adults.

That's garbage.

It is not a private matter. Their two spouses are undoubtedly wounded and humiliated. Children are innocent victims who try to grasp with the strains and perhaps destruction of the secure world they knew when all was well with their parents. Other family and friends are hurt as well.

One television commentator this week cheered the actions of adulterous men, celebrating their testosterone levels and "manhood." One is left to wonder if he would cheer similar actions of his own wife, and celebrate her own hormonal drives and "femininity" with other men.

It's not endemic to all great leaders

I have heard more than one pundit opine that uncontrolled sex drives are just part of the nature of great leaders. They have such a great drive, we are told, that it is only natural that such drives include unfettered desires for sexual conquests. I even heard a commentator cite adultery as a common characteristic of our great American presidents. The more anemic presidents tended to be those who were faithful to their wives.


Adultery is not a sign of strength. It is a sign of weakness. Adultery is not an indicator of healthy adulthood. It's an indicator of juvenile behavior. Adultery is not a sign of self-controlled leaders. It's a sign of out-of-control leaders. Adultery is not the badge of great leadership. It's the badge of failed leadership.

It's not a matter of triumph

Ultimately, adultery is not a matter of triumph; it's a matter of failed trust. An adulterous man or woman once stood before God and human witnesses and pledged his or her lifelong commitment to another person. Indeed, he or she entered the sanctity of marriage as a promise that neither would ever break trust with the other.

Adultery is failed trust; it is therefore failed leadership. How can we trust a leader who failed to keep trust with the person to whom he or she has devoted his or her life? How can we believe what that leader says when he has deceived and lied to the person who is supposed to be closest to him?

Don't read me wrongly. Adultery is not unforgivable. I am reminded of an adulterous woman about to be stoned to death only to see her life spared. There was no one around without sin to cast the first stone except Jesus. And He showed grace.

But please don't take adultery as lightly and with such frivolity as much of the media and society. The breach of trust is indeed forgivable. But the consequences are deep and far reaching. Great leaders keep trust at all levels: in their friendships; in their business dealings; in their organizations and, above all, in their marriages.


Thom S. Rainer is president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. This column first appeared on his website, Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook ( ) and in your email (

Copyright (c) 2012 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press

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