The widening scandals involving Generals Petraeus and Allen have many taking a close look at today’s military leaders.
In fact, concerns over the US military’s leadership at all levels has been growing for some time.
That’s because personal failings, and the fallout from those failings, can ripple through the ranks and cause a crisis of confidence.
At West Point, for example, the US Army has a leadership center which looks at these issues.
We speak with Martin L. Cook, who holds the Stockdale Chair in Professional Military Ethics at the US Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.
He’s been looking at leadership issues in the Navy, and tells us how the so-called “Bathsheba Effect” may help explain recent military scandals.
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Marco Werman: President Obama held his first post election news conference today. When pressed on the unfolding scandal involving former CIA director David Petraeus, the president said that so far he hasn’t been presented any evidence that suggests classified information was disclosed. And Mr. Obama went out of his way to praise the retired general’s service.
Barack Obama: General Petraeus had an extraordinary career. He served this country with great distinction in Iraq, in Afghanistan and as head of the CIA.
Werman: But the scandals involving both Petraeus and the top commander in Afghanistan, General John Allen, is forcing a hard look at leadership within the US military. Concerns about the quality of our military leadership have actually been brewing for some time. Martin L. Cook, for one, has been looking at this issue for years. Cook is a professor of military ethics at the Naval War College in Rhode Island. And, Dr. Cook, let’s be clear, you’re speaking now as an individual and these are your own opinions. And interesting to note that you’ve not served, so you’re a civilian looking inside the world of the US military. What impact does a scandal like this at the op of the military hierarchy have up and down the chain of command?
Martin L. Cook: Well, I think General Petraeus obviously is one of the most highly admired officers in recent American history, so it’s, it’s a body blow to the profession. Unfortunately, we’ve seen quite a rash of failure below his rank but in relatively senior ranks. The Navy in particular, where I work now, has been very concerned about the number of detachments for cause, which is the term of art for firing people. In fact, the Navy Inspector General did a fairly extensive study of people who’d failed at various levels and almost all of it, 70% was for personal misconduct issues involving sex, alcohol and money.
Werman: And why are personal misconduct issues so crucial to avoid in the military?
Cook: Well, I think the trusted confidence of people in the chain of command in their senior leadership is really vital. And when they’re seen as behaving in ways that look kind of iffy or shady, that always is injurious. I think in General Petraeus’ case it’s now coming out that a lot of his advisors were really quite alarmed at why was this woman in the theater for such extended periods of time? Why was he spending so much time with her and it just doesn’t pass the smell test that the woman who’s never written a book in her life should be given that kind of access for the purposes of writing a biography.
Werman: And yet everybody is taking the smell test now. Why did it take you know, a scandal for this to come out?
Cook: Well, you know, if a four star general can be questioned in private and I assume, privately some of his aids raised the issue, but there are few people to tell him to stop what he’s doing. That’s one of the problems is the sense of entitlement that inevitably takes over, especially when you’re as lionized as he was.
Werman: There’s actually a name for what’s going on with this episode. People call it the Bathsheba Effect, a reference to the wife of David in the Old Testament. Tell us more about that idea.
Cook: Well, it came from an article that was published in The Harvard Business Review 20 or more years ago, and actually it’s made its way around the Navy quite a lot. And the argument these guys make is that they were really studying the failure of senior business leaders, but they pointed out that what’s interesting is that these are not people who are afraid of failure, these are people who’ve been successful so long that they’ve come almost to take it for granted, and they get sloppy, they get lazy, they are so used to being lionized that they get the sense that if they were to mess up they have enough power to cover it up.
Werman: So what is the military doing to try and correct these issues, if anything. I mean that was a report about business leaders. What about military leaders?
Cook: Well, in the Army there’s a place at West Point called the Center for the Army Profession and Ethic, and that was signed off on in the Army by General Dempsey when he was Chief of Staff of the Army. And now that he’s the chairman he’s been pushing for this rather hard, but even before he came in Admiral Mullen convened a meeting in DC, his last January in office, that I attended. And the sole purpose of the meeting was to address the health of the profession. And he said, â€œWhat worries me most is the maintaining the trust and confidence of the American people,â€ and as he said, â€œthey, that’s the American people, don’t know us and we don’t know them. And that gap is getting more dangerous.â€ And every episode like this, and there have been a whole series of them in recent months that have hit the newsstand, tend to erode the trust and confidence of the American people in its military.
Werman: Martin Cook is the Stockdale Chair of Professional Military Ethics at the Naval War College in Rhode Island, where he is a professor. Thank you very much.
Cook: You’re welcome.
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