I was talking with a military leader recently about the growing number of devastating moral failures among prominent Christian leaders. He mentioned to me a training seminar he attended on “The Bathsheba Syndrome” and its application in the military context. I asked him to send me further info and he emailed me the article (online version here) co-authored by Dean Ludwig, Assistant Professor of Management and Director of the Center for Family Business at the University of Toledo, and one of his colleagues, Clinton Longenecker.

The article is not written from a Christian perspective but uses the biblical narrative to describe this syndrome because of people’s familiarity with the story. The main points of the research are:

  • Reports of ethical violations by upper level managers continue to multiply despite increasing attention being given to ethics by firms and business schools.
  • There are many examples of good, respected, successful leaders, men and women of intelligence, talent, and vision who suddenly self-destruct as they reach the apex of their careers.
  • Most cases are usually gross violations, which the leaders know are wrong while in the act of perpetration, but they mistakenly believe they have the power to conceal.
  • Most of these leaders are men and women of generally strong principle who have built careers based more on service than self-gratification.
  • The most common cause is not lack of operational principles or the willingness to abandon principles in the face of competitive pressure.
  • Rather, ethical violations by upper managers are the by-product of success. 
  • Power dements even more than it corrupts, lowering the guard of foresight and raising the haste of action.
  • Research suggests that many managers are poorly prepared to deal with success.

Why is this? The paper offers four explanations based upon the David and Bathsheba narrative.

1. Success often allows managers to become complacent and to lose focus, diverting attention to things other than the management of their organization.

2. Success, whether personal or organizational, often leads to privileged access to information, people or objects.

3. With success usually comes increasingly unrestrained control of organizational resources.

4. Success can inflate a manager’s belief in his or her personal ability to manipulate outcomes.

David’s inflated self-confident belief in his own personal ability to manipulate the outcome of this story is probably representative of the attitude of many of today’s professionally trained managers of business. Trained in attitude and technique to “get things done” and “make things happen,” todays’ business school graduates often possess a dangerously inflated self-confidence.

Even individuals with a highly developed moral sense can be challenged (tempted?) by the “opportunities” resulting from the convergence of these four dynamics.

The authors draw seven lessons from David’s sad experience. The most important are:

1. Leaders are in their positions to focus on doing what is right for their organization’s short-term and long-term success. This can’t happen if they aren’t where they are supposed to be, doing what they are supposed to be doing.

2. Attempts to cover-up unethical practices can have dire organizational consequences including innocent people getting hurt, power being abused, trust being violated, other individuals being corrupted, and the diversion of needed resources.

3. Not getting caught initially can produce self-delusion and increase the likelihood of future unethical behavior.

4. Getting caught can destroy the leader, the organization, innocent people, and everything the leader has spent his/her life working for.

The authors conclude that organizations must re-evaluate and change structures, procedures, and practices which enhance the likelihood of managers falling victim to the Bathsheba Syndrome.

Some of the advice includes:

1. Realize that living a balanced life reduces the likelihood of the negatives of success causing you to lose touch with reality. Family, relationships, and interests other than work must all be cultivated for long-term success to be meaningful.

2. Build an ethical team of managers around you who will inspire you to lead by example and who will challenge or confront you when you need either.

3. At the board level, directors should have a concern for the leader’s personal/psychological balance. This can include forced vacations, outside activities, and periodic visits to counselors to help the leader keep both feet planted on the ground.

Needless to say, the lessons for CEO’s, boards, and businesses can easily be transferred to pastors, elders, and churches.

May God keep our leaders! May God keep us all!!

  • Gordon Hazell

    Interesting how something not written from a Christian perspective is arguing for a concept of positive (even Christian) ethics with care for the moral fabric of our organizations .

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  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike bubba

    Can we give it a different name? It strikes me that calling it the “Bathsheba syndrome” implicitly blames Bathsheba for David’s sins, when in reality we don’t know her perspective–we can only guess as to whether she was an eager participant or someone who submitted merely because ticking off the king can be deadly.