The “Bathsheba Syndrome” explains some of our public servants’ failures

Publisher’s Note: I’m trying to read the Bible from start to finish this year. By coincidence, I read 2 Samuel over the past three days. Then I uncovered the story about James Metts’ use of the County government telephone system in his campaign. His employees are making requests to people to vote for Metts from his JP court office. That’s patently illegal and downright criminal.

In the course of discussion about Metts’ latest scandal – among many – a friend whom I greatly respect suggested that I read this article, which human resource management expert Carey Upton wrote. It’s a great article as well as a cool summary of the story of the downfall of one of the greatest leaders in history, King David. 

Unlike King David, however, James Metts was never a great leader.

Carey Upton, Bathsheba Syndrome

As the news media and the American public become all hot and bothered over the breaking David Petraeus sex scandal, many are using the phrase “the Bathsheba Syndrome” to identify the cause. It refers to the story of King David and Bathsheba from the Old Testament of the Bible and other traditions. It is an apt story/myth to describe the abuses of power that sometimes befall a successful (and previously ethical) man. We’ve seen so many men, so many of our leaders (and a few women and as the glass ceiling continues to be dismantled we will probably see more) fall into this trap. The seeds of the downfall are sowed in the very ground of success.

The term was coined in a paper called: The Bathsheba Syndrome: The Ethical Failure of Successful Leaders by Dean C. Ludwig and Clinton O. Longenecker, published in the Journal of Business Ethics in 1993. The authors were looking at the business impact of leaders whose moral failings occur in part due to their success. There was also an interesting article in Stars and Stripes this last March called Do fired Navy COs suffer from ‘Bathsheba Syndrome? by Wyatt Olson that references the other article and brought it much deserved attention.

David and Bathsheba story/myth

David went from being a shepherd to the King. He slew the giant Goliath with his sling and a stone. He was a righteous man who believed in and spoke for the one true God. God rewarded David by having him replace King Saul to become King. He had a fast rise to power and wealth.

After conquering everyone around Israel and Judah, expanding the boundaries of his Kingdom, and the pressures of ruling, King David grew complacent. When fighting season came around he sent his chief of command, Joab, out with the army to fight the Ammonites rather than go himself as Kings were expected to do. He stayed home. One night he was strolling on the terrace of his palace that built high to give him a vantage over his kingdom. While strolling, he looked down and saw a woman bathing on her rooftop. The bible says “She was very beautiful to look upon.” (The Jewish Midrash says that Satan came in the form of a bird and knocked down the screen shielding Bathsheba.)

David enquired of his servants who she was. The answer came back she’s Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, one of your generals, and the granddaughter of one of your most trusted advisors. He sent for her. She came unto him. He came into her. I mean, He lay with her.

Bathsheba conceived and David needed to cover up his sin. (Remember its cover up that gets you rather than the initial crime.) He sent to the battlefront for her husband, Uriah, to return. After asking him to report on the battle, he told him to go home, eat at his table, sleep with his wife. Uriah replied “The Ark, and Israel, and Judah, abide in tents: and my lord Joab, and the servants of the lord, are encamped in the open fields; shall I then go into mine house, to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? As thou livest, and as thy soul liveth, I will not do this thing.”[i] (Now there’s a custom. While the country is at war, all soldiers will abstain from dwelling indoors and sleeping with their wives. If everyone in the military followed this custom today, we’d have fewer and shorter wars. If you included Congress and the President, it might be the end to all American wars.)

King David would not be foiled. He had Uriah stay another day. That night he feasted him and got Uriah very drunk. But, Uriah still did not lie with his wife, Bathsheba.

King David sent a sealed message back to the front with Uriah. It commanded Joab to set Uriah at the “forefront of the hottest battle.” He commanded Joab to retire the rest of the army when Uriah was beset by the enemy so that he might be “smitten, and die.” This was done and ‘some’ died, including Uriah the Hittite.

After a short period of mourning, David took Bathsheba to be one of his wives.

Along came Nathan, the Prophet. (Prophets weren’t so much future tellers as truth speakers. Truth to Power. They said what is. They said what wasn’t being said, which is why many of them were executed.) Nathan comes to King David and says “Hey man, how’s it hanging?” (I always imagine the long haired, sandal wearing prophets of the Old Testament being like the hippies of the 1960s.) “What’s shaking?” replies David. (I always imagine the Kings of Israel trying talk like the prophets, trying to be cool.)Nathan says “Some bad things are going down; you need to be hearing.” “Talk to me brother.” says David.

Nathan tells this story: “Down in the town, there was this rich man and this poor man. The rich man had many oxen, sheep, goats and rams. The poor man had this one ewe, this one little sheep. The poor man, he loved this ewe. He fed her off of his own plate, let her drink from his own cup, let her sleep in his house with this kids and family. This ewe was like a daughter to him. Well, you know what happened, this rich man had a brother visit from out of town. He had his servants take the poor man’s sheep rather than taking from his flock. He had it slaughtered and feasted his brother.”

Hearing this story, David got irate. He cursed and screamed saying “the man that hath done this shall surely die.” And Nathan replied, “You be the Man!” Nathan said that God said “I’ve given you all this. I took you from being a shepherd to being King. I gave you riches and wives and power. I was planning to give you even more than this. And, you go and do this evil in my sight. You have Uriah slain along with others? Therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house. I will raise up evil against thee in your own house.”

David immediately repented of his sin[ii], but he had done the deed. God’s wrath was upon him. The child died of an illness shortly after being born. One of David’s sons raped one of his daughters. Another son killed the rapist son, and then tried to overthrow his father along with the trusted Joab who followed the order to have Uriah killed. David’s story became a regular soap opera, like Dallas, or the Petraeus Affair.

Ludwig and Longenecker analyzed the cause and conditions of these failings in their article. They found that they were not due to general low moral character. Actually the ones who were most egregious in their acts were those who had been the most moral and virtuous in their rise to success. The ethical violations did not lead to the success but followed in the wake of success, more of a by-product than a direct cause. It is the shadow side of success that is the potential pitfall.

Here are the causes they listed:

  1. Success often allows managers to become complacent and to lose focus, diverting attention to things other than the management of their business.
  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 own personal ability to manipulate outcomes.

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

I can’t really speak to what happened with General Petraeus, or Eliot Spitzer, or Clinton, or Madoff, or any of the countless others, but we might need to look at how our very system sets them up for fail in such a huge way.

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