Recovering our leaders as human beings

November 10, 2012 — Leave a comment

It has been a sad day, watching the story of General Petraeus’ affair unfold on every glowing screen across the planet.  Whether it’s tweets waterfalling down my iPhone or e-mails frantically chiming on their way into my laptop inbox, I can’t get away.  This is a sad and tragic story on so many levels. I respect General Petraeus and his accomplishments, and I’ve traded e-mails on a few occasions with Paula Broadwell.  She has been a relentless advocate for women in the military.  It is sad watching the story reveal itself, and I am already weary from the onslaught of bitter political commentary.

Still, I can’t resist weighing in on the Petraeus affair, why it has apparently rocked the entire universe, and what we might take away from this.

Peter J. Munson had a great point in a series of tweets.  We live in a society where “megalomania is virtually inevitable”, and where people are only too happy to seek out and fawn over celebrities.  We elevate these individuals to superhuman status, and then are shocked and disappointed when they fall.  People are fallible, Munson says.  We need to stop fawning over them and recognize that they can do anything.  This isn’t just the story of General Petraeus, it’s the story of the human condition.  And it is about so much more than the “private” behavior of our leaders; it is about how we view leaders in general, and how we trust them to wisely lead our nation.

The danger is that, in our desperation to find heroes, we gloss over faults and overemphasize virtues.  Perhaps we even endow celebrities with virtues they don’t actually posses.  We lose perspective on reality, which is why hagiography is a derogatory word among historians–and why Broadwell’s book about Petraeus has already garnered much criticism (and is certain to face even more damning criticism now).  This hagiographic accusation has long been leveled by General Petraeus’ detractors, some of whom seem quite glad to see his mythic stature shattering.  With the first cracks defacing his legacy, they are thrilled to continue the job, tearing stone from stone and demolishing everything we thought we knew about the man and his accomplishments.

When we lose perspective on reality, we establish impossible expectations, which are certain to come crashing down around us later.  It’s the same old story every time a celebrity leader self-destructs through sexual or financial impropriety, whether that’s our neighborhood pastor or an American president.  We expect moral perfection from the polished celebrities who speak to us from their lofty podiums, even though each and every one of us struggles to tame our inner demons and has–at one time or another–made a wreck of our lives because we can’t live up to our own ideals.

We also expect perfection in leadership, in job performance, in statecraft.  We expect General Petraeus to singlehandedly win wars that even Chuck Norris probably could not (I said probably); we expect the American President to turn around an economy that has been spiraling into the black hole of debt for decades; we are infuriated when our military and political leaders cannot stop terrorism, put China in its place, or deal with Iran once and for all.

In one sense, our elections are really about taking out our anger at crushed expectations.  The country collectively flip-flops every four or eight years, putting its misplaced hopes for perfection in an opposition only too happy to sell itself as the solution–and we collectively forget how things went the last time around.

This is a blog about Building Peace: about harnessing our collective effort to take small, pragmatic, and effective steps to live better lives and improve the world we live in.  That is a vision that requires a great deal of faith and optimism.  But for me, that vision has never been naive: it is absolutely grounded in the reality of the world that we find around us.  That is why the banner depicts Athenian and Spartan generals facing off over a map of the world.  For me, the Peloponnesian War stands in for the story of the human condition, and for the nature of the world that we have inherited.

Misplaced idealism is one of the most dangerous forces in the world, and has been responsible for all manner of evil.  If we want to do any good in the world, we have to understand the world as it is–and human beings as they are.  That is why some of the world’s most significant worldchangers have held somber views of the world and were haunted by private darkness.  President Lincoln was famous for his melancholy, Winston Churchill wrestled with the “black dog” of depression, and Mother Theresa lived a private life tortured by doubt and sorrow.  Such leaders presented bold and inspiring visions to others, but only because they were so thoroughly in tune with the brokenness around them.  They knew the world, they knew the hearts of men, and they knew how to battle for the higher good within those arenas.

Our founding fathers also understood this, which is why they labored so intently to create a system of government that would protect citizens from the inevitable corruption of power.  It was a system that sought great men to lead the fledgling nation, but also defended itself against them.  The system trusted no one, because no one was worthy of absolute trust.  Somehow, we have lost our moorings since then.

As the Petraeus affair forces us to reflect on the leaders we hold so dear, it’s worth recalling the wisdom that the founding fathers tried to ingrain in our system of government.  Yes, we want heroes.  Yes, there is much we can admire in great men and women, and I believe that General Petraeus fully deserves to be ranked among them.  Yes, we should seek out and empower leaders with character, wisdom, knowledge, and skill to lead our country.  But none of this should blind us to the weakness and deficiency that lies at the heart of every human life.  We should celebrate our leaders’ triumphs, but also acknowledge their shortcomings.  When they do stumble and fall, we should be gracious enough to say, “There, but for the grace of God, go I”–but we must also hold them accountable.  The stakes are too high to do otherwise.

In short, we must lose the hagiography and the soaring expectations.  We must recover our leaders as they actually are, as flesh-and-blood human beings: glorious and creative and bursting with limitless potential, but also ambitious and manipulative and greedy; loving and selfless and capable of the highest feats of self-sacrifice, but at other times selfish and petty; courageous and cowardly; noble and treacherous; gracious and cruel; imbued with reason but hopelessly irrational; faithful and faithless; the Imago Dei and the apex of this great wheeling universe, but tragically flawed and fully human.

Mark Jacobsen

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A U.S. Air Force officer, C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and writer... a lifelong student dedicated to building a better world.

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