Petraeus, David - Commander, International Security Assistance Force

Kennon-Green & Co. Fiduciary Financial Advisor, Wealth Management, Global Value Investing

It’s time for some mental model homework.  

It isn’t often that I read a news story that causes me to grieve.  Yet, that is exactly what is happening with the revelations coming out about General Petraeus, the disgraced CIA director and former military commander who had to resign after it was revealed he cheated on his wife of 37-years with a married biographer named Paula Broadwell.

Petraeus, David - Commander, International Security Assistance Force

You can undo an entire career, and a lifetime of work, reputation, trust, and respect, in a moment.

The actors may have changed but this story is as ancient as humanity itself.  There are so many victims involved, all of which could have been avoided.  It’s so much unnecessary suffering – emotionally, professionally, reputationally, and financially.

There is a huge lesson for those of you who want to be more successful. We’ll get to that in a moment.  For now, let’s start with Broadwell.  According to The New York Times, she “was the valedictorian of her high school class and homecoming queen, a fitness champion at West Point with a graduate degree from Harvard, and a model for a machine gun manufacturer.”  She’s published books, she is married, she apparently has two kids.

Here is a woman who is brilliant, attractive, driven, successful, intelligent, dedicated, productive, and above average in both talent and execution.  Yet, for the rest of her life, right or wrong, she will always be “that whore”.  There is no escaping it.  Whenever she is hired, or in a meeting with someone, it will be in the back of their minds.  The parents and teachers of her children’s friends know about it, and are talking about it at home, humiliating her kids and her husband.  Her male coworkers are less likely to respect her for her work and her female coworkers are less likely to trust her.  There is no winning here.  

Then you have David Petraeus, who showed himself to have a complete lack of integrity and, perhaps worse, humiliated his wife of nearly four decades, who has been at his side since he was a nobody.  At his confirmation hearing to head the CIA, his wife sits mere seats from his mistress, so that now she has to look back at the single most important career advancement her spouse ever enjoyed and know what was going on, right there in the photographs.  His sins don’t stop there.  The lack of judgment was so great that he allegedly sent “thousands” of inappropriate emails including topics such as having “sex under a desk”.  

[mainbodyad]Every day, you are depositing trust into your reputation bank.  When people expect much out of you, you need to live up to it.  No one cares that Charlie Sheen is supposedly banging hookers and prostitutes because he makes no pretense about it and he isn’t hurting anyone else.  What people hate is hypocrisy and betrayal.  Civilization is wired that way because on a genetic level, we are social creatures and this leads to long-term reproductive success.  We wouldn’t want someone to do those things to us so the empathy and mirror neurons in our brains activate when we see it done to someone else.

This is what I mean when I say be consistently “not stupid”, to borrow a phrase.  You can undo an entire career, and a lifetime of work, reputation, trust, and respect, in a moment.

For those of you who study mental models, an assignment: Figure out the answer to this question: David Petraeus made the situation much worse than it otherwise would have been by resigning.  Had he, instead, refused to resign and issued a statement saying, “I screwed up.  I gave into temptation.  My wife and I are going to try to work through this but the state of our marriage is, frankly, no one else’s business.  The fact I can’t keep it in my pants doesn’t affect my professional judgment, it just means I failed, like countless men before me, and all I can do is try to be better in the future.”, the situation would have probably gone away, in time.  Why is that?  There are several mental models that would have made this the case.  If you can identify them, you will be much further along the journey to utilizing the approach in your own life.