Sunday, 11 November 2012

"If I Were Not A Man Of Honour, I Could Almost Be A Rat"

A chain of thoughts runs through my head whenever I read of another eminent man's downfall through avoidable indiscretion. Let me put it down in writing this time.

The most infamous such episode in the last decade was the fall of much-revered management guru Jack Welch, former Chairman and CEO of General Electric. A seasoned executive and a married man, he nevertheless betrayed poor judgement (if nothing else) when he began an affair with his biographer Suzy Wetlaufer, a journalist with the Harvard Business Review. That affair covered no one with glory. Wetlaufer's professional reputation lay in tatters by her failing to disclose her conflict of interest in time, and HBR's editors showed equally easy principles by turning a blind eye to what they knew was happening, since continued access to a titan of industry mattered more to them. And of course, Jack Welch's reputation as a wise leader never recovered.

Clearly, there was a 30th secret that Jack had yet to learn

His mistake cost him $180 million when his wife divorced him. That's the kind of loss Welch would have fired his execs for at GE, so readers of his book could justifiably ask for a refund.

Of course, the trick in these circles is to brazen it out as if nothing happened. Jack Welch continues to pretend to be a management and leadership guru.

Old motto: If life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.
New motto: If you end up with egg on your face, make an omelette.

Last week, CIA chief David Petraeus resigned under very similar circumstances. Petraeus had been married 37 years, but he too admitted to having an affair with his biographer, journalist Paula Broadwell.

David Petraeus with Paula Broadwell - war isn't the only thing too serious to be left to the generals

What is it with powerful men and their women biographers, or women in general?

Anyone remember the scene from "Love, Actually" where Karen (Emma Thompson) confronts her husband Harry (Alan Rickman) over the necklace she knew he had bought but which she finally didn't get for Christmas? She then knew it had gone to his secretary, and the ambiguity around that gift is nicely captured:

Would you wait around to find out if it's just a necklace, or if it's sex and a necklace, or if, worst of all, it's a necklace and love? Would you stay, knowing life would always be a little bit worse? Or would you cut and run?

And indeed, there is nothing Harry can say except

Oh, God. I am so in the wrong. The classic fool!

I'm reminded of Gail Sheehy's 1974 book "Passages" and her description of a phase in life she calls "Catch-30" (but just as easily applied to powerful men at any age). The thirties are the age when a married couple tends to switch roles and the power equation shifts in favour of the woman. Lots of men can't handle that very well.

Enter a third figure, who can offer the man a convenient lift out of his knot: The Testimonial Woman. Since the transition from the Twenties to the Thirties is often characterised by first infidelities, she is not hard to find.  She is behind the secretary's desk, in the junior copywriter pool, in the casting call line-up, in the next lab coat. The root of the word "testimonial" is "testis" (plural "testes"). In olden times, cupping the sexual parts of a man by another man in greeting was a "testimonial to manhood" and the basis for the original handshake. The Testimonial Woman offers the same service - she fortifies his masculinity.

The wife bears witness to the embryo he was. Even if she doesn't confront him, he looks into those memory-bank eyes and recalls his faults, failures, fears. The new woman - student, secretary or one connected to his enterprise - offers a testimonial to what he has become. She sees him as having always been this person (emphasis mine). She is generally younger, subordinate but promising. He may be able to take the part of teacher. Then she can become more and more like him, further affirming him as admirable and worth emulating.

We can see shades of this in the Petraeus-Broadwell relationship:

"A few months into my research, General Petraeus, who was then leading Central Command, invited me to go for a run with him and his team along the Potomac River during one of his visits to Washington," [Broadwell] wrote.

"I figured I could interview him while we ran."

The keen runner said she wanted to test him to see if he could keep up with her as she interviewed him.

"Instead it became a test for me,' she said.

"As we talked during the run from the Pentagon to the Washington Monument and back, Petraeus progressively increased the pace until the talk turned to heavy breathing and we reached a six-minute-per-mile pace. It was a signature Petraeus move."

Ultimately, Petraeus's move, signature or not, turned out to be a bad one. Can one say 'dishonourable discharge'?

Gen. Petraeus with his wife and children in happier times [Fans of Nominative Determinism will note that his surname sounds like "betray us", and that Jack Welch's surname means "to go back on an obligation"]

I can't help contrasting this general with one of my boyhood heroes, the German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Rommel was one of the earliest exponents of Blitzkrieg - pioneered by Heinz Guderian ("Schnell Heinz") - and he became a larger-than-life hero in Germany after the fall of France. He suddenly began to receive the gushing adulation of thousands of women. According to David Wallechinsky (and this is entirely from memory since I can't trace the original quote, but it is burned into my memory), Rommel is reported to have confessed to one of his close friends, "You know, some of these women are so beautiful, if I were not a man of honour, I could almost be a rat." Wallechinsky goes on to say, "But it was all talk. Rommel remained faithful to his wife until he died."

[Gregory Benford and Martin Greenberg take that quote and have Rommel say it in quite a different context in their alternate history series "What Might Have Been"]

Field Marshal Erwin Rommel - The Desert Fox was no rat

Why are some of our heroes true warrior-saints and others just small men in big positions?

I don't believe we should approach this question in a moralising way. It's not about stricter morality, for two reasons.

One is that enforcement of any kind doesn't work. We've seen what forced celibacy has done to the reputation of the Catholic church in terms of sexual behaviour of priests. And quite a lot of us would object to the Islamists' solution of covering up women and segregating the sexes from each other as a way of ensuring a "moral" society.

The second and more basic reason is that I object to the conflation of the term "morality" with any kind of sexual behaviour. I believe morality is about truthfulness, honesty, courage and refraining from harming others. Sexual behaviour is sexual behaviour. By itself, it's morally neutral. Where the two intersect is when sexual behaviour makes one dishonest. After all, there is no infidelity, by definition, in "open marriages", because there are no curbs on either partner's sexual freedom and hence no expectations to belie.

But for the vast majority of us who are not celibate, do not live in a segregated society yet are not comfortable with open marriages, what is the solution? Temptation lies at every step, both for men and for women, and if we think affairs like those of Jack Welch and David Petraeus are undesirable, perhaps the only solution is the one recommended by credit risk managers - restrict all exposures to under 10%.

To explain, credit risk is the risk that a debtor will fail to pay back a loan, and sometimes this failure can deprive an organisation of funds to a degree that its own survival is threatened. One way of managing credit risk is to ensure that no single debtor owes more than 10% of the total debt owed to the organisation. Then the failure of any single debtor to repay their loan will not affect the organisation very much.

In similar fashion, if we find that we are spending more than 10% of our time with a member of our preferred sex (other than our partner), then we're overexposed in risk terms and should cut that back and spend more time with others.

We can't all be warrior-saints or philosopher-kings, so some such practical measures are required.

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