At this writing, several military figures are very much in the news in ways that they regret, including former CIA Director David Petraeus, General John Allen, Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, and General William Ward.  The first three are caught up in sex scandals; General Ward’s problem was being more than a little loose with taxpayer dollars.  How do such things happen among those who have exhibited the intelligence, discipline, and drive to rise to exalted levels of military leadership?

Few of us consciously choose to lead an unethical life, but we often do for a multitude of reasons documented by behavioral psychologists.  Most of us are quite satisfied with our character and believe that we are more ethical than our colleagues or competitors.  We also tend to assume that only bad people do bad things.  Being confident that that we are good people and believing that good people do good things, we tend to simply assume that we will act ethically and to be unreflective in our ethical decision making.

This tendency is reinforced by the self-serving bias, which causes us to gather, process, and even remember information in a self-serving way.  If we are liberal, we watch Rachel Maddow.  If we are conservative, we watch Sean Hannity. We tend to believe what we want to hear as well.  We will tend to believe, for example, that we deserve more credit for our firm’s successes and less blame for its failures than an objective third party would conclude.  We also tend to discount information that is inconsistent with our self-image.  Studies show that we generally predict that we will act more ethically than we actually do.  We even remember acting more ethically than we actually did.

Putting all this together, it is clear that our minds can fool us into thinking that we are better people than we actually are.  And when the facts are simply too at odds with our self-concept for our self-deception to work, we automatically turn to rationalizations to save the day.  Yes, we shouldn’t have done that, but:  It wasn’t so bad.  We had our reasons.  And other people would have done worse.  Such psychological maneuvers allow us to continue to sincerely believe that we are good people even as we pad expense accounts, cheat the IRS, and filch office supplies.

The transgressions of the military leaders mentioned above illustrate the important point that leaders in the military as well as those in business, politics, and other domains tend to be particularly susceptible to some of the psychological tendencies just discussed.  Leaders tend to self-select.  Studies show that those who are driven to attain power or leadership tend to be extroverts who are prone to impulsive behavior.  Having wealth, power, or status often reinforces the tendency of these people to act impulsively to satisfy personal desires and interests.  Furthermore, studies indicate that powerful people in every arena enjoy unusual freedom to act in their own interests without suffering the social condemnation that others would face.  The rest of us are so enamored of the wealthy and powerful that we often fail to criticize or constrain them for their ethical errors in ways that we would act against less powerful people.  There’s just something special about a man or woman in uniform, especially if that uniform is covered with stars and bars.

Dacher Keltner of UCLA and his colleagues recently concluded that “individuals with power act in impulsive, self-interested fashion, often neglecting social norms, morals, and the concerns of others.”  They often act in a sexually forward manner (e.g., David Petraeus, Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer), to act profligately (e.g., General Ward, Dennis Kozlowski, Bernie Ebbers), and to be utterly tone deaf on ethical issues (e.g., Jeff Skilling, Chainsaw Al Dunlap).  Powerful people even have uniquely self-serving rationalizations for their unethical actions that focus upon their rights and crowd out any consideration of duties to or caring for others.

The travails of our military leaders seem to illustrate the findings of the empirical literature on leadership and ethics.  Certainly Lord Acton exaggerated when he concluded that absolute power corrupts absolutely.  These are tendencies, not iron laws of behavior.  There are, fortunately, many exemplary ethical leaders.  But it is often harder for the powerful to act ethically than it is for the rest of us.  And it can be darned hard for the rest of us.

Can you think of examples that support or contradict the premise of my little blog post?  I commend for your reading:  Dacher Keltner, Carrie A. Langner & Maria Logli Allison, Power and Moral Leadership, in MORAL LEADERSHIP (Debra L. Rhode, ed., 2006).