Separating Personal and Professional: Leadership Lessons from Petraeus

I am sad when high-profile successful professionals fall down in their personal lives. Military strategist and US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) chief, General David Petraeus, is one of the latest to fall.

I really screwed up,” he told former mentors, referring to his recent extra-marital affair and the far-reaching impact of his actions.

He’s not the first leader to “really screw up.” Heads of State, religious leaders and superstar CEOs in every industry have made similar bonehead moves.

Here are a few leadership lessons Petraeus’ situation has brought into focus for me:

Anyone of us can make a bonehead move. Before we’re too hard on famous leaders who fall, let’s be honest. We all have fallen down – in different ways, to varying degrees and with varying consequences and impact. “If it happened to (____fill in the blank with a role model you admire who has fallen in a big way____), it could happen to me.” Confidence without humility is arrogance.

There’s a place for justice and mercy. While some tend to be too hard and merciless on someone who screwed up, others tend to be too soft and minimize the injustice. Offering mercy, forgiveness and a second chance where possible doesn’t mean there are no consequences. And just because we all screw up doesn’t mean we need to lower the performance bar and discount important values. Humility and care for the one who screwed up and for the ones impacted can help us find the balance between justice and mercy.

Leaders are held to a higher standard. As ‘leadership guru’ Ben Parker said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Like it or not, a big part of a leader’s responsibility is building trust and commitment in others. This takes more than smarts and professional competence; it takes trustworthy and exemplary character, along with strong relationships.

You can’t totally separate professional and personal life. It’s fine and healthy to draw healthy boundaries between work and non-work life. To lead and live most effectively, though, we need integrity and effective relationships in our professional and personal lives. Integrity involves being integrated (i.e. not compartmentalized or fragmented) and consistently upstanding in character across all areas of life and work. And effective relationships – whether at work or at home – require honest and trusting communication. If leaders claim that breaches of trust, moral failure and broken relationships at home don’t affect their effectiveness at work (and vice versa), they are fooling themselves. But they aren’t fooling anyone else. We need effectiveness in our private lives and our public lives to be truly successful.

We know that we often learn more in failure than success. Thankfully, we can learn not only from our own failures, but also from others’.

 Joe Baker is a Partner with PeopleResults. He helps leaders and their organizations achieve effective relationships and results that matter. You can reach him at or on Twitter @JoeBakerJr.