Petraeus, Icarus, and education reform

Tony Bennett
Icarus's hubris.
Painting by Lucílio de Albuquerque.

I want to convince you that the education reform movement needs to reflect on the sad, devastating saga of David Petraeus.

Many will shrug off this whole story as just the latest example of Greek tragedy bleeding into American public life: A high-powered individual falls prey to his lurking hamartia—the fatal flaw of hubris or unchecked appetite that proves to be his undoing.

It’s all the more heartbreaking, head-scratching, and headline-grabbing because so many of those who crash into the sea with melted wings are those we honestly believed to be immune. Petraeus was the model soldier.  Elliot Spitzer was a modern-day Elliot Ness.

I’d like to put aside, for the time being, whether such tawdry tales should ever make their way into the news cycle. Many of you will argue that no matter how lascivious the act or prurient the public’s interest, such matters should remain private. That’s worth a discussion, but for now I just want to focus on what is, not what should be.

And what is includes a pillar of public life disgraced, at least two families suffering beyond imagination, and a professional legacy tarnished. The first will forever compromise a gifted individual’s ability to contribute his talents towards the good of our nation; the second will cause substantial, lasting damage to many; the last has the potential to destabilize the important professional advancements that he made.

But for our purposes, I don’t want to focus on the aftermath of the crash. I want to draw attention to the lead-up to the collision.

My best guess is that, at some point, maybe 20 years ago, maybe even more recently, a younger Mr. Petraeus saw some similar story on the news (maybe it was Gary Hart or Jim Bakker), shook his head, and said, “That will never be me.”

I bet Bill Clinton, Mark Sanford, Elliot Spitzer, Larry Craig, John Edwards, and so many others said the exact same thing.

And yet, somehow, it did become them.

This appears to be a serious occupational hazard of public leadership. The smart, talented, ambitious, driven professional succeeds time and time again; receives accolades in increasing frequency and volume; grows accustomed to preferential treatment; loses perspective; makes a small compromise, then a larger one, then a larger one; and then there are news cameras on his lawn.

Many organizations in our world tout themselves as the developers of future leaders. These groups aren’t just preparing individuals for the next job; no, they explicitly talk about helping individuals lead over a career in positions of increasing prominence and importance.

I’ve been fortunate to be part of a few extended leadership-development activities.  They were priceless; I’m thankful for the opportunities afforded me, and I’m much better off for having been part of these groups.

If we care about our people, not just what they accomplish, we need to think about the full person.

But we never—never—talked about this issue. And I suspect that the many organizations preparing future ed-reform leaders lack a PowerPoint deck on this.  And by “this,” I mean, “building a great professional life that is embedded within a happy, healthy, fulfilled personal life devoid of self-induced, career-threatening misfortune.”

Obviously, it’s easier to offer a “How to Use PowerPoint Really Well” seminar or a “Become a Successful Project Manager” course and then call your professional-development responsibilities complete. It’s much harder—and I sure don’t have the answer—to teach a group of high-performing, ambitious young people how to look for the warning signs that they are headed toward an unhappy personal ending.

But if we care about our people, not just what they accomplish, and if we want our movement to be sustainable, we need to think about the full person, not just what she does during work hours.

Part of the issue is that many ed-reform organizations are still, in relative terms, new, and their leadership ranks are filled with people in their 20s, 30s, and, in some cases, early 40s. Most of them are still in the “that-will-never-be-me” phase of life. But unless we look ahead and act preemptively, two terribly unfortunate things may occur.

First, the unhappy fate of the above-mentioned public servants may befall some number of our ranks, thereby jeopardizing themselves, their families and friends, and our collective work.

Second, and more importantly, we will have developed a generation of ed reformers capable of working extraordinarily long hours, establishing organizational-performance metrics, performing wizardry on Excel, and making superb speeches but unable to successfully manage the professional and the personal through careful self-examination and self-awareness.

So my humble suggestion is this: If you are in charge of PD for some organization in this sector, ask yourself if you are doing anything to help 20-somethings thinking “it will never be me” evolve into 70-somethings who, in 50 years, can proudly say, “It wasn’t me.”

If your answer is “No,” and you don’t know what to do to change that, ask a few professionals approaching the end of their careers what they wish they had been taught when they were 25 or 30. I’ll bet they don’t respond, “How to animate bullets in PowerPoint.”

Odysseus and the Sirens
Odysseus's wisdom.
Painting by John William Waterhouse.

And if you’re a 20-something in the process of being “developed” or “mentored” and you find yourself learning solely about “managing for results” or how to work with INTJs as well as ESFPs, have the courage to ask for something more personal, something that will help you guard against unknown dangers and prepare for the varied vagaries of life.

I know you feel invincible: You’ve had great success so far, and the future is bright. 

But remember that Bill Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar, a Yale Law grad, a state attorney general at the age of 30, and the second-youngest U.S. President in our history.  Spitzer was a product of Princeton and Harvard Law, a top-flight prosecutor, and governor before 50. David Petraeus was a top graduate of West Point, earned a Ph.D. from Princeton, and served in multiple four-star billets.

Icarus was told not to fly too close to the sun or the sea; he didn’t listen, and he met his demise.

Odysseus, knowing the Sirens were out there, had himself tied to the mast of his ship.  He made it home to Penelope.

More By Author

Related Articles