Intimacy and Leadership


What a week. After all the intensity and anticipation, the election came and is gone. Can you believe TIME already has profiles of the 2016 contenders?  Is that not a sign that the pace of our lives needs just a little recalibration?

From a leadership vantage point, two moments stood out this week.  The first was the President’s captured five-minute talk of thanks to his young volunteer team.  I believe you can find all the key practices and attributes of great leaders in it – vision, encouragement, humility, empowerment, and honesty.

But, what’s most striking as today’s title implies is the intimacy, as he let down his emotional guard.  In case you haven’t seen it, or don’t have five minutes to watch it, here’s the bottom line:  he cries while he’s speaking of how inspired he is by these young folks and what he believes they can accomplish  in the future. I suspect they will never forget that moment, that it will be indelibly etched on their hearts.  I imagine it as if he implanted a sense of energy and purpose that they’ll be able to draw upon and replenish throughout their lives.

The other moment was of a shared intimacy that none of us like being a part of: the admission by General Petraeus that he had been involved in an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell.

I watched as my son who has thoughts of serving in the military was visibly deflated at this news.  My interpretation for him was as much a reminder to me.  My takeaway?  The thinking rational mind is often not the decision maker of the self.  Smart people know about addiction. Smart people know about sex. Smart people know about greed.  Smart people know not to lie.  And smart people every bit as much as those with regular old cerebral processors do all of these things which they know they should not. We’re a darned mystery.

I hear lots of female commentators say, “keep it zipped; keep the candy in the wrapper….”  True enough. But honestly, pretty well known, no? This “will” and “discipline” thing is not quite so straightforward. The little discipline switch can be really hard to find when you need it most!

So, maybe the more useful answers lie in learning to be more open to the full range of our experiences and our processing them.  If you want to lead:  get to know yourself, your whole self.  The magnificent sides, and the strange facets, too. Figure out how to get intimate – in appropriate ways.  Like with a counselor, a minister, a friend, a meditative retreat, a sponsor like they have in AA.  I suspect some of the acting out in physical and sexual intimacy reflects a misguided search for emotional intimacy, for a way to put it all together.  We put our big stage leaders through extraordinary trials, where they are surrounded by power, death, injustice, adulation and recrimination.  We wear them out and put them on TV and go through their trash.  How is the self supposed to sustain this?

For many of us, our pressures are more mundane – a tough job, tight budget, challenging kids, aging parents, scary streets, confusing love relationships, and challenges with our health.  But these press in on us in the same ways. Thank God our miscues don’t end up on TV, but they can wreak havoc in “the world” that matters most to us.

So, get intimate this week!  Share your hopes for the younger generation, let those you lead see your heart and care, and perhaps somethings you might not share if you weren’t a little exhausted by it all.  And find a safe and useful place to share how you REALLY are; not just the sureness and confidence, but those little things leaders aren’t supposed to show: the fear, uncertainty, sadness, and anger that are also at the heart of our human condition.

Take care of yourself in order to take care of others and to

Lead with your best self!



  • As usual, your commentary strikes at the heart of the matter. The people around us are living very different lives. I read that at one point during the Revolutionary War, George Washington was away from Martha for almost three years. Are we to believe that this great American hero was faithful to his marriage vows? Did Martha understand the sacrifice and therefore give him permission? Did the context of the times dictate that she had no right to even consider being upset with him for his prolonged absence? Finally, did they have understanding from the beginning of the war that this would be a time apart in certain areas of their marriage?

    We will never know these answers. Likewise, I imagine the Petraeus family will never divulge the true nature of their relationship and what behavior was acceptable or unacceptable. My point is that judgment can always carry the baggage of the unknown. Does it seem deplorable to those of us that are happily and faithfully married (and work extremely hard to do so)? Absolutely, it offends us and it should. However, before I pass judgment, I am always reminded of a wise old football coach who told me, “There are multiple sides to every story and the truth can usually be found where they all come together”.

    Hopefully, true leadership emerges from this President in his second go round. It would be nice to see a nation coming together in the pursuit of truth and equality.

  • I consider his past in order to reflect on his ‘present’. He lied about practically every issue that he used as a platform to garner the vote, in 2008. In the past four years, he has done nothing to improve America. Quite to the contrary, sadly. If you want to talk about real heroes, try talking about a man who has stood steadfast, for America, for his entire life. A life we know about, not one hidden via executive orders. I supported Ron Paul, then, and I support him and his ideals now. NOT the current despot oligarch residing on Pennsylvania Ave. rEVOLution.

  • Dan, I know it’s culturally inadmissible (and dangerous, even) to say, in these times, “Big deal, he had an affair. He succumbed to a totally human condition,” but what rights have we to judge another man’s “sins”? Remember Jesus said “You who are without sin cast the first stone.” And St. Paul said that “All men are sinners.” And he certainly didn’t exclude the righteous among us.

    I thought of you “explaining” this to your son. I’m sure you pointed out the truly noble and admirable traits and contributions to our lives that Petraeus has made. But did you point out to him that he, young man that he is, has no right, and is in no position to judge the moral character of that hero who has led our troops through all sorts of tribulations and travails?

    In your column you talk “addiction,” and “AA,” and the “misguided search for emotional intimacy,” but is that really the whole story? I don’t blame you, Dan. The more public a figure gets, and I’m speaking here of Petraeus and yourself, the more difficult it gets to be completely honest with impunity. But that’s incredible when you step back and think about it, and where does it lead, and when does it end?

    I am emboldened by two articles I read recently in the National Catholic Reporter. In the first, the editorial staff has the courage to speak out against the Catholic bishops who “crossed the line” in their overt favoritism to Romney and condemnation of Obama. In the second, which is hot linked in the first, the NCR “outs” the Knights of Columbus for their very significant financial contributions to the backing of specifically biased political positions.

    (See and

    I found these articles refreshing in their courage and openness. Maybe along with the election they herald a new beginning for politics, leadership, and religion – and a new end for sacred cows, obfuscation, and the emperor’s new clothes.

    P.S. West Point will still hold a spot open for Jack.

    John Gillis

    • John and Joe,

      I have much respect for both of you, so I read your (similar) critiques a couple times. I appreciate your compassion towards a Petraeus or a Washington, and your skepticism about (my seeming) moral judgment. I agree. We cannot know. And it’s none of our business. I feel that pretty strongly, given my own public-by-marriage status. And John, no I’m not sure I made your point clear enough when I spoke to Jack that I (and he) had no right to judge General Petraeus. But your comments also make me want to clarify the context.

      First, perhaps the general and his wife had an understanding — ahead of his extra-marital activities or one developed after his behavior became known to her. But two pieces are problematic about this situation: First, by the terms of the CIA and his position, the affair all but forced him to resign and led to great upheaval and distraction; his private affairs could have compromised his public trust, and he knew that. So, it was not some prurient, relativistic moral standard that he breached, but it was the very terms of the grant of his leadership. And that is unavoidably problematic, unless he CHOSE to stray knowing the potential consequences. That may be true, but hardly seems so. I am thus judging him by what I believe were his own standards, John. I can’t believe he wanted to do this. And I am not judging his PERSON, but only asking about the decisions he seems to have made.

      Second, I don’t think your points about compassion and empathy are far from my own. You seem to be saying to me, “judge not that ye not be judged,” or “let he who has not committed sin, throw the first stone,” or “if only those without sin get to play, who’s LEFT?” (In this regard maybe other cultures that could not care less if a person had an affair are on to something that we’re not.) If I’m not wrong you are addressing the judgment(alism) of the outsider (in this case me, or the finger-waggers). I am making the same cautionary point, I think, only it’s about SELF-judgement. I’m arguing – and like you guys I share a very moral-if-not-moralistic background — that the starting point we should push for is: back off of the self-judgment. I believe that the abuses of people — some of whom are moralistic politicians and moralistic religious figures — often flow from standards too high, too rigid, too INhuman. I am suggesting that they stop fixating on rigid rules and trying/pretending to be perfect and instead focus more on their being.

      I have found more ability to live in integrity, where integrity comes from the Latin for “whole,” not from denying or projecting or chopping off the “bad” parts of myself, but in approaching them with some compassion, and integrating them, as best I can. I’m not there. And I’m not saying this process of integration (of tough feelings and unseemly parts of me) is done or is some protection from my own bad acts. I try to abide by the axiom that “there but for the grace of God go I.” I’m not saying Petraeus woulnd’t have strayed or that I could have withstood whatever pressed him to violate private and public vows he took. But it simply feels more real and more efficacious to me to pursue a more embracing and holistic approach.

      Further thoughts?


  • It saddens me that Mark—and others no doubt—feel that our president is a liar who has done nothing to improve America, despite a wealth of evidence from fact-check pundits about who was telling lies, how much, and how often. Unfortunately, this sort of adversarialism is what is dividing Congress and could send the country over the fiscal cliff.

    Just as we who supported Obama would have had to live with Romney and his policies if a re-count or the Supreme Court had given the election to him, I hope that Mark and those who agree with him will continue to speak for their conservative values because they are part of our “one nation under God” and I believe that progressives will be listening.
    It’s too bad, too, that our “winner take all” electoral system makes it impossible for voters to indicate not only which candidate we prefer, but how much. Under Range Voting, Mark wouldn’t have had to hold his nose and vote for Romney when he really supported Ron Paul. Under Range Voting, we could rate each candidate in the same way that we rate hotels and restaurants. In an open primary, Mark might have voted five stars for Ron Paul and zero stars for Obama and three or four stars for Romney. Others could have voted zero stars for both the Tweedledee/Tweedledum dominant party candidates and give five stars to the Green Party. This system does not violate the so-called “impossibility theory.” It was invented by statisticians, not partisans, to make candidates more loyal to the voters, and less to the parties. It would make our Congress and legislatures look a lot more like the general population, and a lot less like white guys in ties who are millionaires. You can look it up on and links from there.

    As for General Petraeus, his high-security status and responsibilities deprived him of intimacy with his wife on issues that must surely have been on his mind because she did not have high security clearance and did not have a “need to know.” It must have been very tempting to develop a natural emotional intimacy with a beautiful, intelligent, and admiring woman who did have high security clearance. I don’t condone his lack of fidelity to his marital commitment. I wish that the military and the government in general would / could be more transparent, so these temptations become less frequent at all levels of our huge federal system.

  • I read the post and all the comments to date. I am a family physician with 35 years service in a rural Appalachian community. As a daily observer of human behavior and choices, with privileged access to the lives of mostly ordinary people, I am very interested in the questions confronted in this thread. It’s striking that the post starts with Barack Obama as an examplar, but the discussion is dominated by David Petraeus and our reactions to him. Tragedy is always more interesting than success.

    In the whole discussion the most penetrating statement for me is this one from Dan’s starting post:

    “The thinking rational mind is often not the decision maker of the self. Smart people know about addiction. Smart people know about sex. Smart people know about greed. Smart people know not to lie. And smart people every bit as much as those with regular old cerebral processors do all of these things which they know they should not. We’re a darned mystery.”

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