Petraeus not alone in crises caused by CEO affairs that came to light Friday

Gen. David Petraeus rightfully made all the weekend headlines when he resigned from leading the CIA after admitting to an affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. But coincidentally, he was only one of three high-profile “CEOs” who we found out Friday apparently tripped on their zippers.

Petraeus clearly had to resign, given the military code of honor on which he based his career and the rules of the game for the CIA. The potential for blackmailing him, at least theoretically, existed and he could not allow that. His resignation effectively ends this crisis, although members of Congress filled the airwaves Sunday with outraged hints at a coverup that benefitted the president’s re-election.

The other two CEOs — at Waffle House and Lockheed-Martin — have different stories and outcomes to their crises.

Joe Rogers Jr., lower right, leads the family-owned Waffle House and is accused in a lawsuit of sexually harassing a former personal assistant and housekeeper. He denies the charges and remains in his job.

Chris Kubasik, below right, was due to take over as CEO at Lockheed in January, but was told Friday not to bother after an ethics investigation found evidence of an extramarital affair with a subordinate employee.

What’s all this say about crisis management? As The Daily Beast story suggests, times have changed dramatically from the days of Mad Men. Women lead major corporations, universities and non-profits and in the next 10 years will ascend more fully to key jobs in better proportion to their percentage of the population. But marital affairs will likely continue, perhaps more often with a woman in the commanding or higher job.

For crisis managers, this is always a tricky call — in the end dependent on a company’s moral stance as much as any factor.

Some affairs are private in the sense that they have nothing to do with the jobs of those involved. Additionally, mores are different from region to region and company to company. What a Hollywood studio chief does will probably play out differently for her than an affair by a CEO of a Southern fundamentalist Christian non-profit that helps unwed mothers find adoptive parents.

American politicians caught in affairs are almost invariably DOA — although Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich proved to be exceptions. European elected officials seem to benefit from them. As a crisis, even on a case-by-case basis, extra-marital affairs call into question a range of personal judgments. These include one’s morality, the person’s ability to keep promises to a spouse and from both of those themes, one’s trustworthiness.

With an estimated one-third of married people admitting to affairs, the morality card doesn’t play as heavily as it might have 30 or 50 years ago. But marriage, like church attendance, honesty and ethical behavior seem somehow diminished in societal value.

Rogers, as a family scion, answers only to himself and the lawsuit against him could be completely baseless. Petraeus took the honorable way out of such a dishonorable situation. Lockheed stands on firm ground and handled the crisis expeditiously because Kubasik apparently violated a clearly written company ethics policy.

Lockheed named its electronics division chief, Marillyn Hewson, to take over in place of Kubasik. providing generations worth of irony.

Said current Lockheed CEO Robert Stevens:

“While I am deeply disappointed and saddened by Chris’ actions, which have been inconsistent with our values and standards, our swift response to his improper conduct demonstrates our unyielding commitment to holding every employee accountable for their actions … We have a strong leadership team and a robust succession plan that allowed the board and me to react quickly and appropriately to this situation. Marillyn is an exceptional leader with impeccable credentials and deep knowledge of our business, customers, shareholders and employees.”

Crises involving CEOs and other key people won’t go away soon. Probably the best lesson is to determine a company-wide policy on such relationships — from CEO to newest hire — well in advance, write it into the company handbook that every employee receives and under which they work, and prepare in advance for the eventuality.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.


About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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