Beware the dark side of success

The Bathsheba Syndrome holds dangers for any successful organisation. Understand it and watch out for it.

Managing for profit by Peter Hughes

King David of Israel was a talented man of great integrity and strong principles, widely respected and loved by all. As a result, his people prospered.

One day, while taking time off to stroll on the roof of his palace and bask in his success, he sees a beautiful lady taking a bath in a nearby building below. He is overcome with desire. Her name, he learns, is Bathsheba, and she is married to Uriah, a military officer with whom David has served.

Unwilling to control his lust, and knowing that Uriah is away at war, David proceeds to use his exalted position to seduce Bathsheba. She conceives. When Uriah returns home, and refuses to help David hide his adultery, the king arranges to have Uriah sent back to the front, where his chances of survival are slim.

However, when Uriah is killed, David’s perfidious behaviour is exposed. From that moment on, it’s all downhill for him. The lack of integrity he has revealed sees his people lose respect for him. As a result, his once-proud nation goes backwards.

Modern parallels in politics and business
It’s a tragic story and, watching the slow, downward spiral of the once-great ANC, I cannot help but see the similarity. It too has a leader whose successes have gone to his head. However, such behaviour is not limited to politicians or government employees.

We see it happening again and again at the highest levels in business, where tax evasion, insider trading, fraud, conflict of interests, perjury, patronage and even sexual impropriety become the norm. It always starts at the top, giving credence to the saying, “If the head of the fish is dead, the whole fish stinks”.

In Journal of Business Ethics, Dean Ludwig and Clinton Longenecker use the story of David and Bathsheba from the book of Samuel to explain what they call the ‘Bathsheba Syndrome’. They identify four typical consequences of great success:

Complacency and loss of strategic focus and involvement

David was not with his troops, leading them into battle. Instead, he was wandering around on the roof of his castle with time on his hands. How often do we see courageous and energetic executives lead their organisations to the top, only to then withdraw and indulge in the trappings of success? It’s as if they come to regard self-indulgence as an entitlement for the sacrifices they made on the way to the top.

Privileged access
If David had not been on the roof of his palace he would not have seen Bathsheba. Similarly, many business leaders (and others) become involved in scandals because they have gained access to and misused ‘privileged information’. Insider trading is a classic example. Using information only they are privy to, a few at the top enrich themselves at the expense of others.

Control of resources
As king, David had the power to cover up his grave offence by intimidating Uriah and his servants into silence. They knew what the consequences would have been for them if they had exposed him. It was even possible for David to arrange the death of Uriah through his control of the army.

Inflated belief in one’s personal ability
So often, people at a high level become enamoured of their own powers. They come to believe they are untouchable. When they are eventually accused of impropriety or dishonesty, they vehemently deny their guilt, no matter how obvious it might be. They seem not to understand that a lack of integrity and honesty always leads to loss of respect and trust, as well as destruction of their achievements.

Successful? Take heed!
The Bathsheba Syndrome creeps in insidiously and should be watched for vigilantly; it holds dangers for all organisations. If you or your organisation are experiencing a period of unprecedented success, beware Bathsheba.