11/13/2012 04:35 pm ET Updated Jan 13, 2013

The Fall of a Four Star

"I guess you thought you'd get away with it. Well, you can't."
-- Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) to Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas), Fatal Attraction

How foolish it all looks. The sudden resignation (apparently delayed until after the election). The photos of the "other woman," grinning as she shakes hands with the once-esteemed Four Star General. Senior members of congressional intelligence committees outraged that they weren't informed of an FBI investigation into the Director of the CIA. Careers, reputations and marriages destroyed, not to mention the potential for a severe compromise of national security. Hearings and further resignations are surely to follow.

Of course, no contemporary scandal is complete without a damning string of emails. And the triangle of David H. Petraeus, his biographer Paula Broadwell, and family friend Jill Kelley produced plenty, including the so-called "harassing" missives from Broadwell that Kelley turned over to the FBI and the pillow-talk emails between Petraeus and Broadwell. All this (and what else?) from the individual we most entrust with our nation's secrets and on whom we rely more than all others to avoid personal compromise.

In a statement to CIA employees, Petraeus said: "After being married for over 37 years, I showed extremely poor judgment by engaging in an extramarital affair. Such behavior is unacceptable, both as a husband and as the leader of an organization such as ours." You think?

While this fast-developing drama will in the near-term be filed under the category of "sex scandal," my gut is Mr. Petraeus was seduced as much by Ms. Broadwell's flattery and ambition as her physical charms. The model here is not the solely sex-seeking digressions of politicians Eliot Spitzer, David Vitter, or Anthony Weiner. It is the sordid tale of former senator and presidential candidate John Edwards whose demise came through his relationship with a camera-wielding producer and her fawning videos, the product of weeks of behind-the-scenes access. What Broadwell and Rielle Hunter offered other than sex was uncritical adulation--one through a book, the other with a camera--and that, ironically, is what many powerful men most crave.

Business executives are, of course, equally susceptible. Just days ago, Lockheed Martin's CEO was forced out due to a "lengthy, close, personal relationship with a subordinate employee." In April, Best Buy's CEO was likewise shown the door. Ditto with the former CEOs of Boeing, Hewlett Packard, Highmark, and many others, in years past.

Yet, the standing cultural lesson from the Monica Lewinsky Wars is that peril awaits those who attempt to publicly link extra-marital conduct with a fitness to lead. President Clinton's political survival is widely attributed not to any collective belief in his innocence, but to a far greater distain for Ken Starr's pursuit of what went on behind closed doors. Sure, the President acted inappropriately and lied about it; but how dare you interject yourself into his personal affairs!

Today, a thicket of laws, rules and regulations govern interpersonal conduct in the workplace. But they will never be able to douse the allure of power. A middle-aged man at the height of his career; an attentive and pretty young woman; hours together discussing his greatness; and, then, much more. All of it enabled by the delusion that they won't get caught. That no one will notice the liaisons, the lunches, the travel together, the calls and emails. Which, of course, they always do.

The reality is there is no one who will step in and save the boss from himself, or her from him. That's not a great career move. Besides, it is now deemed improper to condemn or intervene. One's personal life is one's own business. Until it isn't. A subordinate complains. Emails or expense reports are scrutinized. The Board is informed. Then, it's everyone's business. And there is no recovery. The Talmud warns us, "Sin is sweet in the beginning but bitter in the end." No kidding.