Nathan Fletcher
Nathan Fletcher. Photo by Salvatore Giametta

Nathan Fletcher’s recent resignation due to alcohol abuse, PTSD and personal peccadilloes comes as a sudden shock. No doubt there’s more to the story. And no doubt we’ll get more information regarding the background details, all of which will explain in part how this fall from grace could have occurred. 

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But the underlying and manifold reasons for his personal and ethical failures relate quite simply to one characteristic we all have in common: Being human. That’s right. Nathan Fletcher’s failures can be explained by reference to his fallible humanity — a humanity we all share. But what was it in particular that made this shoo-in for higher office so vulnerable to missteps? In short, the psychology of leadership and something called the Bathsheba syndrome.

The Bathsheba syndrome, based on the Old Testament story of King David, holds that many ethical failures by upper management are the by-product not of competitive pressures but of success itself. King David’s transgressions included, among other things, an affair, deception, drunkenness and a feeling that he had, through his own cleverness, beaten the system But his moral failures eventually caught up with him and led to predictably bad outcomes. (Uncannily similar to what Nathan Fletcher is experiencing.) So how could any of this have happened?  

The Bathsheba syndrome, according to one of the leading papers on the topic, explains that many in positions of leadership simply aren’t prepared for success. First, success leads managers to become complacent and to lose focus on management. Second, success can lead to privileged access to information and people. Third, with success comes control of organizational resources. And finally, success can lead to inflated egos and cause leaders to believe they can control outcomes.

With regard to the first factor, it’s apparent that Fletcher’s focus was not entirely on governance or leadership. He had become the county’s spokesman for COVID-19 and enjoyed widespread renown and support. But then, with his run for state Senate, his attention necessarily was divided. 

This renown also led to Fletcher’s privileged access to information and people. Certainly this access meant that he was hobnobbing with many sycophantic sorts who wanted his attention and perhaps largesse. This access leads, according to the research, to attendant temptations to which, we now know, Fletcher succumbed

The third factor — control of organizational resources — is perhaps not as important, but it’s still relevant to the extent that Fletcher represented access to county funding for various projects. 

The fourth and final element is probably the most relevant, as inflated egos have since time immemorial caused smart and talented people to make big mistakes. People in this position fool themselves into thinking that, notwithstanding their bad behavior, they are somehow exempt from bad consequences. Related to this is what is known as the illusion of control bias, meaning people habitually overestimate their ability to control the future. And coupled with the egocentric bias, this is a particular problem for those in positions of leadership. 

Given all that was at stake for Fletcher — his position as county supervisor, his run for state senate and his marriage — it seems crazy to think that a rational person would risk it all. But that’s the point: During these heady moments, with access to people and the feeling that his very own success made him immune from the normal cause-effect cycle, Fletcher was not acting rationally. Rather, he was caught in the grip of the Bathsheba syndrome and other cognitive biases to which we’re all susceptible.

Normally a person facing this kind of trouble would double down on failure (via the sunk-cost dilemma) and act as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. Fortunately for the public, events spun out of control for Fletcher (the illusion of control bias is listed as a bias for a reason) and he was forced by reality to accept that his indiscretions were no longer private.  

For many reasons related to my own commitment to truth and fidelity, I find Fletcher’s behavior downright disappointing and blameworthy, especially in the context of his “Semper Fi” motto. But I also know that he’s human and probably was led astray by his own success (not to mention the alcohol abuse). 

It will serve for many as a useful cautionary tale. Warren Bennis, considered the pioneer of leadership studies, said, “Leaders do the right thing; managers do the thing right.” Fletcher did neither.

The ancient Greeks loved their tragedies and were obsessed with exploring how hubris — an exalted sense of self — was a tragedy precisely because it’s inherent in us all. Without vigilance, in other words, we’re all prone to fall victim to it. And that’s the larger lesson here: It wasn’t outside forces that brought down Fletcher but rather his own internal makeup — his own humanity. 

This does not, by any means, excuse Fletcher’s behavior. But it should remind us that, if we’re truly committed to a higher, more just and redemptive form of politics, we must couple accountability with understanding. We must, to put it differently, hope that Fletcher gets the help he needs as he embarks on his own difficult journey of redemption.

La Jolla attorney James P. Rudolph is a former State Department official, past president of the La Jolla Town Council and former San Diego City Council candidate.