A while back, I met with the CEO of a nationally known firm; he’d started his business more than 20 years ago and built it to an industry leader. He’s a visionary, inspirational and unique. But his outstanding strengths are paired with what may be a fatal flaw. His temper erupts when he’s frustrated – he screams, yells, swears and humiliates to get his point across. He’ll make biting, cruel remarks to others that he’d never tolerate if directed to him. His closest allies fear that his temper will ruin the firm, while also destroying his hard-won reputation and all he’s built.
I’ve worked with many leaders like this, the subject of a book I wrote seven years ago. What’s striking is that such outrageous behavior seems to be on the rise rather than waning. I see that in the number of executives we’re asked to counsel and cases in the news involving offensive, abusive or illegal conduct. Just Google “CEO or candidate or congressman resigns unexpectedly.” You’ll see a roster of unbelievable career crashes more public than ever before.
How does it happen that brilliant leaders act so mindlessly and how do you prevent their self-initiated destruction and the damage they leave behind? As I’ve written, telling leaders the rules, explaining applicable laws, is not enough.
After all, it’s not a failure to remember the nuances that brings them to ruin – rather it’s their misguided sense that their stature, accomplishments, resources and internal organizational power or financial contribution don’t apply to them. In today’s world where emails, voice mails, pictures and videos can capture proof better than any time in history and be circulated around the planet instantly, they’re right. They’re subject to special rules allowing the acceleration of their fall to reach warp speed leading not only to career damage, but also to personal harm and their worst nightmare: lasting humiliation.
These are the damages they need to understand in order to affect their behavior. Increasingly, one way or the other, their organizations, or the public, or both, will topple them from their fragile perches. Yesterday’s “untouchables” no longer are. Just ask some well known business and political celebrities who’ve received legal letters from Gloria Allred for their corroboration.
So, I sat down with my client – a prime candidate for a Shakespearean fall. I talked about the law. Yes, it does apply to him. But I spent most of the time discussing his own vulnerability, mentioning some of the cases I Googled. Neither he nor I could distinguish how his actions differed from those Googled fallen leaders I mentioned. That got his attention.
The simple behavior rules I proposed to avoid catastrophe and Build a Civil Workplace™ are easy to follow. I gave him an index card sized reminder with just a few basic suggestions including obvious rules of conduct including what not to do or say and the meaning of professional conduct. Ultimately, it won’t be his understanding of the law that will change his behavior. The acid test will be whether he understands the new laws of “gravity” which have special force for the successful and prominent and how quickly they could bring him, as they have others, to ground and ruin.