My Own Awakening to the Impact of Mean Men

Over the past fifteen years, a new crop of highly skilled researchers has entered the field of entrepreneurial research. They have in large part cleared away the tangled undergrowth of methodological questions: substantive definitions have been established and, increasingly, real entrepreneurs are used in sample populations. Despite the progress made in establishing a common language and base from which to compare and contrast information, most scholars in the field persist in focusing their research on what differentiates entrepreneurs from the rest of us very narrowly.

As Clemson University professor of entrepreneurship William Gartner noted: “Something gets lost when the focus of research on entrepreneurship sticks too closely to the ‘esoteric knowledge’ [of a] narrow disciplinary perspective. A finding can be right and interesting to a scholar within a specific theoretical perspective, but wrong or obvious to the practitioner and scholar with a broader and messier knowledge of the phenomenon.”

Gartner’s words struck a chord with me. And as I continued my own synthesis of existing research (with all of its elegance, and warts), I became even more deliberate about broadening the scope of my work.

What I needed was the scholarship and insight to make sense of my personal experiences as a consultant and what I knew to be anecdotally true about what makes entrepreneurs different from the rest of us. I began amassing an ever-higher pile of articles from academic journals, working papers, autobiographies, newspaper features, and magazine investigations to add to my transcripts of personal interviews with entrepreneurs, their kids, their wives, and, in many cases, their ex-wives. To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, I didn’t know where I was going, but I knew I was getting somewhere.

In early 2008 I was offered a coveted scholar-in-residence position at The Austen Riggs Center, which is ranked among the top psychiatric centers in North America. Riggs is a not-for-profit “open” hospital for patients who have not found success with the shorter-term biological and behavioral treatments characteristic of today’s approaches. Most of Riggs’ patients have been hospitalized multiple times in more traditional settings before finding their way to the center. Caught in a cycle of repeated crisis interventions that have failed to address the heart of their problems, they have been labeled “treatment resistant.” Importantly for my research, Riggs is the only psychiatric hospital in the United States that has a specialized focus on intensive psychodynamic psychotherapy. I didn’t have the background to examine my subjects from the perspective of a therapist, but at Austen Riggs, I would be surrounded by those who did.

The offer from Riggs was a singular opportunity to learn about psychopathology while also having the time and space to dig into two decades of legitimate research about entrepreneurial characteristics. I wanted to determine if there was an untold link lurking in the data. At Riggs, I’d be given full access to the staff, clinical privileges to read case workups, and an open invitation to attend all patient case conferences—a rare invitation for someone without clinical credentials. It was an extraordinary opportunity to see firsthand some of the most complex psychiatric disorders and to learn how their etiology is traced.

I took the position. And based within Riggs’ Erik Erikson Institute, I found myself surrounded by brilliant, caring, and inquisitive psychiatrists, psychologists, and clinical social workers who were willing to act as sounding boards and brainstorm ideas for additional avenues of inquiry.

My first week there, I asked the Institute’s director, Dr. Gerard Fromm, why he chose me over others to be the Erikson scholar-in-residence. I’ll never forget his response: “We’re fascinated by the questions you’re trying to answer, to gain insight to what drives the behaviors of those particular entrepreneurs that interest you. We have a good measure of self-interest in what you’re probing, Mark, because we believe some patients who come to us for help may be the children of the same kind of men you’re focusing on. The more you can answer your questions, and understand what’s behind their behavior, the better we may be able to understand the parental influence that perhaps helped to shape these patients and what they are now struggling with.”

That was the moment when I realized that the themes I had been identifying in my consulting work over the past twenty years—the dark side of entrepreneurship—could have more profound implications. I’d heard plenty of stories over the years about “crazy” CEOs, and I walked out of Jerry Fromm’s office thinking this project could give insight into the consequential impact these men were making not only on their investors and their employees, but also on their wives, families, and communities. This was the moment when my research truly began to take shape. I was well-versed in the damage mean men could do to their organizations, but my time at Austen Riggs begged the question: Did mean men just ruin companies, or did they also ruin lives?