Don’t Learn from Your Mistakes—“Apologize” Instead!

2017 has been a banner year for mean man apologies, and we still have one more quarter to go. A fertile source of recent apologies stems from Silicon Valley’s self-reckoning of sexual harassment, kicked off by ex-Uber employee Susan Fowler’s now-legendary February blog post. As noted in my prior post, the company failed to address Fowler’s case of harassment, fueled by a persistently sexist company culture. Two public apologies, of the five examined in more detail below, were issued in reaction to the subsequent call by women in tech and women entrepreneurs to bring harassers to justice and name the sexism for what it is.

To be clear, not everyone is apologizing. As the latest manifestation of white male privilege in the Valley, ex-Google employee James Damore, fired for his now infamous memo detailing in part how women are biologically less fit for tech work, subsequently told the Wall Street Journal that his memo wasn’t problematic, the consequences were.  But the tech world is not the only one in which mean men are being forced to answer for their behavior. In Hollywood, in the US House race, and in a Brooklyn courtroom, some mean men are being held to account.

Others expect a public statement to make it all better. Even when they occur, there is something disturbing about these “apologies.” It isn’t merely these individuals’ refusal to take responsibility, which we have seen again and again in mean men across industries (but most prominently in tech). No, it is even more so our willingness to allow a few well-chosen, PR-motivated, and artfully-framed phrases to erase the bad behavior and in some cases, crimes.

We have entered the era of the postmodern apology. When powerful men screw up, they perform what is at best a meaningless, socially enforced ritual and at worst a calculated ploy to regain the exercise of power at others’ expense. Whereas genuine apologies seek to repair the damage done to victims, the damage-control apology so popular today belies a complete lack of empathy and serves only to aggrandize the mean man.

In fact, there is plenty of evidence in the apologies themselves to clue us in to the magnitude of their egregious behaviors. Here are but five examples.

Chris Sacca: The Glamourpology

This remarkable piece of rhetoric serves as this series’ longest apology, clocking in at a whopping 2500+ words with an addendum bringing the total up to nearly 3000. Just look at the sentence that introduces his original apology post: “The words that follow are my heartfelt process for reconciliation and growing the work I have been doing for years to bring about permanent change in our industry and our lives.” Oh, wait, you’re giving us a list of accomplishments? You’d think he’s been awarded a Nobel and is warming up to his acceptance speech… The actual apology waters down harassment into nothing more than “[making] some women feel awkward, unwelcome, insecure, and/or discouraged.” But what’s truly shocking is just how much time Sacca spends discussing all his contributions to women since his days of youthful bro-ing about—at least two-thirds of the “apology.” Thanks so much for all you’ve done, Chris!

Dave McClure: The Creepology

Most notable about McClure’s post is the repeated use of “inappropriate behavior” to stand in for harassment as well as the de-personalization of the women he’s victimized. As pointed out by founder Cheryl Yeoh, whom he cornered in an empty apartment when the two were in an investor-investee relationship, such language minimizes and covers up what really happened. McClure is not quite as masterful as Sacco at self-aggrandizement nor does he claim that he’s really changed. His tack is to admit his “imperfections” openly and appeal to people’s sympathy, like Radiohead’s “Creep” does so well.

Greg Gianforte: The Stratepology

Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte’s apology was most notable for its timing. Let’s go over the order of events. The Honorable Congressman Gianforte:

  1. Body slams Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs upon being asked a question about healthcare.
  2. Has his office release a statement that alleges provocateur liberal reporter Ben Jacobs started trouble and that Gianforte stood up to him.
  3. Rides conservative media coverage of him as a hero willing to stand up to “snowflake” Millennial liberals all the way to victory in the US House of Representatives.
  4. Apologizes without naming his wrongdoing directly during his acceptance speech, to overwhelming applause from a room of devoted supporters.

Michael Einfeld: The Abomination

Nothing comes quite close to the emetic nature of Michael Einfeld’s apology for a violently misogynistic email about his female assistant. In his cellphone text apology to her, he manages to use a gay slur and joke about Holocaust extermination camps both extensively and in disturbing detail. What distinguishes this apology from the others on this list is its intended private nature. It was not prepared by a team of publicists and strategists, but instead dashed off by a guy who thought this series of texts would smooth things over. Is this a good indication of what other mean-man apologies would sound like without PR intervention?

Martin Shkreli: The Ain’t-Never-Gonna-Happen

The smirk on disgraced former pharma CEO Shkreli’s face during trial is emblematic of this mean man’s refusal to admit he’s done any wrong. He indicated with his winks and frowns to the press that the whole trial was a joke, and called it a “witch hunt.” Even as evidence of his ruthlessness piled up in court—including violent threats to employees and their families— Shkreli played it cool, as though the whole thing was a Soviet show trial, a mere formality orchestrated by his enemies.

As Shkreli bends reality around him with his jester performance, he creates a parallel universe where none of what he’s done has anything to do with his forthcoming sentence. It’s us who should be apologizing to him.


For all the mean men yet to issue hollow and insincere apologies in 2017, I’ve put together a handy guide to help:

The Official 2017 Mean Man Apology Guide:

  1. Use Vague Language: Be imprecise when naming the behaviors that you are sorry for. Or just keep your mouth shut and ignore everything.
  2. Diffuse Responsibility: Whether it’s society, ignorance, bro-culture, being an asshole who can’t spell, or being the victim of a witch hunt, make sure you have something to blame. But be careful to not start blaming someone. You’ll just have to repeat the cycle all over again.
  3. Change Focus/Flatter Yourself: In some cases, it becomes necessary to shift focus away from the wrongdoing and toward one’s accomplishments or sudden enlightenment. One powerful way to change focus is to deny wrongdoing entirely. Yes, you, too can create a Jobsian “reality distortion field.” Be just like Steve!
  4. Watch the Timing: Apologize only when beneficial for one’s public image. If at all possible, avoid apologizing entirely, but if you must, use time to your advantage. Do not consider whether timing will ameliorate the hurt caused to the victim. That’s not the point of your apology in the first place.

How to Cope With a Mean Boss

With my upcoming book, Mean Men, I hope to be part of a shift away from our current climate of mean in leadership culture. Meanness as a strategy for success is finally starting to come into question in the mainstream media. Even Forbes weighed in last week, noting that the extraordinary careers of people like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs happen in spite of their bullying personalities, not because their behavior and the culture of intimidation they create is a tactical advantage. But as much as things might be changing in our cultural discourse, mean men still run amok in the real world. And while there’s hope that more and more employees will be able to leave when the men in charge get mean, that’s not always a possibility. So what can folks who find themselves stuck between a mean man and a hard place do to preserve their sanity? Are there ways to, at the very least, blunt the impact of these characters?

Psychologists have been developing specific strategies that help others buffer and deflect the full-on abuse that mean men display when left unchecked. These strategies will not transform aggressively controlling behavior, but they will put boundaries around it.

A near-universal trait of mean men is that they are deeply manipulative. They distort reality, making those around them question themselves and their perceptions: it’s a mean man’s world, and we’re all just living in it. But while we can depend on them to deflect blame, criticize others’ work, and grab the credit that others deserve, we can also be proactive in minimizing the effects of their emotional attacks.

Andrea Kimble,* a senior manager under the infamous Dov Charney who I interviewed for my upcoming book, survived by physically avoiding her unpredictable boss and minimizing one-on-one communication whenever she could. She strategically planned her workspace and her workday so as to always have allies around her when she thought Dov might appear. She even had colleagues give her a heads-up if they knew Dov was on his way to see her so that he couldn’t have the upper hand of catching her off guard.

If you’re not able to physically separate yourself from your boss, detaching emotionally can be a good technique for getting some internal distance. Viewing your situation from a fresh perspective so you can see your circumstances objectively puts you in a better position to consider options than getting overwhelmed by how you feel. The emotional part of your brain requires balance with its rational part so it can cool down, calm down, and strategize.

To practice, take a moment to assess your feelings when you’re agitated but are not in a situation where an immediate response is required—for example, when you’ve received an upsetting e-mail from your boss but are not in the room with him. Take an inventory of the situation by going through the following questions:

  1. What’s happening right now? Write down what you see, hear, and feel.
  2. What are the facts? Assess your personal (and organizational) needs in the moment, and quickly summarize how you are being treated as a result of trying to get those needs met. What are you trying to accomplish? What do you need to get it done?
  3. What is he doing? Identify how he is acting and what you think may be sparking his toxic behavior. Don’t try to psychoanalyze him; the best you can do is find the “triggers” that set this behavior off.
  4. What am I doing? Determine as best you can your role in the situation. List how you are reacting (behaviorally and emotionally) and how you have reacted to this same or similar behavior in the past. This is usually the toughest question of the five to answer.
  5. What are my options? Write down some concrete actions you might take to help the immediate problem. As easy as it may be to find rational answers, it can be just as difficult to act on them.

When a situation causes us emotional pain, our natural reaction is to blame the obvious offender and not do a gut check to see what we may be doing to contribute to our own pain. Looking more rationally at our own role in—and vulnerabilities to—the situation can give us points of leverage for reducing the impact of mean behavior. These kinds of coping mechanisms are not a long-term fix, but they can certainly help you hold on to your sanity and values until you can seek greener pastures. I’ll be exploring additional strategies for dealing with mean in the blog posts to come, so stay tuned if you need some support.

*name has been changed

This post originally ran on my blog on July 20, 2015.

The Fall of Theranos: The Gap Between Innovating and Optimizing

The troubles at blood-testing company Theranos continue to mount as CEO Elizabeth Holmes waits to hear if the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services will propose sanctions that could ban her from the diagnostics business and stop her start-up from receiving payments from Medicare. With its vision of providing comprehensive health screenings with only a few drops of blood, this former biotech darling was once valued at close to $9 billion. The promise of Theranos, of being able to streamline preventive medical care in ways previously unimaginable, seemed world changing. But after failed inspections and the threat of government sanctions, it’s looking like the dream of Theranos was just that, a dream. The evidence is mounting that the closely guarded process by which Theranos claims to be able to run a myriad of tests from a few drops of blood amounts to a fairly scattershot approach to preventive care.  

In my earlier posts chronicling the downward spiral of HR software start-up Zenefits into the ash heap of former Silicon Valley sweethearts, I discussed how the lack of an exhaustive vision can be a death knell for young start-ups, particularly when their growth goes into hyperdrive. So what’s going on here? Has Silicon Valley just become Vegas for every young wannabe entrepreneur with a half-good idea?

As a recent New York Times op-ed piece explored, the downfall of Theranos can’t only be chalked up to the foolhardiness of youth. When Elizabeth Holmes founded Theranos in 2003, she was a nineteen-year-old Stanford engineering dropout with dreams of revolutionizing health care, but since then, she has curated a board of directors whose faces could make up a veritable Mount Rushmore of business, international politics, and strategy legends. Among them are such heavyweights as Bill Frist, Henry Kissinger, and Sam Nunn. With this combination of experience (although little of it based in medicine), it got me wondering: If the young CEO had the gravitas to put together this board of directors, men who negotiated detailed international treaties and complex legislation decades before she was born, then why did they not push for more attention to detail regarding the scientific accuracy and reliability of their tests? Theranos should have obsessed over these details, when in reality it seems they were sorely neglected.

For decades, big companies thrived and survived by building formidable “castles” to protect their positions. Competitors were thwarted by incumbents exploiting competitive advantages, erecting steep barriers to entry, and building powerful organizations with scope, scale, quality, and efficiencies that could resist disruption. But these castles were not built for today’s rapid and seismic market evolution, and as a result, many have seen their walls breached.

It was in the world of massive, seemingly impenetrable, bureaucratic medical laboratories that Ms. Holmes saw the weakness she could exploit. Small start-up businesses like Theranos thrive and survive by creating discontinuous innovations—sidestepping barriers to entry by creating new markets, wresting customers away from established organizations by offering them compelling new value propositions (like pain-free blood testing). But companies like Theranos have their own Achilles’ heel. They are organized for innovation, but not for efficiency and attention to detail.

While these companies have the ability to pivot more quickly than their larger, more established peers, they struggle with—or sometimes completely avoid—developing the ability to optimize operations by becoming as efficient as possible as quickly as possible once a disruptive innovation has proven successful. The problem here is with Theranos’ “success.” In offering a radically new approach to medical testing that positively transforms the patient experience, Theranos succeeded. But that success matters little if the test results for life-threatening illnesses are unreliable.

A decade plus of academic research is illuminating the fact that what organizations must develop to be successful in the long run is the capacity to become ambidextrous: those who cultivate this quality can optimize organizational efficiencies and quality services for their customers and devote resources to riskier endeavors that become the source of new innovations (experiment). Furthermore, companies that can successfully pull this off once can replicate the process for future cycles of innovation/optimization.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth Holmes is not instilling confidence that she can lead the organization through the tensions in these inherently oppositional activities. If she were hyping a compelling new app or game and it just wasn’t ready for prime time, we probably wouldn’t blink an eye. But the consequences of this business reach much further. She has shown that she can innovate (the experimentation side of the equation) but her ability to optimize seems weak, a catastrophic failing if you hold people’s health in your hands.

One hopes Holmes will learn from this humiliating debacle. After all, the wisdom to innovate and optimize—rather than only innovate—is most often forged by years, even decades, of failing and regrouping. Most start-ups now need to do both. It wasn’t until Steve Jobs was ousted and then returned to his company that the vision of Apple truly blossomed. From what past mistakes in the field of biotechnology and life could Holmes draw upon to improve the process? She and her board members should have been paying obsessive attention to not only disrupting a bloated, byzantine health care industry but also following through on the heady promises the company made to those who trusted them: namely that they would take a commitment to their well-being seriously. Optimizing your company’s processes might not land you many headlines, but failing to do so certainly will—just for all the wrong reasons.

The Wisdom Behind GameStop’s Bold Move

“If we have good chemistry, and we have a shared vision, then there’s a good chance we can partner for long-term success.” —Mark Stanley, GameStop VP of Internal Development & Diversification

It’s been a busy few weeks over at GameStop. The video game retailer—owned by Barnes and Noble from 1999 to 2004—has seen a host of financial struggles due to the precipitous drop in the video game retail market in 2015. With the news just last week that the company was being dropped for the S & P 500. shows just how predictive the S&P “topple rate” —the rate at which firms lose leadership standing in the index—can illustrate veracity of market disruptions. And reinvigorating its leadership position is exactly what Mark Stanley hopes GameStop’s new venture, GameTrust, will accomplish.

With the launch of this new digital platform, GameStop is making a foray into intellectual property development and cross-channel distribution, both growing sectors in the gaming ecosystem. GameTrust is designed for smaller video game developers who don’t have the resources or bandwidth to distribute their games to a broader audience without support. Rather than continuing to bet on the sagging retail market, with GameTrust, GameStop hopes to throw its hat in the ring alongside companies such as Steam, Xbox Live, and PlayStation Network.

For companies in an industry undergoing as much disruption as gaming has, evolving is vital, but transitions and growth can take a big toll on an organization if poorly executed (see the ongoing debacle with Zenefits). Can GameStop dramatically expand its core business offerings while remaining true to its overall vision? Leading this new venture is Stanley, who in a recent interview with Gamespot explained the importance of giving the new developers creative autonomy: “By allowing developers to fully focus on their craft,” he said, “GameTrust can focus on all other aspects of bringing a new IP to market, leveraging our deep expertise and retail channel leadership to support each developer and connect their games with a broader global audience.”

Having a clear and shared vision that gives team members the freedom to create and function within the structure of an organization will be critical during this upcoming period of change and growth for GameStop. I believe Stanley’s public commitment to respect the creative process bodes well for the company’s future. In a move consistent with that of a vision-driven leader, the executive explained that GameStop would not have any form of creative control over the developers they bring on or the games they create. This is a big plus for independent developers, who have traditionally had to use third-party distribution and relinquish a great amount of creative control, not to mention deal with the tension that often develops across teams when an organization is not operating according to a cohesive vision.

In the practical sense, it’s more crucial than ever for top management in quickly changing industries (which includes most industries at this point) to recognize the necessary shifts from a model of top-down control to one in which employees can innovate, be flexible, and adapt quickly over the longer term. This works when leaders embrace the notion of a structure that focuses on teamwork and cooperation. Grouping people based on the core processes they engage in—as GameStop is doing with this new venture—allows employees from diverse disciplines to know and understand one another and ultimately, hopefully, create something greater than the sum of their parts. This approach encourages tighter social relationships, joint decision-making styles, and collaborative work. Together, these serve to melt away the boundaries that result from employees working in silos, which stifle communication and creativity.

GameStop is a good example of the shrinking time frame for visions in some industries. The rule of thumb I use for clients—which is based on research I conducted back in 2000—is that organizational visions need at least a decade to take a firm down the runway. For the discombobulating technology shifts and consumer trends in video games, that life span is shrinking. But visions are still essential.

The business world has become an infinitely more complex, fluid, and unpredictable place, even for long-established organizations. By bridging the divide between brick-and-mortar and digital channels, GameStop is betting that this new venture will carry them into the digital marketplace with enough oomph to convince shareholders to stick with them for the long haul.

We’ll watch to see if they can use this revised vision for a return to market leadership.

What We Can Learn About Culture from Zenefits

The story of Zenefits’ spectacular growth and downfall is the start-up train wreck du jour that no one can stop watching. An extensive piece in Business Insider last week cataloged once more the lurid details many have been poring over—tequila shots in the office, young employees treating their Arizona outpost as a frat house—and a former sales manager is quoted as saying: “When we were smaller, we could act the way we were acting in the office. I don’t think Parker did a good job of growing up. He let things get out of control. There comes a point where hypergrowth achieves diminishing returns.” The story also outlines some more subtle cultural failures that plagued the start-up over the last year, the pulling back of vacation time, and the clawbacks on sales bonuses that demolished morale. It’s easy to see how the superfast growth—spurred on by Vegas-style VC funding—taxed the company’s resources to the breaking point; but did it have an even more deadly effect on the young company’s culture, destroying it before it had the chance to grow to maturity?

When Aristotle declared that “nature abhors a vacuum,” he was speaking to the way in which nature requires every space to be filled with something, even if only air. The same principle goes for cultures, as they too abhor a vacuum. Organizations growing quickly without a core set of clearly articulated and reinforced values to guide the behaviors necessary for sustaining the growth will experience a cluster of values that saturates the culture anyway. As we saw at Zenefits, this osmosis-like effect draws in values that communicate to everyone “This is the way we do things around here.” And this is why it seemed acceptable for guys to leave their used condoms in the office stairwells.

Weak cultures are those in which little agreement exists and where the effort toward the vision is fragmented and often dissipated through conflicting agendas, blaming, and unclear communications. Another Zenefits employee is quoted in the BI article as saying that a “culture of dishonesty” had emerged, in which industry regulations were ignored and products were mischaracterized to customers. It’s easy to see how such a culture wouldn’t be sustainable.

Strong company cultures are those consciously embedded with only the values that support the organizational vision, where everyone agrees about their importance. In these organizations, you can feel the human energy that flows from this alignment.

In the broadest sense, culture is the personality of the organization, the shared beliefs, and the written and unwritten policies and procedures that determine how the organization and its people behave and solve business problems. Culture provides meaning, direction, and clarity; it is the human glue that mobilizes people to aim for the vision.

To understand an organization’s culture is to remain focused on the five elements that create it and their attendant questions:

  • Shared values: What do we think is important?
  • Beliefs: How do we think things should be done here?
  • Norms: What are the unwritten rules: the dos and the don’ts?
  • Heroes: Who are the people who personify our culture and serve as role models for others?
  • Systems: What do we do to influence people through our written and unwritten policies?

In the end, it all comes down to behaviors: “the way we do things around here.” The answers to these questions need to be put into action as a living, breathing part of the organization’s day-to-day functioning. Zenefits suffered from what is practically a Silicon Valley cliché at this point: a company culture that—infused by too much money and too much growth too fast—went from fun and inspiring to chaotic and dispiriting in a heartbeat.

The gap between the plan and reality of organizational performance is often significant and has been the subject of countless articles and books on motivation, leadership, management skills, and other elements heaped onto the “soft side” pile of organizational performance variables, in other words, the culture. At its most rudimentary, a “hard” strategy may look concrete, with its definitive goals, data, and spreadsheets, but it’s actually an abstraction. It is an idea for the future and has no real existence in the organization or in the marketplace. The organization’s culture, however, is a living, breathing, dynamic force that has a life of its own, operating independently of all plans and projections yet determining the success or failure of those plans.

I am currently a co-investigator of a large study of Fortune 500 CEOs aimed at exploring how these men and women are managing change in a world turned upside down by massive disruptions. One unexpected finding from my interviews is the extent to which they understand the importance of a perfectly “tuned” culture that’s aligned with the organizational transformation these disruptions demand. Our preliminary results, and countless other studies over the past fifteen years, continue to be sobering. They dispel the myth that culture is not a “hard” business issue. Cultures with values, beliefs, norms, heroes, and systems that support high performance significantly impact the financial metrics that matter to most executives.

The importance of company culture cannot be minimized, because a growth vision will fail unless the culture directs and sustains individuals’ behaviors, on a daily basis, in pursuit of strategy. While these intangibles may be far harder to measure than sales volume or return on equity, they are often the key factors in one organization’s competitive advantage over another. The difference between success and failure can often be attributed to a limited set of organizational characteristics. When they are combined, they create culture.

Many organizations emphasize values such as quality, customer service, teamwork, respect for the individual, and innovation—themes with broad appeal that can help people feel they are reaching higher goals for themselves. But all too often these values are communicated merely as organizational spin control in the form of annual reports, recruitment sections of the corporate website, and token discussion at management retreats. They fail to become alive, to be fully infused in the fabric of their culture. And nothing is more dangerous to a company’s survival.

Why Start-Ups Fail: Part Two

Last May, Silicon Valley HR start-up Zenefits was being called a “unicorn” and sending its top salespeople to Vegas for a bacchanal to rival The Wolf of Wall Street. My, how things have changed. Over the last several weeks, as news of compliance failures and employees run amok (between all the sex and drinking in the office, the place was, ironically, an HR nightmare) has surfaced, it’s become clear that Zenefits’ spectacular growth has also been, at least in the short term, its undoing. Last week I discussed several common reasons start-ups like this one suffer, and today I want to explore a few others.

Uncoordinated Transformations

A new firm can maintain healthy expansion only to the extent that its internal mechanisms are seamlessly coordinated. The problems of coordination—such as with the rapid addition of new locations and employees (both huge issues for Zenefits, which added a satellite office and hired hundreds of underqualified new employees over the past year)—are directly proportional to the rate of growth. An organization’s capacity to digest new elements depends on a complex set of organizational processes. It’s difficult to add employees and customers at an extremely fast rate without diminishing the quality of output or running out of cash. Failure to define processes for recruitment, selection, motivation, control systems, and development of values within the organizational culture creates chaos rather than providing the kind of transformation that will allow a new business to thrive. Ultimately, these issues can crush any hope of sustainability. Each person who began with the firm must change as the organization does, entailing a shift that can feel profound. The days of ad hoc management disappear, and managers must learn how to work at a strategically higher and faster level and to define the principles that will govern decisions such as who should be hired and fired. They must learn, quickly, how to create new structures so the company can spend serious money while taking bigger risks for bigger returns. And they often must learn to let go of traditions and established practices in favor of more professional norms. Beer pong at the office might be fine for a company of five, but it’s not hard to imagine why that won’t work for a company of one thousand.

The Fantasy That There’s a Map

Sustainable growth for any entrepreneurial venture requires moving methodically through a series of developmental stages. In one analysis of entrepreneurial growth patterns, 51 percent of the companies progressed sequentially through the expected stages. They followed a traditional linear pattern of development and growth. That’s good news. But the other side of this equation is the bad news: Did firms in the 49 percent that skipped the traditional stages of development one might assume to be necessary end up spiraling out of control and failing? With nearly half the successfully scaled firms not following any model that explains or predicts growth stages, it stands to reason that models accepted and used in the past may be poor predictors of how an organization might successfully scale in the future. A slew of “growth stage models” exists, but most are based on anecdotal observations rather than rigorous research. Warp-speed growth doesn’t follow a tidy linear progression. Analysis of successfully scaled organizations reveals that the stages or patterns of development vary. There is no universal road map that guides scaling. Only the road map that results from managing a unique, comprehensive vision can predict whether a scaled firm will sustain itself.

The Struggle to Maintain the Family

Watching a start-up scale without an adequate vision is a familiar scene: As the need for processes and values takes center stage, old rules disappear, time becomes woefully scarce, work life and personal life merge, and corporate gestures that used to mean one thing suddenly mean the opposite. A warm family atmosphere where everyone knew one another and virtually everything was transparent becomes an environment where silence replaces the easy, informal communications. To compensate for that silence—which is often both unintentional and inevitable—a plethora of ad hoc processes are set in place. Reporting systems, budgets, and performance reviews—often inconsistent in their implementation—attempt to direct employee behavior. When the easy, informal communications channels begin to fade and are replaced by more formal chains of command and departmental silos, people begin to feel overlooked, if not abandoned, by upper management. As the firm launches, the environment feels intimate. Everyone knows who is getting married, having babies, caring for a sick parent. But the venture has to get bigger, add more systems, and implement more controls. What used to happen spontaneously now happens systematically. Through email and voicemail, perhaps even with stringent reporting structures and weekly meetings, everyone may know everyone else’s business—but they no longer know everyone else’s name. The venture that begins as a team or family becomes an impersonal company as it scales. People within will likely remain strangers to one another in spite of the desire and hard work by some to keep the memory and spirit of the family alive. Often, the people who left a big corporation to become part of a start-up realize the firm is evolving into something all-too familiar and distasteful. It will be fascinating to see what Zenefits’ remaining employees do now that the party, quite literally, is over.

Facing the Enemy

If we step back and consider these organizational perils, a picture emerges of the firm’s biggest enemy to survival: its own executive management team. It may be a founding entrepreneur, a COO hired to “bring discipline” to the original vision, or the entire team. These hardworking people have enormous responsibilities for managing the liability of newness, coordinating organizational transformations, and determining which growing pains to address at different times. If correct and timely actions are not taken to address these issues, the team will probably fail at one or another goal. And when they do, there is the probability—however unintended and well meaning—of holding someone or something else accountable.

Why Start-Ups Fail

As beleaguered software company Zenefits continues its spectacular fall from grace with news last week that they are laying off 250 employees, it begs the question: How do these start-ups fall so far so fast? This isn’t the first time a tech start-up has turned toxic seemingly overnight; the stories are myriad and go back to cautionary tales from over a decade ago with companies like Friendster, Napster, WebTV, and others. So why doesn’t Silicon Valley seem to ever learn? How does the Vegas-like atmosphere continue as though nothing’s ever gone wrong? The most comprehensive analysis to date of start-up failure has been done by the Startup Genome Project. Premature Scaling—a project coauthored by Berkeley and Stanford faculty members with Steve Blank—used ten start-up accelerators as contributors and analyzed 3,200 high-growth web/mobile start-ups. They found that within three years, 92 percent of start-ups failed. Of those that failed, 74 percent failed due to premature scaling.

Premature scaling leads to either spending money on marketing, hiring, and other resources before you find a working business model (you acquire users for less than the revenue they bring) or in general spending too fast while failing to secure further financing.

Most start-ups that survive the first few years remain small, but smallness is acceptable only in the rare cases when an entrepreneur or parent organization has patient investors not demanding a significant return in a relatively short period of time; this is almost never the case in today’s high-stakes VC climate. For the overwhelming majority of firms funded by outsiders, staying small is a death knell, indicating that while the organization hasn’t failed yet, it has slim prospects of providing the return originally expected by both the VCs and the founder. In industries like tech, being small is considered as good as being dead.

“There are a hundred reasons for success and a thousand reasons for failure,” a VC once said to me with a sigh the day after he shuttered one of his portfolio companies. I disagree. The reasons for most of the failures I’ve studied may have a thousand variations, but they share a small number of interrelated root causes. And absent a comprehensive vision, there is no way to combat them.

The “I’m Right, the World’s Wrong” Mind-Set

Entrepreneurs of failed start-ups have a tendency to blame others for business problems rather than holding themselves accountable. This is ironic, as these are often the same leaders who like to project the sense of being in control of everything. Nonetheless, they more frequently attribute failure of their own ventures to external factors, such as competitive market conditions and financing problems. This is in contrast to the VCs who fund them, who more frequently attribute failure to internal factors, particularly management inadequacies.

These same entrepreneurs often attribute the poor performance of other firms to internal factors, yet assign their own troubles to external causes over 85 percent of the time. This difference between the lack of accountability entrepreneurs take for failure and what they are actually responsible for can profoundly affect which solutions are pursued when a venture starts to go down. If the assessment points to issues outside the organization, then why bother changing organizational components under management’s control? Some entrepreneurs also seem to think that attributing their problems to external factors is the best strategy for negotiating with a VC. If they can convince the VC that their firm’s problems come from the outside, then the VC will be more likely to help them ride out the storm. But this often backfires. The entrepreneur who blames external factors is often seen as delusional or unwilling to take responsibility by the VC. This chain of passing the buck can hasten the venture’s demise and lead to an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy: when the entrepreneur wrongly blames external factors for the firm’s problems, one crucial external factor—the VC capital—may become its ultimate problem if it stops flowing in.

The Liability of Newness

The most appealing, and perhaps least daring, explanation for failing to scale up and remain sustainable is to attribute it to a phenomenon known as the liability of newness. The risks of newness result from a wide variety of sources, but we almost instinctively point to the invention itself—a new product or service. As we saw with Zenefits, for example, it’s easy to imagine how such an unprecedented approach to manage benefits for small businesses could contribute to the climate of “no rules apply” that has been so disastrous for them. It follows that a company doing something so outside the box would bear some outsize risk just by nature of its products.

And although common sense would indicate that failure is higher for pioneers than for late followers (which is true), it would also lead us to believe intuitively that the causes underlying the liability of newness would be the failure for a new product or service to reach and appeal to its intended audience (which is false). Actually, the risks arising from newness appear to result from a much wider variety of sources that are not weighted on product or market share issues, as most believe. Of course new industries and innovative products take more time to refine, but the ultimate failure of these companies is still most likely to be organizational.

Research again leads us back to senior management as the key factor behind the liability of newness. Zenefits had a great product, as many in the HR field have claimed. But in the process of a major scale up, such as we saw with them, management too often pays little attention to the need for a consciously developed organizational culture. They often create structures that support current—but not future—needs and ignore conflicts regarding evolving and emerging roles within the organization. Most important, management often lacks clarity for how the organization’s vision relates to people’s roles and behaviors. In an overwhelming number of cases, no vision has ever been articulated. It’s reduced to the immature denominator of “get big fast.”

Executive management teams tend to have an outward focus—they’re consumed with ensuring that the new product or service is accepted and gains increasing levels of market share. But the liability of newness blindsides them. They fail to pay sufficient attention to what’s going on within the house. This phenomenon further compounds entrepreneurs’ “I’m Right, the World’s Wrong” tendency to avoid accountability for acknowledging and managing strategic issues within the firm.

What Comes Before a Fall: Lessons from the Growth and Crash of Zenefits

If you have even a passing interest in the tech industry and start-up culture, you’ve certainly heard about the unfolding crisis at formerly golden start-up Zenefits. The company—a producer of web-based software to help small businesses manage their human resources operations—made big news last year when they raised $500 million in one round of funding, at a valuation of $4 billion. The growth of the company over the past couple of years has been astronomical: they went from a total of fifteen employees at the end of 2013 to a reported sixteen hundred late last year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the growth has caused some serious issues, and CEO and founder Parker Conrad was asked to step down two weeks ago amid scandalous reports of employees being encouraged to cheat on their insurance broker licensing exams (even being given software to help them do so), overimbibing during the workday from company-provided kegs, and having sex in the stairwells of the office building.

Conrad’s resignation from the company allegedly brought tears of relief—not sadness—from beleaguered employees, many of whom are wholly unqualified for the work they’ve been asked to do (a reported 80 percent of Zenefits’ Washington transactions were claimed to be unlicensed). Strangely for a technology company, Zenefits seems to have attempted to solve its woes by adding even more employees to fix problems manually, rather than fully debugging systems when breakdowns took place.

Some of the details of Zenefits’ (and Conrad’s) downfall may be shocking—drinking on the job as a company norm, disregard for regulations in a company that handles something as sensitive as health insurance—but to anyone accustomed to working with entrepreneurs, especially those operating in the high-stakes pressure cooker of Silicon Valley, this outcome is anything but a surprise.

Certainly Zenefits’ rise and crash was helped along by the trend of outrageous VC funding for Silicon Valley start-ups, but the heart of their problems is nothing new. This is simply what happens when there is not an effective, embedded vision at the crucial juncture where scaling meets speed. Zenefits began as a Software as a Service company devoted to helping small businesses combat the onerous red tape of HR issues, health coverage in particular. An honorable enough mission. But as they scaled with lightning speed, they began taking on businesses with hundreds of employees, long before they were equipped with the culture necessary for handling them and the organization’s scaling to that level. Growth became the only imperative, at the cost of quality, employee morale, and even lawful practices.

The current climate in Silicon Valley prizes the “get big fast” mentality, but it’s worth asking, is growth always the ultimate goal? David Packard, the cofounder of Hewlett-Packard (HP), wrote in his memoirs that over the years he and Bill Hewlett had “speculated many times about the optimum size of a company.” They “did not believe that growth was important for its own sake” but eventually concluded that “continuous growth was essential” for the company to remain competitive. One reason growth was a matter of survival was because HP “depended on attracting high-caliber people” who wanted to “align their careers only with a company that offered ample opportunity for personal growth and progress.” Growth for the sake of attracting and keeping great people would become a factor for virtually all firms in technology-driven fields. When the firm introduced “the HP way” in 1957—essentially a manifesto for its future—it emphasized growth “as a measure of strength and a requirement for survival.” While Carly Fiorina trash-talked the original culture and called it an adorable artifact of an older time, she was no paragon of leadership during her tenure there, and the company suffered under her watch.

Most companies understand that growth is essential for survival for the very reasons Packard put so succinctly above. But few know how to reconcile the need for growth with the external and internal pressures to grow very quickly—especially with a group of big-time venture capitalists breathing down one’s neck. Building any large and sustainable corporation requires a considerable organizational transformation rather than a predictable set of linear stages. Building it quickly diminishes the odds that it can weather the growing pains of that transformation, as we can see so clearly in Zenefits’ unraveling. “More businesses die from indigestion than from starvation,” Packard said.

Start-ups are not just large businesses in miniature, and their trajectories do not necessarily point to either size or longevity. Rather than relying on opportunistic adaptation to exploit niche opportunities, their existence depends much more on formulating and implementing ambitious strategies that prepare the firm for the longer term. Put another way, the transition of a fledgling business into a large, well-established corporation requires nothing less than a series of fundamental yet relatively seamless transformations, nearly impossible to pull off in a period of eighteen months or so as Zenefits attempted to do.

Well-articulated visions guide these transformations so they are not experienced as traumatic surprises. Unfortunately, there are relatively few exceptional entrepreneurs with the capacity to conceptualize, articulate, and relentlessly manage with a vision and survive the steep challenges wedded to accelerated growth.

Maybe—just maybe—there’s a degree of maturity, insight, and future focus that’s not just about EBITA growth. Zuckerberg got that in his twenties, and he turned Facebook into a growth machine. The Google guys got it too, in their youth. They were smart enough to turn the reins over to Eric Schmidt, who would successfully guide the firm’s growth.

But perhaps the real lack of maturity rests with shortsighted venture capital firms and boards. They’re the ones who drove the wild growth and then kept Mr. Conrad in place until the shooting star was crashing back to Earth.

Mark Driscoll: The Teflon Mean Man

Mark Driscoll has been back in the news this month after announcing that he will be launching a new megachurch in Phoenix. Perhaps he’s hoping his new hometown is far enough south of his old stomping grounds in Seattle that people won’t care as much about the trail of wreckage he left there. I originally wrote about Driscoll last summer, but with the unstoppable egomaniac back in the limelight, I thought his misdeeds were worth revisiting. Mark Driscoll started a Bible study class in his home in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle in 1996. By August of 2014, he’d grown his operation, Mars Hill, into a megachurch, at its height counting thirteen thousand attendees across five states. He preached to a packed crowd at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field (home of the Seahawks), guested on prime-time national television, threw out the first pitch at Mariners’ baseball games, and turned his brand into a franchise. Brand is Driscoll’s word, by the way, not mine. Among the other Mars Hill pastors, he would often refer to himself as “The Brand,” making it crystal clear that Mars Hill would always be about “me in the pulpit holding the Bible.”

His precision branding, matched with his ability to scale his enterprise, would make any business entrepreneur blush with envy.

Driscoll appealed to the young families who showed up to worship with him in jeans and flip-flops, those disenchanted with more established versions of organized Christian movements. Known as the “hipster pastor” with his charismatic, edgy rhetoric, dressed-down blue jeans style, and family of seven, Driscoll knew and embodied his market. He had a reverence for Jesus and a seeming irreverence for everything (and everyone) else. He enjoyed being outrageous, and it worked for him. Yoga, for example, was “demonic.” Increasingly, his writing and sermons took on strong misogynistic overtones: he famously called America a “pussified nation” and claimed that mainstream Christianity characterized Jesus as “an effeminate-looking dude,” and a “neutered and limp-wristed Sky Fairy of pop culture.”

Driscoll declared that anointing a woman as an Episcopal bishop was akin to choosing “a fluffy baby bunny rabbit as their next bishop to lead God’s men.” He joked onstage that wives who denied their husbands oral sex whenever it would please them were sinful, his unique interpretation of a verse from the Song of Solomon.

His outward style charmed many, but behind the scenes, he was often vicious, abusive, and controlling. Those who disagreed with him were shunned by the church, ensuring that other members would know what was in store if they came forward.

Fearful of his influence, many church members felt forced to complain indirectly or through third parties. But Driscoll’s strategy for defusing the discontent was to claim that he wasn’t sure how to respond since his dissenters remained anonymous.

Singularly, disaffected congregants felt powerless against the megachurch, a dynamic Driscoll was counting on. What he underestimated, however, was what would happen when they banded together.

As complaints about Driscoll reached a fever pitch, a large crowd started protesting during Sunday services, holding signs reading “We Are Not Anonymous.” Others started to directly and openly call for Driscoll’s resignation.

After eighteen years of stunning growth at Mars Hill, the groundswell of disgruntled congregants began to drive other churchgoers away. Within months, attendance and giving had plummeted so fast that church elders announced it would have to close several Seattle branches and cut its staff thirty to forty percent.

Driscoll had a knack, like many mean men, for deflecting blame. In 2013, Christian radio host Janet Mefferd accused him of plagiarizing fourteen pages of his book A Call to Resurgence from another preacher. She pushed Driscoll during an interview to be contrite. He apologized but peppered his concession with indignation.

He got in yet more book-related trouble in 2014 when he was accused of misappropriating $200,000 in church funds to get his book Real Marriage on the New York Times bestseller list via shady marketing tactics.

Each new accusation emboldened more critics, and by August 2014, Driscoll was hounded by the new accounts that emerged almost daily of his bullying, abuse, and outrageous behavior with congregants.

Driscoll resigned in October 2014 amid allegations of emotional abusiveness, plagiarism, and misogyny—with congregants fleeing to other houses of worship or losing faith altogether.

Driscoll ultimately wasn’t taken down by the church’s governing body but by those who—in small groups or individually—found their power in numbers and through their collective voice of public dissent. Driscoll’s charisma and normally effective ability to flip he blame to deflect culpability was drowned out beneath the indignation of those he’d harmed.

Sure, there were Christian media heavyweights calling him out for plagiarizing others’ work and his smarmy misogyny. But what brought him down was his arrogance and abusiveness, as well as those current and former followers who shouldered the risk of condemnation from others and stood together and exercised their power.

But his downfall didn’t last. Much like Donald Trump—who has famously claimed that he could shoot a person on the street and not lose voters—there seems to be nothing that can keep Driscoll out of the spotlight for good.

The folksy announcement video about his latest venture is drenched in faux humility about starting a new chapter of his life and “healin’ up” in Phoenix. The legendary bravado is MIA, but for how long? He’s already received very public support from Pastor Robert Morris of Gateway Church, the fourth-largest church in the country, along with a handful of other A-list evangelical names. Time will tell whether Driscoll will actually change any of his ways, but looking at the history, it seems about as likely as Trump naming Megyn Kelly his VP.

The heart of the problem with mean men like Driscoll is that they don’t truly feel they were wrong in the first place. The only thing they did “wrong” was get caught or called out by their peers. Driscoll can tone down his rhetoric and talk about healing and forgiveness all he wants; rest assured, it’s not about contrition—it’s about getting back on top.

Why Culture Should Be at the Center of Your Organizational Vision

When Gordon Bethune took over Continental Airlines in 1994, it was the lowest-ranked airline company in the country. It had been through ten presidents, suffered two bankruptcies, and posted a $200 million loss by the time Bethune stepped in. Needless to say, he had his work cut out for him. With the company on the brink of collapse, Bethune believed that what most urgently needed to be changed was Continental’s culture. In the past, scaling initiatives were usually squelched before getting the chance to come to fruition. But perhaps the most stifling effort to unite the team on behalf of the former management was a nine-inch-thick book of rules—mocked throughout the organization as the “Thou Shalt Not” book and, with a more Orwellian tinge, “The Book.”

The Book was a visible symbol of what was dragging the company down. Continental’s corporate culture had stripped employees of the freedom to make decisions, take initiative, and speak out. So what was Bethune to do? The first order of business was to literally set the book on fire, a ceremonious representation of the end of the company’s “Big Brother” culture. Bethune wanted to show employees that they would now have permission to think for themselves.

Lo and behold, between 1994 and 2001, Bethune led one of the most impressive turnarounds in US corporate history and created an organization that began to not only scale up, but thrive. Until it was taken over in 2010 by United Airlines. Continental was an attractive target to airtarget to airlines driven by consolidation in the industry.

I find many organizations don’t think deeply enough about their culture when they’re in the process of building their vision, choosing instead to focus on things that feel somehow more concrete like revenue goals, growth targets, and being the leading something or other in the industry. Organizational scholars didn’t start paying attention to culture until the beginning of the 1980s, in large part because culture was often experienced as ephemeral, intangible, and unmeasurable. Culture refers to the taken-for-granted values, underlying assumptions, expectations, and definitions of the present in an organization. It represents “the way” and provides a prevailing sense of identity to employees. The culture is the living, breathing—and often invisible—part of what keeps the company aloft. So, as you can imagine, when researchers began to grasp that culture was the crux of organizational performance, it changed everything.

Now, culture is accepted as a critical determinant of success. Company culture isn’t static; it’s a muscle that needs to be exercised, trained, and changed as needed. A healthy company is not stagnant, so naturally a company’s culture has to grow and adapt for the organization to be able to keep moving forward. Without consistent maintenance of its culture, a company is at risk of ending up where the pre-Bethune Continental Airlines was—which is why culture is both a central element of vision itself as well as the framework for building one.

In my research and consulting experiences, I’ve found a glaring omission in organizations that claimed to have a vision but were not using that vision as a management process. The disconnect was apparent: the desired culture was never articulated. Perhaps the organization would go as far as posting a nicely worded statement in the office kitchen or corporate boardroom, but the executive group rarely held one another accountable for ensuring that “the way things are done around here” was consistent with their vision.

We often hear about strong and weak cultures in corporate jargon. But what do those distinctions actually mean? Strong cultures are those that support the organizational vision, those in which everyone agrees about the importance of specific, high-performance values tied to the vision. In these organizations, you can feel the energy and the collective drive for success. Weak cultures, then, are those in which little agreement exists. Like the former culture at Continental, the effort toward the vision is dissipated through conflicting agendas, blaming, and poor communication.

A culture is the human glue that brings people together and mobilizes them toward the vision. In order to understand a company’s culture, try starting with these four questions:

  1. What do we think is important?
  2. How do we think things should be done here?
  3. Who are the people who personify our culture and serve as role models?
  4. What do we do to influence people through our written and unwritten policies?

In the end, it all comes down to behavior—as I said earlier, “the way we things are done around here.” As the company changes, so will the answers to these questions. Nonetheless, the importance of the culture will never diminish.

The Mindset That Will Take You from Vision to Reality

  Do you have a vision for your organization for 2016? If you do, you’ve crossed the first hurdle, but for many organizations I’ve worked with, putting these visions into practice is the more challenging piece of the puzzle. I’ve found that there are three particular areas of emotional dissonance that can seriously impede the vision process. It can cost an organization valuable time—and even lead to overall failure—if each key participant doesn’t embrace these three powerful ideas right from the start:

1. Live in the past, present, and future simultaneously.

Visions work when those who develop them are able to constantly juggle the past, present, and future. A study of firms with rapid, sustained growth found that their most senior executives were able to stay focused on the state of the firm’s desired future. Yet, at the same time, they remained attentive to day-to-day activities that continually reinforced the vision and philosophy guiding their growth (e.g. organizational processes like the structure, culture, and people processes), which created a powerful framework to support the vision itself. With a clear and robust vision as their beacon, these teams also held on to what had worked in the past, modifying or supplementing existing structures and processes, rather than completely replacing old techniques that worked well simply for the sake of starting fresh. These executives had the ability to continually analyze and reconcile the firms’ recent past with their intended future.

2. Acknowledge emotion and disorientation.

Strategic vision depends on the ability to feel one’s way into an intended future. It cannot be developed by looking coldly at words and numbers on pieces of paper or computer screens. In working with executives who truly want to create adaptive, growth-oriented organizations, I’ve found that they begin the process first by looking deep within themselves. They need to know who they are and what they want their organizations to be so that when they articulate their vision to those who work for them, it comes from a conviction that combines their personal need for action with a larger purpose. This signals to themselves and everyone around them that they are open to changing the way they see themselves and the company. For most, this part can be scary as hell.

Leaders who successfully implement their visions don’t simply think about themselves in the context of the future they’re defining. They allow themselves to feel enthusiasm and passion for that future, which reinforces their commitment and determination and that of those around them. This makes it easier to overcome the often-daunting challenges and roadblocks that prevent the vision from becoming a living reality.

Niall FitzGerald, former cochairman of Unilever and cocreator of its vision-driven transformation process, spoke openly about the abyss for him. “You feel anticipation, even deep uneasiness, but the excitement of the vision calls on you to take that leap, then build a bridge for others . . . At Unilever, the bridge we needed to build was all about people: we needed to tap into their passion; we needed them to see their business in entirely new ways; and we needed them to develop very different leadership styles.”

Antony Burgmans, FitzGerald’s counterpart, reflected similarly, “As we launched into our growth strategy, I realized that I didn’t feel right: something was missing . . . What I saw was that even though we had an excellent change strategy, and an inspiring vision, what was really required to bring about change at Unilever was a new culture, a new leadership mindset, and new behaviors.”

In other words, as Burgmans was to discover, what Unilever needed was passion at the top to fuel change throughout the organization. Innovation and risk-taking are necessary for crossing the abyss and bringing an ambitious vision to life.

Conceptualizing a vision raises goal-oriented thinking to the next level—one that may easily induce feelings of inadequacy. Too often, business is a place reserved only for cold, practical reality and dealing with the problems of the present. But visions begin as dreams of the kind of life we want, the things we want to create, or the part of the world we want to change. Embracing them requires a level of vulnerability that many executives find hard to bear.

3. Accept that the process is, by nature, imprecise, frustrating, and sometimes tedious.

The process of developing a vision runs counter to the way most people in organizations normally operate. Visioning cannot occur without starts, stops, and some confusion. Confusion is a natural reaction when confronted with an entirely new way of doing things. This is merely a sign that the brain is trying to process new information. Unfortunately, those in senior-most positions too often relate confusion to a lack of mastery, to not being professional, and hence avoid it at all costs. Acknowledgment that visioning is not a clean, easy undertaking will help overcome resistance to creating a full-range vision.

Just as you would never go run a marathon without any training, nor should you jump into the process of creating a strategic vision without any preparation. Making sure that you and your team know what to expect when heading into this exciting—but often unsettling—process will help set you up for success.

What the Seahawks Can Teach Us About Combatting Mean

It’s hard to think of an organization more rooted in the kind of toxic masculine stereotypes that typify the mean man than the NFL. And yet, one of its most successful franchises of the last few years, the Seattle Seahawks, serves as a prime example of authentic leadership at its best. “The hero and the psychopath may be twigs on the same genetic branch,” wrote the late David Lykken, a University of Minnesota professor of psychiatry and psychology. When we look at it this way, it’s unsurprising to see this dichotomy playing out on the football field: the beating heart of American hero worship. It’s true that both the hero and the psychopath possess a fearless temperament. But whereas the successful psychopath is the product of a culture in which meanness has run amok, the hero gives us insight into what it looks like to be successful without resorting to meanness.

We’ve examined on this blog numerous organizations in which mean rules and no one takes action, where the combination of outsize ambition and lack of empathy causes suffering. But what does it look like when ambition is channeled appropriately? When risk is part of the game but it’s not everything? When people are treated as people, not objects?

The Seattle Seahawks have an organizational philosophy that closely mirrors the cultures and practices of the Best Companies on Fortune’s list and gives us a peek into the potential antidote for organizational meanness. And nowhere is meanness more pervasive and tolerated than in professional sports. When considering potential draft picks (job candidates in this context), the Seahawks look at the language used by the players and cut from the pool those who lean on negative language or finger-pointing. They want a culture of accountability and optimism, and they start by getting the right people in the room.

The team’s coach, Pete Carroll, seems the antithesis of what we think of when we picture NFL coaches, screaming on the sideline, veins bulging, faces red. In a style that belies a fervent commitment to winning, Carroll is all about encouragement, not laying blame. He gives the individual men on the team the freedom to be themselves and sees himself as on a constant journey to identify and maximize the uniqueness of every player and coach. He is committed to a nurturing environment that allows people to be themselves while still being accountable to the team. This is a leader who recognizes that the best results will come from having happy, healthy men on his team. Carroll incorporates meditation and yoga into the team’s workouts, and yelling and swearing are strongly discouraged.

The top-down civility of Pete Carroll has a tremendous effect on all of his staff as well as his players. Tom Cable, the former coach of the Oakland Raiders with a colorful mean-man past, changed his coaching style after working with Pete Carroll as the assistant head coach and offensive line coach. “If I go ballistic on a guy because he dropped his outside hand or missed an underneath stunt, who is wrong? I am,” Cable says now. “I’m attacking his self-confidence and he’s learning that if he screws up, he is going to get yelled at. If you make a mistake here, it’s going to get fixed.”

Compare this with a speech given during the 2013 Rookie Symposium by Chris Ballard, former director of player personnel for the Kansas City Chiefs, who told the newly minted young players, “Nobody cares about your problems. The fans don’t care. The media doesn’t care. And ownership doesn’t care. They care about results.” This speech is hardly surprising in the no-whining-be-a-man culture of the NFL, but it’s still shockingly callous considering that it was delivered a scant seven months after a member of that same NFL team, Jovan Belcher, shot his girlfriend nine times before driving to the team’s facility and killing himself in the parking lot.

So what are the implications of the Seahawks’ unique culture of getting results while making the players’ health and well-being a top priority? Namely that being civil is not only better, but more effective. This idea, encouragingly, is starting to catch on. As many mean men as I’ve encountered in my work, I’ve been pleasantly surprised over the past few years by certain clients’ sensitivities to rooting out abusive management. Many civil entrepreneurs running firms in aggressive industries—such as hedge funds and tech companies—were shocked to discover the abuse that some of their senior managers heaped on employees. It doesn’t take a mean CEO to create a toxic climate given the proclivity of certain industries to attract mean men like jackals to fresh meat. But if the situation is flipped in these aggressive fields and the leader is civil, then the abuser is often rooted out and crushed.

In professional worlds where meanness is more than tolerated, leaders like Pete Carroll give us hope for change. If a pro football team can make it to the Super Bowl on the tailwind of civility, imagine what other organizations might accomplish.

Lessons from the Indefensible Dov Charney

Dov Charney, the enfant terrible of the apparel industry, has been (dis)gracing headlines again lately as the company he created, American Apparel, files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Though he was fired well over a year ago, Charney remains a threat to the company as they attempt to restructure. Charney’s outrageous behavior has been well known for years, so one might ask why he still thinks he has a leg to stand on. But seeing how long his “misconduct”—a rather light word for what the mother lode of horrifying text messages, e-mails, photos, and videos Charney saved to the company servers revealed—went on unchecked, it’s little wonder Charney considers himself above reproach. How did it get this far? On June 18, 2014, a sweltering summer day in New York City,  the board of American Apparel gathered in a small conference room at the Times Square offices of the company’s legal counsel. Ten hours later, theyemerged with a firm decision to remove Dov Charney as chairman and fire him as president and CEO of American Apparel.

Those ten taxing hours in the conference room were spent hashing out their reasons while Charney relentlessly and unsuccessfully defended his case. But the board stood behind its decision.

The board’s coup left American Apparel facing an uncertain future. “The company has grown a lot bigger than just one person and the liabilities Dov brought to the situation began to far outweigh his strengths,” said Allan Mayer, the board’s new co-chairman.

What prompted the urgentmove was news that Charney continued to psychologically harass a former employee who’d charged him with sexual abuse. An internal investigation unearthed new details about his salacious behavior—only this time, the board of American Apparel could no longer afford the potential cost. For years creditors had been growing anxious about the company. The board believed even the suggestion of new controversy might spook stockholders, who had watched the value of their investment crater. In the spring of 2014, the stock price had plummeted to a low of $0.47  a share, down from $15.00 in 2007.

When the markets opened the next day and news of Charney’s firing swept the media, the stock prices jumped 7 percent. By the ninth day after his firing, the stock had risen nearly 30 percent, a reflection of how the market felt about the aggressive action the board took against him.

It’s not surprising that Charney hasn’t gone quietly into that good night. Boards firing founders is messy stuff. In the case of Charney, press reports from Mayer and others framed the decision as the ethically and morally sound one, a message that they would no longer look the other way. But if that was the case, what took so long? Investigations and legal charges of Charney’s abusive, racist, sexist, and all-around disgusting behavior had been public for more than a decade. The consensus among many observers is that Charney was fired for driving the company into the ground, not for behaving badly.

Founders being fired from their companies is not unheard of—remember, Jobs was fired from Apple—but if we believe they get axed because of their bad behavior, we’ve got it backwards. The misconduct of mean men ultimately makes them ineffective as leaders and takes a toll on the companies they create,  often causing serious, lasting damage. And what helps a founder become so successful in launching a company little to do with the managerial skills it takes to scale the business and keep it healthy in the long term.

So many CEOs are fired from young companies because investors often hold all the cards as major or majority shareholders. And many veteran investors, as savvy students of management, know that companies need emotionally intelligent leaders to reach their potential.

It’s a very different story, though, when founders hold the cards as majority or dominant shareholders. As one study of “high-flying founders” and board composition showed, “Successful founding CEOs . . . show a tendency towards adopting weak boards.”

American Apparel is a prime example of this. Charney was the dominant stakeholder in the company, and he bolstered his control by filling the board with weak directors who followed his lead. What undid him, though, is that he came to own less of the company as it went downhill—and thus had less control over the board.

By the time he was finally fired, the firm was like a strung-out junkie. It was mainlining cash infusions and jonesing for more. As the firm started going into a tailspin, private equity firms were the only ones willing to deal. The greater American Apparel’s addiction to cash infusions grew, the greater the need to find private equity firms willing to take the higher risks. In most cases like this, an additional cost typically extracted for these fixes are demands from lenders to put their own guys on the board. Charney, obsessed with control, maneuvered around this. What he did lose, a result of his scramble to find cash, was ownership; his shares became diluted as lenders demanded some skin in the game. His reputation made lenders skittish about working with his company, and even with some loans costing as much as 20 percent in annualized interest, many lenders outright refused to get involved.

It finally became apparent that the business could not generate enough cash to sustain its high interest payments. With new complaints of Charney’s misbehavior surfacing regularly, the board finally had their epiphany: Charney’s presence had become thoroughly toxic to the business.

In the case of Charney, as leaks to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal would report, the decision to dump him ultimately came down to the horrific publicity (but not necessarily the behavior itself) he was generating. Bad press, in the board’s view, was jeopardizing the firm’s ability to find more sources of funding. The board made a plain and simple business decision to cut the firm’s losses withCharney. In the end, Charney wasn’t fired for being terrible; he was fired for bringing attention to it.

Now it seems American Apparel might never be free of the despicable Charney. But considering how long the board and investors let him get away with murder, perhaps that’s poetic justice.

The Lurid Scandal of DC’s Most Powerful Rabbi

As we discussed last week, mean men at the helm of a company are bad enough but at the head of a spiritual institution can be even more insidious, affecting the personal lives of congregants and doing lasting damage to the communities they’re involved with. Mean men of faith are able to exploit the vulnerabilities of their victims on a deeper level than any bad boss could, as congregants often trust them with their most personal, intimate details and place the utmost faith in them. Barry Freundel joined the big leagues of the Modern Orthodox movement in 1989 when he was hired to lead one of Washington’s most prestigious synagogues Kesher Israel, which has included cabinet secretaries, members of Congress, and innumerable other influential Beltway professionals as members. In addition to his rabbinical work, Freundel held adjunct faculty positions at American University, Georgetown, and the University of Maryland. He was a visiting scholar at Princeton, Yale, and Cornell and guest lectured at Columbia and the University of Chicago, cutting a wide swath of influence in academia as well as in religious life.

It became crystal clear that Freundel wasn’t the paragon of virtue he appeared to be when he copped to a plea deal in February 2015 for a lurid charge of voyeurism, admitting guilt to peeping at fifty-two women while they went to the mikvah, the sacred ritual bath into which converts to Orthodox Judaism must wade. He had watched hundreds of women undress and shower via a small video camera embedded in a clock radio on the shelf. Prosecutors say he spied on one hundred more women, but some incidents fall outside the statute of limitations. As the story unfolded, it revealed a very dark side to Freundel indeed, and his voyeurism was the tip of the iceberg.

“Certainly, it’s hard to anticipate that he was doing this thing specifically,” noted former rabbinic colleague Rabbi Joshua Maroof, “but Rabbi Freundel definitely had a pattern of abusing power.” Conversion candidates had complained to Maroof that they found Freundel “manipulative, intimidating, and threatening.” One former Georgetown congregant was quoted as calling Freundel “brusque and abrasive” and noted that if he disagreed “he would step all over you, make you feel like an ant, try to squash you and shut you out.”

His abuses of power went far beyond the sexual allegations. One of Freundel’s victims, Bethany Mandel, told the Daily Beast that the public didn’t know the half of it. “People keep calling him a pervert and yes, he’s a pervert, but he’s also a power hungry sociopath,” Mandel said. “It wasn’t about porn. It was about power, and this was additional power no one knew he had.”

At the time, Freundel not only was vice president of the Washington region’s body of Orthodox rabbis, but was ascending within the world’s largest body of Modern Orthodox rabbis, the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA). By the mid-2000s, he was chairman of a key committee charged with standardizing the systems for conversion. Debates within Orthodoxy over who gets to decide someone’s

“Jewishness” had become very heated, both in the United States and in Israel, and Freundel was a major influencer.

Given his status as one of the country’s experts on conversion, congregants didn’t question him when he created a new concept at Kesher Israel: “practice dunks,” which he required of his young female conversion students, despite there being no such mandate in Judaism. He also allegedly urged college students he taught—including non-Jews and single women, not normally allowed at an Orthodox mikvah—to come try out the mikvah, flouting basic Orthodox norms around the ritual bath.

Two new lawsuits in mid-2015 were filed to hold Modern Orthodoxy’s largest rabbinic organization—the RCA—responsible in the scandal. They both alleged that the Rabbinical Council of America and Freundel’s own synagogue were aware of inappropriate conduct by Freundel long before the discovery of the hidden camera. The class action lawsuits charged that the RCA and Congregation Kesher Israel should have taken measures to remove him from his positions of responsibility based on his earlier behavior. This is the pivot point where the influence and power accumulated by men like Freundel really run amok. The higher these men rise, the fewer checks and balances seem to be in place for potential abuse.

“The real issue with [Freundel] is, he was just bragging about the amount of power he had,” said Steven J. Kelly, an attorney with the law firm Silverman, Thompson, Slutkin & White, who is representing the plaintiffs in the earlier of the two suits. “These women needed [his] stamp to get married in some cases . . . to do all sorts of things.”

Both suits claim that the total number of Freundel victims is far larger than the number of accusers who came forward.

An RCA conversion committee that Freundel headed, known as the Geirus Policy and Standards Committee (GPS), was responsible for implementing a new and controversial conversion process that centralized all conversion authority with a few selected rabbinical courts. Prior to 2006, individual rabbis within the RCA were permitted to convert on their own authority.

Here’s the rub: Freundel was not only the head of the RCA’s conversion committee, but also the head of a regional rabbinical court tasked by that committee with approving conversions in the Washington area. The lawsuit filed by attorney Kelly’s plaintiffs alleges that Freundel used that combination to put himself in a unique position “to sexually and otherwise exploit converts, over whom he exercised great power and control.”

One of the plaintiffs in the suit, Emma Shulevitz, claims that while she met with Freundel about her desire to convert to Judaism, the rabbi “made repeated references to [her] ‘looks’ and did not seem interested in discussing her spiritual development.” The suit also alleges that Freundel “bragged about his prominence within the RCA and touted his relationship with the Chief Rabbi in Israel.”

When Shulevitz later said she planned to find a new rabbi to convert her, Freundel allegedly responded, “Fine, but it won’t be accepted in Israel.” Rabbi Marc Angel, a longtime critic of the RCA’s new conversion system, told the Forward—a prominent publication with an American Jewish audience—that the allegations, if true, reaffirm concerns about the centralization of conversion powers. “This is a bad example of the fears we have had all along,” Angel said. “If you concentrate too much power in few hands, then there is bound to be abuse, and this just confirms our deepest fears.”

Working under a mean boss like Peter Arnell or Dov Charney can certainly have lasting impacts, but there is almost nothing that can cut quite so deep as abuse within a religious community. From Mark Driscoll to the abuses within the Catholic church to the sordid downfall of Freundel, these often secretive communities rely on the vigilance of their members and those victims brave enough to risk it all by coming forward.

Strength in Numbers: Lessons from the Downfall of Mark Driscoll

First, I have a confession to make. I know I promised you a full-on mean woman this week, but when I reexamined my top candidate, she simply didn’t fit the bill. The woman in question has done some reprehensible things, to be certain, but held up next to men like Charney, Arnell, and Jobs? She’s a pussycat. The challenge to find a major league mean woman is telling, but I vow to keep working on it. For now, I want to return my focus to combatting mean. The strategies I’ve shared so far have been geared toward employees of mean men who find they’re unable to leave their situation as immediately as they’d like and need some coping skills. But what happens when it’s not just your financial and career well-being that’s threatened by the mean man but your entire community, and your friends, family, and faith are on the line?

Mark Driscoll started a Bible study class in his home in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle in 1996. By August of 2014, he’d grown his operation, Mars Hill, into a megachurch, at its height counting thirteen thousand attendees across five states. He preached to a packed crowd at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field (home of the Seahawks), guested on prime-time national television, threw out the first pitch at Mariners’ baseball games, and turned his brand into a franchise. Brand is Driscoll’s word, by the way, not mine. Among the other Mars Hill pastors, he would often refer to himself as “The Brand,” making it crystal clear that Mars Hill would always be about “me in the pulpit holding the Bible.”

His precision branding, matched with his ability to scale his enterprise, would make any business entrepreneur blush with envy.

Driscoll appealed to the young families who showed up to worship with him in jeans and flip-flops, those disenchanted with more established versions of organized Christian movements. Known as the “hipster pastor” with his charismatic, edgy rhetoric, dressed-down blue jeans style, and family of seven, Driscoll knew and embodied his market. He had a reverence for Jesus and a seeming irreverence for everything (and everyone) else. He enjoyed being outrageous, and it worked for him. Yoga, for example, was “demonic.” Increasingly, his writing and sermons took on strong misogynistic overtones: he famously called America a “pussified nation” and claimed that mainstream Christianity characterized Jesus as “an effeminate-looking dude,” and a “neutered and limp-wristed Sky Fairy of pop culture.”

Driscoll declared that anointing a woman as an Episcopal bishop was akin to choosing “a fluffy baby bunny rabbit as their next bishop to lead God’s men.” He joked onstage that wives who denied their husbands oral sex whenever it would please them were sinful, his unique interpretation of a verse from the Song of Solomon.

His outward style charmed many, but behind the scenes, he was often vicious, abusive, and controlling. Those who disagreed with him were shunned by the church, ensuring that other members would know what was in store if they came forward.

Fearful of his influence, many church members felt forced to complain indirectly or through third parties. But Driscoll’s strategy for defusing the discontent was to claim that he wasn’t sure how to respond since his dissenters remained anonymous.

Singularly, disaffected congregants felt powerless against the megachurch, a dynamic Driscoll was counting on. What he underestimated, however, was what would happen when they banded together.

As complaints about Driscoll reached a fever pitch, a large crowd started protesting during Sunday services, holding signs reading “We Are Not Anonymous.” Others started to directly and openly call for Driscoll’s resignation.

After eighteen years of stunning growth at Mars Hill, the groundswell of disgruntled congregants began to drive other churchgoers away. Within months, attendance and giving had plummeted so fast that church elders announced it would have to close several Seattle branches and cut its staff thirty to forty percent.

Driscoll had a knack, like many mean men, for deflecting blame. In 2013, Christian radio host Janet Mefferd accused him of plagiarizing fourteen pages of his book A Call to Resurgence from another preacher. She pushed Driscoll during an interview to be contrite. He apologized but peppered his concession with indignation.

He got in yet more book-related trouble in 2014 when he was accused of misappropriating $200,000 in church funds to get his book Real Marriage on the New York Times bestseller list via shady marketing tactics.

Each new accusation emboldened more critics, and by August 2014, Driscoll was hounded by the new accounts that emerged almost daily of his bullying, abuse, and outrageous behavior with congregants.

Driscoll resigned in October 2014 amid allegations of emotional abusiveness, plagiarism, and misogyny—with congregants fleeing to other houses of worship or losing faith altogether.

Driscoll ultimately wasn’t taken down by the church’s governing body but by those who—in small groups or individually—found their power in numbers and through their collective voice of public dissent. Driscoll’s charisma and normally effective ability to flip he blame to deflect culpability was drowned out beneath the indignation of those he’d harmed.

Sure, there were Christian media heavyweights calling him out for plagiarizing others’ work and his smarmy misogyny. But what brought him down was his arrogance and abusiveness, as well as those current and former followers who shouldered the risk of condemnation from others and stood together and exercised their power.

The pattern of abusive behavior employed by mean men to get and retain power means that there will inevitably be a long line of victims in their wake. Alone, each victim may feel powerless, but together—as we saw with Driscoll and with the recent Bill Cosby imbroglio—they can be a powerful force.

The Irony of Accountability: It’s About the Money, Not the Meanness

The best evidence of how much latitude mean men are given lies in the stories of how most of them finally fall. Rarely are they brought down for being mean; often they are ousted only when they stop hitting home runs—or when they take their bat and bludgeon someone so publicly and so badly that keeping them around becomes a liability. Dov Charney is a poster boy for the irony of accountability: he wasn’t forced out of American Apparel because of his well-known and longstanding record of sexist and outrageous behavior; he was forced out because he was driving the company into financial ruin. He is living proof that in today’s era of bottom-line triumphalism, as long as you are making a lot of money for shareholders, investors, and owners, it’s OK to be an ogre.

Peter Arnell heaped abuse on employees for years, and Omnicom—the company that had purchased his entrepreneurial branding firm, the Arnell Group and trusted him to lead it—turned a blind eye. It was only when Arnell began to take embarrassing and costly advertising missteps that Omnicom “suddenly” woke up. What sunk this infamously nasty CEO? It wasn’t his violent outbursts within the office or even the lawsuit filed against him by four former female employees—it was orange juice.

When the Arnell Group won the PepsiCo contract to design new logos for both Pepsi and Tropicana, the design for the former drew mixed reactions, but the design for the latter caused thousands of Americans to practically lose their breakfast. Customers complained that the new labeling was so different they couldn’t find Tropicana on the shelf.

The blogosphere exploded with criticism aimed at Arnell: “Give us back our orange with a straw in it!” One blogger went so far as to call him “the Bernie Madoff of brands.”

Just weeks after the new design’s launch, Tropicana announced it would revert to its old packaging. The company lost millions of dollars.

It was around this time that the infamous Mona Lisa memo Arnell had written to PepsiCo was made public. With its references to the famous painting—and to the Parthenon, the golden ratio, the relativity of space and time, the “gravitational pull” of a can of Pepsi on a supermarket shelf, and the rate of expansion of the universe—some thought the memo was a joke. It wasn’t.

Most people in Arnell’s position would have hidden in shame and embarrassment or offered an apology to the American public, but as is typical of narcissistic mean men, Arnell responded to critics by saying: “What the hell—I got paid a lot of money.”

He was fired soon thereafter from the group that bore his name but has recently resurfaced. We’ll see how that goes.

We know it takes a while for bullies to get their comeuppance. Mean men rarely retract their claws; they dig deep into their organization’s flesh. They possess their company’s culture. Demon, monster, beast, ogre, asshole—there are multiple labels for mean men, and they’ve heard them all and do not care.

Former Sunbeam CEO Al Dunlap, known as Chainsaw Al, was notorious for his mass layoffs, but as long as share prices rose, none of the higher-ups were asking him to stop. Interestingly, Jon Ronson interviewed Dunlap for his book The Psychopath Test, and, though admitting he is not a psychologist, reported that “Mr. Dunlap scored positive in category after category.” Ronson noted: “The morning continued with Al redefining a great many psychopathic traits as leadership positives.”

Longtime business journalist and editor John A. Byrne wrote: “In all my years of reporting, I had never come across an executive as manipulative, ruthless, and destructive as Al Dunlap. Until the Securities and Exchange Commission barred him from ever serving as an officer of a public corporation, Dunlap sucked the very life and soul out of companies and people. He stole dignity, purpose, and sense out of organizations and replaced those ideals with fear and intimidation.”

Byrne knew how Dunlap felt about him too: “He once told a reporter for the New York Times, ‘If he were on fire, I wouldn’t piss on him.’”

What did it take to get Dunlap to leave? Numbers.

Chip Wilson, founder of Lululemon, is best known for making outrageous comments, insulting women’s bodies—insisting some women were not made to wear the clothes his company produces—and claiming it was “funny” to hear Japanese people talk about his brand “because they have a hard time pronouncing their Ls.” Children who lived on the streets or in developing nations, Wilson believed, needed money—so perhaps child labor laws should be loosened.

This inhumane man got away with saying all this until the public had enough. Lululemon made the 2014 Ten Most Hated Companies in America list, and stock prices dropped. Perhaps Wilson’s behavior is less offensive than that of the others mentioned here, but it is still not suited to the top of the C-suite.

Mean men are everywhere, and only a small portion of the worst offenders are in jail. Many, like Arnell, remain dormant for a spell, only to resurface like the undefeatable creatures they are. For a nation fixated on teaching its children not to bully one another in school, we seem to swallow the adult-bully-as-workplace-genius pill whole.

But social media has mobilized power to the people. Non-shareholders, non-investors, and non-yes-men and women can raise significantly more public outcry now than they could in the past—meaning that some mean men are being held accountable sooner than they might have been just five years ago.

Perhaps the tolerance for psychopaths who belittle, berate, harass, and destroy others is decreasing—especially as study after study shows that this kind of behavior is ineffective. But any tolerance for this level of cruelty in the workplace begs the question: Why do we continue to accept it at all?

Profiles in Mean: Harvey Weinstein

Throughout the seventies, Harvey Weinstein, his brother, Bob, and their friend Corky Burger worked as concert promoters in upstate New York. In the early eighties, Harvey and Bob decided to try out the film industry. Most movie lovers will know how that story goes. Miramax started out on a very tight budget. After the breakout success of The Secret Policeman’s Other Ball, the Weinstein brothers grew their business slowly through the 1980s, producing foreign and artistic films. By the end of the decade, after receiving accolades for The Thin Blue Line and Sex, Lies, and Videotape, they controlled a large and profitable company.

While Miramax was an enormous success, by many accounts it was also a brutal place to work. Myrna Chagnard, who is described in Peter Biskind’s Vanity Fair article “The Weinstein Way” as a “hard woman with a don’t-fuck-with-me attitude,” says she almost had a nervous breakdown after working for Harvey and Bob.

“It almost destroyed me,” Chagnard said. “I went on workmen’s comp and stayed out for three or four months. I was a basket case.”

Former Miramax publicist Mark Urman said, “The culture at Miramax was very fierce. It was all about aggression. Nothing was ever good enough. Nothing was ever enough, period.”

And Eleanor Reznikoff, another former publicist said, “Working there was like having your feet held to the fire. My first experience with Harvey was when he was flying out for a premiere. He would usually arrive the day of the screening, and he called from the plane and said, ‘When my plane lands, if I don’t have 25 tickets in my hand, you’re fired!’”

Employees were genuinely afraid of both brothers. On a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the scariest, Bob was probably at 9.5. And Harvey? Off the chart.

Alison Brantley, former head of acquisitions, said that when Harvey became angry “he would kind of puff up, like the barometric pressure had changed, so you’d think he was going to explode. . . . It wasn’t like he was going to throw chairs. It was more you thought he was going to go right for you, strangle you.”

Harvey was aware that his behavior was problematic, and he has—more than once—told reporters he knows he is considered an “asshole.” He has blamed his ill temper on a poor diet and once agreed to see an anger management specialist, but he has never offered to hand over the reins of power.

After Disney acquired Miramax for $60 million in 1993, people in the industry hoped the Weinsteins might finally be forced to change their tune—that their new corporate bosses would surely demand they curb the cruelty and tone down the outrage. Alas, this never happened: as long as Miramax continued to generate box office hits and profits—which they did—Disney let the brothers run things the way they always had.

If anything, things got uglier. In 2000, Harvey reportedly dragged a New York Observer reporter out into the street and shouted, “It’s good that I’m the fucking sheriff of this fucking lawless piece-of-shit town.”

Top Disney executives may have considered the Weinstein brothers “pigs,” as one observer put it, but because they attracted Hollywood’s top talent—and made piles of money—they were left alone. There were no repercussions for the Brothers Mean.

It’s not uncommon for top executives and board members who work with men like Harvey and Bob Weinstein to look the other way. For most, this level of raging, threatening, and generally acting like petulant boys in ill-fitting suits wouldn’t fly. But the main objective in the highest echelon of Hollywood is to generate growth and profits, and values such as basic civility and common courtesy come second—or last.

Running people into the ground until their physical or mental health is at risk is a practice not uncommon to mean men like Harvey Weinstein, and people do stick around—until they literally can take no more.

It’s my opinion that men who can’t fathom the possibility of running a company in a collaborative manner show a lack not just of humanity, but also of emotional intelligence. The Weinsteins might be billionaires, they might have an army of minions, and they might not care one whit that their reputation as SOBs precedes them. The world may remember the Weinstein brothers for their work, but how will they be remembered by those who had the dubious pleasure of their acquaintance?

Why Mean Men Get a Pass from the Media

The media can be a force for exposing mean men, but it could be a lot more powerful. Even stories that strive to be a drumbeat for action come across as sounding as hollow as a toddler’s toy bongo. Rarely does the press linger long enough on business leaders’ abusive behavior. Walter Isaacson did serious damage to Steve Jobs’s reputation by revealing what a terrible person he was, but Isaacson’s book came out after Jobs had passed. And while plenty of other writers and former colleagues had chronicled and spoken out over the years about Jobs’s personal flaws, the mainstream business press seldom drew on those reports in a way that would have given the public a more balanced portrayal of Jobs as a leader.

In 2009, for example, Fortune named him CEO of the decade. Beyond briefly noting that he was a “tyrannical perfectionist,” the fawning article had nothing specific to say about his treatment of people. The stock-option backdating scandal was mentioned only in passing, quoting Jobs as saying that it was “completely out of character for Apple.” Overall, the CEO of the decade emerged from the article as a towering hero.

Of course, some business leaders do receive negative press for their bad behavior. Gossip-driven online publications such as Gawker, the Drudge Report, and, to an extent, Business Insider act like an extra set of eyes on the streets, at high-society gatherings, and in boardrooms—and no one is exempt from their critical gaze. But still, even the most serious of offenses are relegated to click-bait status. In addition, reports of abusive or offensive behavior are often accompanied shortly thereafter by lavish praise and the rationalization that being a monster simply comes with the territory of being a genius.

Case in point: Harvey Weinstein. His assault on a reporter and his threats to the chair of the DNC were such high-profile outbursts that they were impossible to ignore, but articles recounting these instances tended to be positive overall. In one New York magazine profile, David Carr wrote: “All the legendary bad behavior cannot obscure an objective fact: Harvey Weinstein is a cultural good.” For all the “titans” he threw around in reference to Weinstein, Carr might as well have written cultural god.

Larry Ellison is another leader whose bad behavior has been widely noted by the business press only to be swiftly excused. As one reporter wrote about Ellison: “By all accounts, he is a bad listener and a big talker, whose brash, take-no-prisoners approach tends to alienate employees and customers alike. Yet, in the past 35 years, the jet-flying, sailboat-racing renegade has built Oracle into one of the most important tech firms on the planet, with annual revenues of $27 billion.”

In other words, so what if a guy would make the worst friend and golfing partner on earth and you would never let your daughter date him—he’s got great toys!

So why does the media tend to overlook or excuse lousy or abusive behavior?

Like so many of the board directors and investors who surround mean men, business reporters tend to focus on a leader’s short-term results rather than their character. Tech reporters in particular tend to be interested in innovation and what’s new, regardless of how nasty the creator behind it is. Rarely is thought given to whether a leader’s style will drive sustainable results.

Personality traits of business leaders only get attention to the degree that they feed into a bigger narrative—one that includes jets, sailboats, and multiple zeroes after the dollar sign. Many business reporters overlook the fact that leadership style and organizational culture can be central indicators of a company’s health and chances of success. For instance, the toxic culture that Mark Pincus created at Zynga started to get attention only when the company began to struggle, even though his behavior had been well known amongst his cohort for years. His board even saw fit to reinstate him recently.

Business reporters—like many of us raised to believe it’s a dog-eat-dog world—may buy into the assumption that good leaders need to be brutes in order to get results. Sure, when the going gets tough, the tough need to get going, but just because business is competitive and the stakes are high, does this mean sharp elbows are always necessary? Is doing whatever it takes to survive—including driving straight over others to get to the top—always an asset?

So much of what we read or see on television leads us to believe that the answer to the questions above is yes.

Granted, some reporters do attempt to present balanced portrayals of mean geniuses, and it isn’t always easy to get sources to open up about abusive behavior. But if you watched the first season of House of Cards, you know it takes nerves and perseverance to get the full scoop. Digging up damaging information about a leader’s personal style and behavior can quickly place a journalist’s press pass at risk.

The fact that an entrepreneur is a bullying egomaniac may seem like a side note to some, or fodder for an over-the-top tale meant for the big screen à la The Wolf of Wall Street. But if those who have access to the inner chambers of the mean men who are in charge of our nation’s wealth and culture are not acting as watchdogs, how is the American public being protected from those who would shred it to pieces?

Profiles in Mean: Mark Pincus

Mark Pincus, best known as the founder of Zynga Inc., has never played well with others. The Chicago native began his career at Lazard Frères, an august financial firm with 150 years of tradition and a polished internal culture: a disastrous fit for Pincus. As he later told Details magazine: “I went out of my way to tell people they were stupid if I thought they were. People loved me or hated me. In hindsight I was forcing myself to be an entrepreneur—I was shutting all the doors.” How delightful.

After Lazard, Pincus eventually landed in the MBA program at Harvard. He recalled later that he was the only one in his class who didn’t already have a job lined up at graduation, having not been offered a position at Bain & Company, where he’d interned. It was clear by then that Pincus was not cut out for large organizations. “Even if I’d wanted to work at Goldman Sachs, they weren’t going to hire me, because I was saying things like ‘That’s a dumb question’ when I was asked something stupid in the interviews. I just didn’t have a lot of respect for authority.”

He started his first company, FreeLoader, in 1995. The company, which offered a “push technology” service that downloaded webpages for dial-up customers and presented them at broadband speeds, went on to be acquired by online news site Individual Inc. for $38 million.

After kicking around for a bit, Pincus began his second start-up,, a remote tech-support company. It was here that Pincus’s reputation for being difficult started to gain steam, and his obsession with control emerged. Control is a serious concern for entrepreneurs who use outside funds, of course, as they often end up sharing power with venture capitalists who have their own agenda and vision. Like many young CEOs, Pincus became paranoid.

As started to scale up, the VCs behind the company became less comfortable with Pincus’s leadership abilities and abrasive management style. In 1999, two years after founding, he was replaced as CEO.

He remained involved in as chairman until 2003, when he left to cofound the social networking site Tribe had a very bumpy ride, going through three CEOs in a few years. Again, problems surfaced with Pincus.

Tribe’s former head of IT, Darren Mckeeman, would later emerge as a leading critic of Pincus. By 2008, Mckeeman was the last employee at Tribe (by then owned by Cisco Systems). He resigned in September with a public tweet: “Mark Pincus just cursed at me in email and I sent him back my resignation. My 40th birthday resolution was to stop tolerating verbal abuse.”

Mckeeman would go on to allege that Pincus had “misappropriated” $30,000 in revenue from the company to start Zynga at a moment when Tribe desperately needed the funds to stay afloat.

When Pincus ran into trouble at Zynga years later, Mckeeman would again chime in: “Pincus lies as easily as he breathes. The entire venture was a pump-and-dump, built on the ashes of Tribe (whose users he ripped off to start Zynga).”

In 2007, Pincus started Presidio Media and released Texas Hold’ Em Poker. After securing $10 million in funding, he renamed the company Zynga after his beloved bulldog. This time, he was determined not to give up control.

During a talk in 2009 at the Startup@Berkeley mixer, he explained his early game plan:

I knew that I wanted to control my destiny, so I knew I needed revenues. Right. Fucking. Now. . . . So I funded the company myself but I did every horrible thing in the book just to get revenues right away. I mean we gave our users poker chips if they downloaded this zwinky toolbar which was like, I don’t know, I downloaded it once and couldn’t get rid of it [laughs]. We did anything possible just to just get revenues so that we could grow and be a real business . . . So control your destiny. So that was a big lesson, controlling your business.

Pincus raised $850 million in VC funding, creating games like Mafia Wars and FarmVille and acquiring popular games such as Words With Friends.

Meanwhile, his reputation for being a control freak grew. He structured his stock holdings to give himself dominant voting power and limit the power of his investors. He also reportedly demanded that employees return stock if he decided their work at Zynga wasn’t valuable enough. Employees who refused were fired. These equity “clawbacks” occurred right before Zynga’s IPO. Pincus reportedly believed that he and other executives had given away too much stock in the company’s early days.

In December 2011, Zynga launched its IPO, with the company’s estimated value at around $14 billion (it would eventually settle at $7 billion).

Mark Pincus was now a billionaire, owning 87 million shares of his newly public company. He later sold 7.8 million shares at a high price of $13.96 per share and, in a secondary offering, sold 16.5 million shares at a price of $12 per share. Pincus’s massive off-loading undermined investor confidence, sparked allegations of insider trading, and sent Zynga’s stock price tumbling.

Meanwhile, Zynga employees gave the company and its CEO scathing reviews on One employee commented that management was “disrespectful to employees. They demand 24/7 availability and don’t hesitate to fire. Managers yell and push people publicly. Common to be put down or disrespected. No value for employees.” And another noted: “The company is very disorganized and so political that the environment has often been described as a modern-day Game of Thrones.”

Between August and September 2012, six high-level executives left Zynga, including the COO, the chief creative officers, VP of marketing, and the company’s top technologist. In June 2013, Zynga laid off over five hundred employees—a reported one-fifth of its workforce—and shuttered its New York and LA offices. A month later, Pincus finally relinquished the CEO post, becoming the chairman and chief products officer.

It’s hard to keep a mean man like Pincus down, though, and on April 8 it was announced that he’ll be returning as CEO of Zynga.

Zynga’s shares plunged 18 percent on the first trading day following the news. Not surprising as his ego-fueled deafness to market realities, undiscriminating arrogance, and blatant disregard for shareholders could fill a book.

While he owns less than 10 percent of outstanding shares, he now holds an imperious 59 percent of the voting power due to his creation of multiple classes of stock. Is Zynga a case study of the effect of one horrible entrepreneur, or is it a lesson about a more insidious dynamic of new, badly managed firms? For mean men to stay in control, they need puppet board members who are disinterested in the average shareholder. Maybe Pincus and his board deserve each other.

Married to Mean

If working for a mean CEO sounds awful, imagine being married to one. And yet, many of the men I’ve studied have had devoted spouses, several of whom were with them long before their husbands found success. So what’s the appeal? Aaron*—an ultra-controlling, tantrum-throwing entrepreneur I coached years ago—had been married to his wife, Lisa, for nearly twenty years when I met them. After interviewing a new client’s direct subordinates and a few other key individuals who worked with them, I would often ask to meet with his or her spouse or partner. While some colleagues considered this approach unusual, I found the spouse’s perspective invaluable. Typically, this would entail only one meeting, and I would rarely have reason to see the spouse again. Lisa was an exception.

Over the years, Lisa had learned to cope with Aaron’s deafening outbursts and his increasing need for flashy bling to show off his success. She attributed Aaron’s affectations to the trauma of growing up with an abusive father who told him he’d never amount to anything. Though she wasn’t materialistic like her husband, she grew to feel pride in their opulent, sprawling northern New Jersey mansion.

She’d grown to accept her lot in life and the daily reality of marriage to a controlling, verbally abusive, emotionally tone-deaf husband. On the upside—I imagine she told herself—he was a good provider, he loved his children, and he didn’t cheat on her (that she knew of). While far from idyllic, it could always be worse.

I was surprised when Lisa reached out a year after I terminated my work with Aaron. The voice mail she left asking if we could meet for coffee sounded distraught and desperate. She didn’t sound like the person I recalled from our in-depth conversation years earlier.

When I met up with her, the woman who sat across from me was a different Lisa. Eyes dark from lack of sleep and red from crying, and with thirty-odd pounds shed from her already svelte frame. She was a wreck.

Two months earlier, she told me, Aaron had calmly announced to Lisa that he was divorcing her. There was no discussion of their problems, no screaming tantrums, just a firm, emotionless declaration.

Confused, hurt, and feeling thoroughly responsible for his decision, Lisa groped for explanation. After reaching out to family and friends about him, she thought I might be able to provide some additional insight into what was happening with Aaron. Though I’d certainly been left with an unfavorable impression of the man, my professional boundaries left me powerless to do much for Lisa other than provide a sympathetic ear. But leaving the coffee shop, I too was confused. For all his bravado, experience told me that someone like Aaron needed a woman like Lisa to keep him steady, a dependable partner who would be there during the vulnerable moments he’d never let anyone else see.

Weeks later, Lisa discovered that Aaron had been developing a serious relationship with a woman in Chicago over the past two years. He’d originally told Lisa how excited he was to be working with a new client there, and that he needed to start spending more time there. How convenient.

After an intervening period of intense postdivorce psychotherapy, Lisa started to understand not only how much deception there had truly been in her relationship with Aaron, but also how much insecurity, denial, and rationalization she must have brought into the marriage to endure it for all of those years.

So what would make a woman like Lisa so unable to resist Aaron? Even after those around her—and perhaps on some level she herself—had seen through his façade?

Only recently has there been much research into the victims of subclinical psychopaths (a group we can comfortably include Aaron in) and what they go through. While these partnerships may often look “normal” to the rest of us, they are typically extraordinarily dysfunctional and often become hellish for the female partner.

In a 2005 study, Christine Kirkman, a psychology professor from the University of Bolton in the UK, sought insights into “the psychopathy of everyday life” with a focus on women in long-term relationships with “successful” psychopaths (that is, those who satisfied clinical criteria of psychopathy, but where the men never showed up in any criminal-justice database). Her findings revealed a mosaic of psychopathic interactions and behavior that highlight the emotional difficulties of the women who become involved with these men. Additional studies followed, validating and building on Kirkman’s findings.

Regardless of where the men fell on the spectrum of psychopathy (from mild to extreme), three remarkably consistent themes emerged from Kirkman’s data and the subsequent studies. First, the male partner was consistently reported to have superficial charm and relatively high intelligence, enabling these men to convince the woman—and her friends and family—that he was trustworthy.

Second, one hundred percent of the men in Kirkman’s study were reported to be pathological liars, providing false yet compelling details to the women about themselves, details which sometimes remained undiscovered for years. Many also consistently lied about their involvement with other women, sometimes numerous women at a time—all of them being lied to. As one woman commented to a researcher during a subsequent study, “I wonder now who I had been living with for 10 years. The man I fell in love with did not even exist.”

The third theme was an antisocial, amoral pursuit of power. Women reported that the men gained and retained power over them by a variety of controlling behaviors. Emotional and psychological abuse were also persistent factors.

Conventional wisdom tells us that men who work hard and bring home big paychecks are great catches romantically, but we best beware of the psychopath in the corner office.


*Names have been changed



Next up: “Why Women Stay with Mean Men.”