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.

Women Are Leading the Takedown of Silicon Valley’s Mean Men

It’s not just summer ratcheting up the heat in Silicon Valley, where more power players are in the hot seat as dozens of women allege persistent sexual harassment. Their testimonies are further exposing a toxic culture in start-ups—and particularly tech—wherein untouchable men are allowed to touch women without their consent.

In a June 22 interview with The Information, entrepreneurs Niniane Wang, Susan Ho, and Leiti Hsu revealed VC Justin Caldbeck’s persistent harassment and use of financial leverage to exert sexual pressure on female entrepreneurs. Another twenty-some women spoke to The New York Times the following week, naming VCs Dave McClure and Chris Sacca in addition to Caldbeck as notorious harassers. Finally, in a personal blog post, tech founder Cheryl Yeoh demolished McClure’s public blog apology, which conflated harassment with “inappropriate behavior.” In an all-too-familiar refrain, he minimized—and attempted to normalize—the severity of a predatory pattern. 

A sign that the scandal rocking the Valley has entered mainstream consciousness is that six of the women entrepreneurs at its center have met with NBC’s Megyn Kelly for in-depth interviews. They credited their confidence to come forward to Susan Fowler’s February 2017 blog post recounting her harrowing year at Uber.

In her post, Fowler methodically chronicles the Kafkaesque futility of using the company’s official channels to report the abuse. In one interaction after another, she is threatened with poor work performance reviews and assured that if any other complaints are lodged against the perpetrator—her manager, who propositioned her on her first day—swift action would be taken. But no action is ever taken against the harasser, despite the smoldering pile of allegations that seemed to get extinguished by the time they were being processed at Uber’s HR offices.

Her post has resonated with women across the tech and start-up community, encouraging more to come forward despite potential retaliation. But what, or who, is responsible for this scourge in the first place?

There is plenty of blame to go around. As I examine in my forthcoming book, Mean Men: The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man, the media, investors, and Wall Street analysts have had a long love affair with abusive entrepreneurs and CEOs so long as they deliver results, even if those results are not sustainable. Given our culture’s willingness to look past glaring flaws in our political leaders from Jefferson to Trump, it is not surprising we’re just as enamored with men we perceive as responsible for our country’s (alleged) prosperity.

When Susan Fowler knocked over that first domino, she set off a series of events that have taken on a life of their own. Her dispassionate account of a “very strange year at Uber” both validated other women in tech—60% of whom have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace—and contributed to Travis Kalanick’s eventual ousting, which sent its own reassuring signals to women in tech and female entrepreneurs. Although some still excuse or minimize the problem, and others quietly grumble behind closed doors about the “witch hunt” thinning their ranks, 2017 has seen a step in the right direction.

A la Fowler, the women coming forwardpresent in-depth accounts of the sexual harassment they have experienced. Some are naming names and some are corroborating stories with screenshots of particularly egregious instances of mean men overstepping their bounds. Providing specific details assures that no perpetrator can hide behind vague language and euphemism to disguise predatory behavior as a simple misunderstanding. “The devil is in the details,” Cheryl Yeoh blogs. “It’s far too easy to gloss over the details and lump everything together as inappropriate.” To escape what she calls “the black box of inappropriateness,” she outlines an action plan for the development of precise language to better identify and document levels of toxic behavior as well as a rigorous training program on implementing proactive HR policies. In fact, in addition to outing mean men and demanding they take responsibility for predatory behavior, women across the tech and start-up sectors are demanding a future where such abuses would be the exception rather than the rule.

We do see some movement. Amid the flurry of recent accusations, founders Justin Caldbeck and Dave McClure resigned from their positions of CEO of Binary Capital and general partner at 500 respectively. These changes certainly signal a recognition that predatory behavior hurts the bottom line not the least through bad publicity. But are they a sign of a more inclusive vision for the future?

It is likely that these new accounts and the reckonings they bring about will help other women to come forward. The truth telling in turn means more mean men are forced to grapple with the harm they have caused to people and to their companies, bettering our chances of reimagining Silicon Valley as a place where creativity and innovation are not marred by abuse, skewed gender dynamics, and unchecked power.

The self-reckoning forced on Silicon Valley by these new testimonies is a good in and of itself for the sake of women and their well-being. Importantly, it may also be the catalyst toward a more stringent standard of behavior from the bro entrepreneurial culture. Women in tech and start-ups have sparked a national conversation on the expectations we have of our business and tech leaders. But it is up to Silicon Valley power players to take a more proactive approach to codifying expected behaviors and what will be unambiguously unacceptable from this point on. 

Why Defending Travis Kalanick Is Lame

In the wake of Uber’s slow-motion implosion and Travis Kalanick’s forced resignation as CEO, some supporters have set out to defend one of Silicon Valley’s more beleaguered “bad boys.” Current and former Uber employees showed an outpouring of love and devotion across blogs and social media; company managers urged their underlings to sign a petition for the board to reinstate him; former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayor spoke up for him at an event in Palo Alto; and reporter Alison Griswold praised Kalanick’s behavior, calling it necessary to creating a multibillion-dollar ride-hailing empire in such a short timeframe and revolutionizing the way people get around.

Digesting these arguments made me realize how far we still have to go in terms of holding men in positions of power responsible for their meanness. So often we focus on their miraculous achievements—whether it’s a profoundly disruptive innovation or a moment of singular leadership through crisis. And shouldn’t we? Men of great power have pushed society forward and led us in new directions. (Women have done the same; they just rarely get the pass for irresponsible or destructive behavior.) We venerate powerful men for their vision and feel dependent on them to initiate progress.

Far too often, however, we willingly look past glaring pitfalls for the sake of keeping the vision alive. The reaction to Kalanick's ouster demonstrates perfectly this phenomenon. Here is my rebuttal to a few members of the TK Fan Club and their justifications for his brand of mean:

Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo
Justification: Kalanick was ignorant of sexist and toxic company culture due to Uber’s explosive expansion.
Quote: “I think he’s a phenomenal leader… I just don’t think he knew. When your company scales that quickly, it’s hard.”
Analysis: There are a couple of major flaws to the ignorance defense. Firstly, there is near unanimous consent that Kalanick “built the company in his own image.” His own personal philosophy about always winning, codified in Uber’s 14 Values, was a founding principle that shaped the company culture. While Uber’s extralegal tactics shot the hail-riding service into the Silicon Stratosphere, they also trickled down as an ends-justify-the-means ethos. The way that HR ignored Susan Fowler’s sexual harassment complaint in favor of keeping a “high performer” is merely an extension of this single-minded pursuit of the Uber vision.

Secondly, how can a CEO claim ignorance of company culture when aligning culture to values that support sustainable growth is an essential element of the job? In calling TK a “phenomenal leader,” Mayer sweeps much under the rug. Flouting local laws to get cars on the road faster across cities in the US and elsewhere would—in other situations—be called “law breaking.” What about the inappropriate emails sent to employees about drinking and having sex while at company parties? What about violating the right to privacy of a victim of sexual assault? What about the damning blog post by Susan Fowler calling out HR’s incompetence at handling sexual harassment cases, a sentiment seconded by other female ex-employees? You “don’t think he knew,” Ms. Mayer? While Kalanick clearly has significant strengths—and he may not have gotten the company off the ground without them—his weaknesses are just as tangible.

Alison Griswold, Quartz Journalist
Uber is great precisely due to Kalanick’s brash, authority- defying personality and leadership style.
Quote: “Kalanick’s role in getting Uber into those cities and onto those phones first cannot be understated. Regardless of whether Uber, still a private company, was ever truly worth the $68 billion investors said it was, the company could not have attained that valuation without him.”
Analysis: In her June 22, 2017, article for Quartz, “There Would Be No Uber without Travis Kalanick,” Griswold argues that TK is responsible for Uber’s incredible business success. But she also admits that the very brashness that has given Uber such monumental stature in the ride-hailing revolution is the reason for its mounting troubles. Her argument then rests on a short-sighted definition of success. As I discuss in Mean Men, this short-sighted view is the norm rather than the exception. So willing are the many investors, board members, executives, and the media to see start-ups get big fast, that ignoring predictable, and often dire, consequences of unethical and toxic leadership practices comes at a significant cost to sustainable growth. Since it is just as true to say that TK is responsible for the current state of affairs at Uber, which includes major controversy and law suits, puts the company’s greatness is in serious question, and that too is a reflection on Kalanick’s leadership.

Some Uber Employees
Justification: Kalanick was an inspirational figure who embraced employee ideas and uncompromisingly pursued a brave vision of the future.
Quote: “Uber is fundamentally reshaping people’s transportation habits and how they interact with their cities. This kind of impact would have been unthinkable only a few years ago, but we’ve made it a reality—thanks to your vision. So, thank you. We’ve mis-stepped at times—I’ll be the first to admit that Uber is not perfect. But the positive impact you’ve had on this company, and the world, is truly inspirational.”—Margaret Anne Seger, junior project manager
Analysis: Many employees were incredibly inspired and personally touched by Kalanick’s leadership, as the outpouring on social media after the ousting demonstrates. Clearly, TK had a way of connecting with people that made them want to follow him and invest in him. The employee testimonials almost universally praise this quality, speaking of the former CEO in glowing terms. In fact, a look at the word choice across posts offers some deeper insight. One employee uses the word “disciples” to describe TK’s supporters within Uber; another thanks him for his “guiding light”; several write in a chanting rhythm, beginning every sentence with a thank you; most are “heartbroken” by his departure. Notice the religious tone? Getting a little bit creeped out? It is not uncommon for a leader with mean-man characteristics to also be highly charismatic. Examples abound— from maverick Steve Jobs with his unpredictable temper to instigator Trump and his Make-America-Great-Again rhetoric which captured the hearts of the disenfranchised. Intense charisma—especially that which inspires an unwavering following in a select group of individuals—is a warning sign that we may be in the company of a Mean Man.

Some Uber Managers
Kalanick’s ousting is the result of the board bowing to an unfairly critical press; it does not represent the wishes of the employees, and should therefore be reversed.
Quote: “Uber is TK and TK is Uber. Without him I don’t see any other leader doing a job as good as him, external or internal.”—Uber manager (quoted in Buzzfeed article)
Analysis: Shortly following Kalanick’s forced resignation a number of Uber managers urged underlings to take action in defense of TK with the aim of pressuring the Board to reinstate the ousted CEO. They encouraged employees to email Board members Arianna Huffington, Garrett Camp and Bill Gurley and register discontent in an anonymous petition. Similar to social media posts of employee support, emails sent by managers to employees have a reverential tone toward TK with an additional desperate edge because they are also a call to action. What’s more problematic is the dynamic of people in a position of power arguing for a mini-rebellion from those in their employ against those who employ them (the Board). This act echoes the accusations of a bullying culture leveled against Uber by former employees, including Susan Fowler, wherein a dysfunctional HR department repeatedly fails to provide checks and balances to unduly exercised authority.

Chew on one BuzzFeed reader’s incisive comment about the managerial emails sent to staff members: “Managers are sending petitions to employees. Doesn't that tell you enough about the culture to run away as fast as you can? ‘Oh no pressure, and no worries that this will affect your next performance review, but would you mind signing this petition?’”

We cannot continue to praise the good without recognizing the ineffective, bad, or worse. Continuing to deify the Kalanicks of the start-up world will not bring us better leaders; it just perpetuates the status quo. I have no problem with power, and the amount of it many CEOs hold. But we have a responsibility to hold powerful men fully accountable for its misuse if we hope to see better leadership in the future.



My Own Awakening to the Impact of Mean Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post was originally published on my blog on Sep 21, 2015.

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.

Where Are the Mean Women?

The focus on much of my blog—and of my forthcoming book—is corrupt CEOs and badly behaving leaders across a spectrum of industries. All of those featured happen to be men. The paucity of female counterparts—mean women—has sparked a series of spirited debates on my LinkedIn posts with some readers taking this as a biased, unfair critique of men, while others argue that behavior like this from a woman would never fly. In this election season of intensely charged political mudslinging, and the final battle shaping up to pit a man and a woman against each other, the question seems more pertinent than ever: Whither the mean woman? As I’ve discussed at length, mean men are often perceived as powerful, persuasive, competent, and in control. Their very meanness may in fact help them convince others that they deserve to be top dog. But does it work as well for women?

In 2006, Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, asserted that then Senator Hillary Clinton was too angry to be elected president. In a time when shouting down one’s opponents has become normative political behavior, why was Clinton singled out for being mean? Politicians have always used tactics like this to defame their opponents, but when the comments were picked up by the media, this case began to raise questions about a double standard. The problem wasn’t so much about anger or meanness per se, but that Clinton was being accused of behavior that wasn’t considered befitting a woman. Columnist Maureen Dowd of the New York Times categorized the issue in this way:

They are casting Hillary Clinton as an Angry Woman, a she-monster melding images of Medea, the Furies, harpies. . . . The gambit handcuffs Hillary: If she doesn’t speak out strongly against President Bush, she’s timid and girlie. If she does, she’s a witch and a shrew.

Clinton’s experience perfectly expresses the bind many female leaders find themselves in. Women are expected to be kinder and more modest than men and suffer if they fail to conform to this prescriptive stereotype. Groundbreaking studies by Victoria Brescoll and Eric Uhlmann, professors at Yale and Northwestern, respectively, confirm what many of us suspect: that while men may be perceived as better leaders because of mean behavior, the opposite is true for women.

Women are conditioned away from being mean, but men essentially get a free pass on displaying anger due to our own cultural biases. We see male anger as a natural response to objective, external circumstances. When women show anger in the workplace, it seems out of context, and thus we naturally presume it’s a product of her personality. Her anger is viewed as internally caused (“she’s an angry person”; “she’s out of control”) rather than externally instigated (“the situation was frustrating or unacceptable”).

The Brescoll/Uhlmann study examined the very real consequences of these biases. The expression of anger by men actually increased their potential to be seen as having higher status by others. Angry men were more likely to be seen as leaders. However, professional women who expressed anger were consistently assigned to a lower rung on the ladder and also earned lower wages. Angry women were seen as less competent than angry men and unemotional women.

Another study, by Larissa Tiedens of Stanford, found that men who expressed anger in professional settings were more likely to be hired than men who expressed sadness and were also given more status, power, and independence in their jobs. Unlike with men, a woman’s occupational rank (whether CEO or trainee) in no way influenced the judgements made about their behavior. Angry women were consistently seen as out of control.

These studies jibe with my personal experience researching and writing about the subject of mean behavior in the workplace. Examples of mean men abound, but try as I might, I had incredible difficulty finding examples of powerful women who exhibit the same set of traits. What I found was that women leaders were held to a distinct double standard. Men can get away with mean, but if women are to maintain their status in any social system (politics, organizational life, entrepreneurship, to name only three), then they may have to suppress some of their emotions in order to be seen as rational, lest they be perceived as less socially skilled, and therefore less hirable for jobs that require social-interaction skills than are men who behave identically.

And it’s not only about meanness: women who demonstrate assertiveness, competitiveness, independence, and courageousness experience backlash and have to continue to walk the fine line between appearing incompetent and nice versus competent and cold. If a woman shows anger, she is the ice queen, the ballbuster, the dragon lady, the bitch.

Experimental studies consistently find that, unlike men, when women try to negotiate greater compensation, they are disliked. When they succeed in a male occupation, they are disliked. When they fail to perform the altruistic acts that are optional for men, they are disliked. When they criticize, they are disliked. See a pattern here? The same behaviors that enhance a man’s status are the ones that make a woman less popular. In leadership roles, women may find themselves in a never-ending double bind of figuring out how to direct, command, and control their followers without appearing to do so.

So are women just better human beings, more prone to generosity and agreeableness than they are to getting ahead, making the deal, crushing the competition? The research suggests to me that while inherent goodness isn’t gendered, how we react to and reward the expression of mean traits reflects a deep gender bias in society. Would we have more mean women if we gave the same allowances for powerful women to express their anger? Maybe or maybe not. What we do know is that women are strongly conditioned away from mean, while men realize early on that mean can work to their advantage. As a society, we need to take a hard look at the behavior we reward and that which we punish, and the monsters we’re creating as we do so.

Why Mean Men Get a Pass from the Media

The media can be critical tool in exposing the dark sides of men in power. But great power comes with great responsibility—and in the case of mean men, all too often the media either misuses its power or does too little with it. As we’ve seen with the clickbait circus that has been the Trump campaign, the media can create a monster as easily as it combats them. Conversely, stories that strive to be catalysts for positive change often vanish in the ether after the initial attention-grab. The pace of the modern media landscape is such that, when all is said and done, it’s rare that the impact will linger long enough to reveal the extent of a mean man’s abusive behavior. Walter Isaacson, for example, 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?


This post originally ran on my blog on May, 11 2015.

What Trump Can Learn from Successful Organization Transformations

In my last book, Guiding Growth, I talked about what can happen when a company doesn’t have a coherent, effective vision. And I’ve found that before most managers can commit to growing an organization that is driven by vision, they need to recognize the characteristics of a company without vision. More importantly, they must recognize what happens when a company pushes forward into hyper-growth mode absent a cohesive vision. In an ongoing conversation regarding the characteristics of a leader, I thought it interesting that the current “missteps” in the Donald Trump campaign are illustrative of what happens when a leader—be they politician or CEO—cannot clearly articulate their vision, even within their own ranks, and execute the vision in the day-to-day operations of their organization.  

Many fast-growing organizations encounter a similar problem: the lack of an effective, embedded vision at the crucial juncture where scaling meets speed. The research I’m currently up to my eyeballs in focuses on the unique capabilities of firms that successfully transform themselves in response to market disruptions. These organizations are on the receiving end of disruption caused by start-ups—incumbents who risk becoming irrelevant if they do not adapt. We are finding—no real surprise—that a guiding vision is essential before the transformational process begins, and without it, the trauma of transformation can literally kill off an organization.

National campaigns are like start-ups in that their trajectories point to size but not necessarily longevity. Rather than formulating a robust vision, then implementing ambitious strategies that lay the groundwork for a sustainable, thoughtful platform, some of the political campaigns we’re seeing rely on drama and vitriol to exploit media opportunities, which until now has served Trump well. We’ve also seen (and I’ve recently written about) how business start-ups fueled by drama and emotion but no vision just end up in a fizzle.

Trump’s political organization needs (or, more accurately, needed) a transformation not unlike the ones he should know about as a CEO.

Nowhere is a lack of vision more apparent than in his campaign’s organizational kerfuffle. Just ask Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s campaign manager—a major player in disruptive politics, who was recently arrested in Florida for simple battery. And Trump himself—taking three different views on abortion in one day, angering and alienating constituents on both sides, and touching a nerve that just may be the undoing of his campaign. With accusations of misogyny still ringing from these scandals, the candidate supported, and then recanted, a view that should abortion become illegal, women deserve punishment.

Much like the development of a start-up, this transition of a reality TV star into a serious contender for the Republican nomination requires nothing less than a series of fundamental yet relatively seamless transformations. Well-articulated visions guide these transformations so they don’t include too many nasty surprises and errors along the way. Unfortunately, there are relatively few exceptional leaders with the capacity to conceptualize, articulate, and relentlessly manage with a clear vision and survive the steep challenges brought on by accelerated growth. But a direct correlation exists between the competency of vision management and the rate at which firms (and campaigns) can successfully grow and sustain themselves.

The one candidate with seemingly endless airtime to explain his views to the American people should give everyone, supporters and nonsupporters alike, pause as to his ability to lead.

Trump may even be a believer in vision. But he lacks the understanding of how to integrate “vision” in the daily demands of leading the race for, and then winning, his party’s nomination. The highs and lows of each day—the crises, the opportunities, the ever-evolving scandals—have clearly pushed vision to the back burner. Meanwhile, as the tension mounts during primary season, the Trump campaign seems less and less to agree on what they’re really about. “Make America Great Again” is neither a vision nor the raison d’être component of a vision. We need to hear a far more nuanced aspiration—perhaps closer to the existential level—of what this country can become, how he plans to achieve it, and the values that will undergird the executive branch, Congress, and the American people. The question, “What is your position on X?” elicits different responses from the campaign, and in short order, perhaps those who used to see him as a hero-iconoclast are left wondering, “What does he believe in?”

Is Hillary Mean?

As a follow-up to my last post regarding Donald Trump as the quintessential Mean Man, I did some thinking about Hillary Clinton and her rise to leadership. In today’s political climate, Mean Men abound, but what about Mean Women? In all my years working with high-powered entrepreneurs, I have never encountered women behaving in some of the psychotic ways I’ve seen men behave. Now, thanks to the antics of the Republican front-runners, what should have been a historic campaign of ideas between would-be leaders has morphed into a blazing rocket of tabloid fodder and idiocy. I’d argue that Trump and Cruz embody the Mean Man, and it got me to wondering again—Are there Mean Women? Is Hillary allowed to be mean? Would we put up with such behavior from the candidate who aspires to become the first female president of the United States, or is she held to a different standard? Every time I’ve posted on the gender expectations around mean in the past, my comments section is flooded with stories from women about the egregious double standard that exists in terms of what is deemed acceptable behavior for men and women. Research validates these anecdotes, offering that women are punished rather than celebrated for being mean. Is there a biological difference, or does outsized ambition just not square with our idea of femininity? Given the context of the 2016 presidential election, let’s examine the perception of women in roles of power, as well as the roles of women adjacent to power, the wives and girlfriends. As the latest scandals from the Republicans demonstrate—be it the Twitter wars between Trump and Cruz, or the National Enquirer story regarding infidelity—we’ll obviously tolerate outrageous behavior from male candidates. The misogyny on display from this side of the aisle, from Trump’s comments to and about female journalists, to the Cruz camp’s attempts to shame Melania Trump, is stomach churning.

But how does this apparently low bar for “presidential behavior” apply to the female candidate who is the most likely nominee for the Democratic Party? What might we hypothesize are the larger cultural perceptions of a woman who seeks power?

Slate tackled this recently in a fascinating piece concerning Hillary’s “likability.” The writer noted that she had “come to believe that saying nice things about Hillary Clinton can be a subversive act.” And noted the disproportionate number of personal attacks on her personality when compared with her male peers. Likability is always an issue for candidates, but we’re well versed in men being able to display power and forcefulness while still finding them likable (think Obama, Reagan, the other Clinton). But women? It’s trickier.

Many female leaders likely find much to relate to in the double bind Hillary finds herself in when it comes to the public’s perception:

Hillary Clinton absolutely cannot express negative emotion in public. If she speaks loudly or gets angry or cries, she risks being seen as bitchy, crazy, dangerous. (When she raised her voice during the 2013 Benghazi Senate committee hearings, the cover of the New York Post blared “NO WONDER BILL’S AFRAID.”) But if Hillary avoids emotions—if she speaks strictly in calm, logical, detached terms—then she is cold, robotic, calculating.

Simply put, male politicians can get angry and they’re being passionate. Female politicians? They’re being bitches and harpies.

Why is this? And what are we asking of our leaders and ourselves? Is it contradictory to say that there really are no Mean Women? Or do our perceptions of female archetypes run so deep as to define Hillary primarily on personality attributes rather than her vision and goals for our country? Is Hillary really mean? Based on what’s trending in and driving our national discourse, it seems that leadership and femininity remain sadly incongruent. This despite study after study showing that qualities such as empathy (a trait more frequently associated with female leaders, and women in general) is one of the most crucial traits for a leader to possess.

As we examine gender roles in leadership, we must recognize the bias that guides our decisions. And now we must ask ourselves, as this campaign continues to spiral into the absurd, are we so myopic as to overlook behavior one wouldn’t tolerate from a nine-year-old in our leaders?

Don’t Let Trump Finish First

Donald Trump continues to perplex the national media and the collective whole of reasonable Americans with his seemingly unstoppable momentum in the race for the 2016 GOP nomination. In the wake of his failure to disavow the support of white supremacist groups and violence at his rallies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and elsewhere, it begs a few questions: Is this really what leadership looks like to some Americans? What’s going on here? Is this the backlash of a middle class who feel genuinely disenfranchised? The recent and alarming rise of xenophobia and frantic nationalism left by the vacuum of leadership from the Republican establishment seems only to be growing. Are we willing to face the consequences of allowing “mean” to define leadership and success in both the private and public sectors? Do we clearly understand the vision and goals of the man who’s bullying his way through our political system in his quest to become our commander in chief? Sadly, the underlying irony may lie in the fact that even his most fervent followers could not explain how we will “Make America great again” in a cohesive, singular vision with realistic and reasonable goals. The reason Trump is eliciting a response is both deeper and more subtle.

The Monster We Know

In the tumultuous 1960s, Hannah Arendt caused national outrage by suggesting that some of the greatest evil the world had ever known boiled down to a Nazi war criminal’s inability to think for himself. Over fifty years later, we are in another time of political and economic upheaval, searching for original thinkers, visionaries, heroes to show us the way. With America preparing to hire its next CEO, we are telegraphing daily to the world our collective values surrounding leadership, power, and the price of success. At the very least, no one would disagree that Donald Trump represents “the ugly American” in its illogical extreme, that boorish, gun-toting, face-punching, self-entitled, narcissistic loudmouth. Is this really who we want to be on the world stage?

We are at a pivotal crossroads: If we blindly follow in the footsteps of mean, that culture will come to define us, crippling our creativity, warping the next generation, and producing demagogues instead of leaders. When these leaders stoke the fears and underlying prejudices of an already angry electorate, the consequences become very real.

Bringing Civility Back

All’s not lost. Accountability, authenticity, relationships, true empathy, and the power of social capital can move us toward a better and brighter future. We as a nation can be both strong and compassionate, both to our fellow Americans as well as our fellow world citizens. Just because the outrageous behavior of characters like Trump takes up all the air in the room, we mustn’t accept his ways as the norm, or believe there is no further “air” to breathe. By owning our actions, clearly communicating alternative scenarios, and cultivating honest, authentic interactions, we begin to reject the cult of personality that rewards poor behavior.

They don’t make the news as often, but they’re there, the nice guys who finish far from last. What does authentic leadership look and feel like in action? Perhaps it’s Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister who publicly demanded a gender-equal cabinet simply “because it’s 2015.” Or Mauricio Macri, the wealthy businessman-turned-president of Argentina who plans to decrease inflation, debt, and the international isolation that has stunted the country for decades. Can we shift our popular and workplace culture to celebrate the true leaders among us? How do we want to define leadership for the generations to follow? What does being an American success really mean?

Regardless of political leanings, we all share the responsibility to own this personal change. It starts now, and it starts with us.

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.

Five Reasons Humility Is Key to Being a Good CEO

One popular conception of the CEO is of someone ubermasculine, dominant, and aggressive. From Elon Musk to Donald Trump to Harvey Weinstein, c-suites throughout the world are littered with examples, all compounding our notion that to be successful, you have to be domineering and even arrogant. Mountains of new evidence suggest otherwise, however, and it’s becoming more accepted that good leaders have empathy. But what about humility? Although in many ways, this quality is at odds with how we think of leaders, in some new leadership research, I’ve come across compelling data* that suggests the ability to be humble is not only helpful to good leaders, but also essential to a company’s bottom line. Here’s why:

1. They Put Collective Goals Above Their Own

 Humble CEOs are often just as ambitious as their megalomaniacal counterparts, but they seek success for the whole organization and yearn to be a part of something greater than themselves. This is in marked contrast to those CEOs who are driven by accumulation of wealth, personal adulation, and celebrity status. Humble CEOs have an awareness of their smallness in the grand scheme of things. Unlike some of the characters we see making headlines for their flagrant abuse of power, these CEOs don’t consider themselves above moral laws and deeply value their connection with the larger community.

2. They Can Take Feedback, Even When It’s Negative

 Arrogant CEOs resist being questioned, and anyone who does so is likely to get serious blowback; it’s the entire reason whistle-blower laws exist. Humble CEOs, on the other hand, place a high value on continuing to learn and improve, and therefore seek an honest understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. They understand not only the humanity and limitations of others, but also their own. This makes them both more open to new ideas and feedback from others, and less likely to lose perspective and destroy a company because they can’t accept their own fallibility.

3. They Value Their Team

 Humble CEOs are more likely to trust and empower their top management teams. Rather than surrounding themselves with yes-men and yes-women who would never question them (I’m looking at you, Dov Charney) and centralizing their power, humble CEOs know that an organization’s success doesn’t hinge solely on their brilliance. They’ll hire smart, capable, competitive people and then involve them in big decisions, sharing power and credit. Companies run by humble CEOs are also much less likely to have outsize pay disparity within their management structure, something that can cause bitter internal battles and spell disaster for a company.

4. They Make for Balanced Leaders

 CEOs must have certain qualities to attain a position of power. Drive, ambition, and other characteristics from the List of Ten are all likely to show up in the personality makeup of anyone who has risen to the top of an organization. But mean men from Steve Jobs to Lance Armstrong show us what it looks like when these qualities run amok—verbally and psychologically abusing others, throwing temper tantrums, and manipulating those around them—it’s not pretty. But the right amount of humility in a leader can temper these other qualities and help a leader keep his or her emotions in check, as well as keep them from taking outsize risks. Because the good of their organization—not their personal glory—remains their top priority.

5. They Play Well With Others

 Studies have linked employer humility to employee engagement and team integration: two defining characteristics of a company’s long-term health and success. Humble CEOs set an example that others want to follow and engender more goodwill than their bombastic, ruthless counterparts. Because they appropriately value their team members (and don’t overvalue their own contributions), humble CEOs can facilitate mutual trust and discourage infighting. Because they deeply value the organization and everyone in it, they’re able to create a shared vision so that when the company succeeds, everyone feels they had a hand in it.

 As scholars begin to look more carefully at humble CEOs to see if they really make a positive difference in organizational performance as compared with their blowhard counterparts, the emerging data points to “yes.” Not only have executive teams been shown to be more integrated when the CEO is humble, but early indicators from long-term studies are pointing to a significantly greater inclination for these senior teams to deal with market disruption and innovation more effectively.

As more hard data comparing narcissistic and mean CEOs with their humble counterparts makes its way through the research pipeline, rest assured we’ll be sharing it here.

*“Do Humble CEOs Matter? An Examination of CEO Humility and Firm Outcomes” by Amy Y. Ou, David A. Waldman, and Suzanne J. Peterson from the Journal of Management.  

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.

Who’s Allowed to Be Mean? A History

To combat our workplaceepidemic of meanness, we need to confront not only the mean men (and women) themselves but also the surrounding culture that enables them. We often rationalize that anger and meanness are a fixed “mentality,” and, even worse, we let it slide in those who have the privilege of power. Disgraced former congressman Michael Grimm—who was packed off to prison last month—is an excellent example of a man at the top who was allowed to be angry and abusive simply because that’s “just who he is.”  Meanness and rage are what he’s known for, his trademark, and he felt theyought to be respected as such.

Anger itself can become a cheap substitute for character. A mean man like Grimm could think: “If I’m known for being the angry guy, I can just react according to expectations without having to figure out how I really feel, andmy behavior will be excused because, well, that’s who I am.” This happens to be  consistent with psychopathy. Even the subclinical psychopath can be fully stymied when emotions arise. He has little to no capacity to understand how he is feeling, let alone why, so it’s easier to just let the free-emotion fire hose loose and act out.

Looking at the history of workplace culture in the United States tells us something about how we got here. The trajectory  has led us to a place where some are allowed to express their anger, while for others—notably any woman in power—it remains taboo.

1930s: Industrial psychologist Elton Mayo began his study of a novel phenomenon that was emerging: workers were angry, and they were letting it show. While some psychologists were willing to accept that conflict was not only inevitable but also potentially good, Mayo considered a work dispute the collective equivalent of a nervous breakdown, a serious and ideally avoidable malfunction.

In his quest for workplace harmony—which has obvious advantages in terms of reduced labor turnover and time lost in strikes—Mayo and his colleagues made important claims that centered on the understanding and handling of anger at work.

His conclusion was that “worker anger had nothing to do with the job itself.” The idea resonated with managers, as it removed the blame from their shoulders. Mayo’s theory was a crowd-pleaser for the manufacturers who employed the workers and the industrial psychologists who made excuses for them. These human-relations experts (as they were known at the time) claimed in 1938 that critics of capitalism were merely “projecting their own maladjustments upon a conjured monster, the capitalists.” But the basic message was more subtle: workers brought anger to the job from other sources, typically from home.

Harmony required restraint from both managers and employees. If workers were angry not because of the job but because of home life, then an angry response from management was inappropriate. In order to enjoy a superior rationality over emotion-driven employees, it was essential that the manager display consistent restraint.

Mayo posited that “a uniformly benign emotional style was the best managerial tool.” This was probably the greatest shift in thinking that emerged between the two world wars. The gruff, authoritarian boss now took his place alongside the angry, punitive parent in what amounted to a major enlargement of the campaign against anger. Expressing anger—being mean—became one of the leading justifiable causes for being fired. The standards for being a good boss were changing remarkably. These standards didn’t, however, apply to owners and those at the very top.

1940s: Once, an ideal foreman was someone who met production quotas and took charge of technical innovations on the shop floor, but by the forties the foreman was expected to be a human-relations expert who blocked grievances and reduced turnover by managing his own emotions as well as those of his underlings. Bosses were urged to recognize that “the day of the ‘bully’ and ‘slave-driver’ had gone and the day of the ‘gentleman’ and ‘leader’ had arrived.”

Yet ambivalence and hypocrisy remained in this period’s otherwise sweeping attempt to reduce meanness at work and elsewhere. While anger control was expected of workers and internalized by many white-collar managers up the hierarchy, it never quite touched the top executive levels. Executives urged restraint on secretaries without any reciprocity. They sent subordinates to emotion-training sessions, but they didn’t go themselves. At the top, executives could still be bullies, because they were in charge.

1950s: Middle managers were expected to make a particular point of being patient and avoiding aggression; an ability to control their tempers under provocation was paramount. Yet studies from the time showed that top managers were not expected to make being pleasant a priority.

In dealing with grievances or disciplinary cases, restraint was not required of the top ranks.  Aggressiveness and drive—the prerequisites of American gumption—seemed incompatible with reining in one’s spirited emotions. And so the executive temper had to be tolerated, and it was up to the subordinate to learn how to time bad news and to put a favorable gloss on problems in order to minimize conflict.

Sadly, sixty years later, we have not moved forward much from this way of thinking—in other words, meanness and anger are okay for those at the top, but heaven forbid the underlings should push back. But with all of the shifting expectations around work life  that the millennial generation brings with it to the office, could this culture finally be in for an overhaul? Let’s hope so.

How to Create Boundaries with Your Ruthless Boss

During my time at the Austen Riggs Center, I learned much from the experienced clinicians there about dealing with a host of difficult personality types. A recurring theme in my research and interactions with therapists there, and in my consulting work, is the need to create boundaries. It’s healthy to have good boundaries with everyone in our lives, even those we love, but when it comes to having them with an abusive boss, it’s crucial to our survival. Setting boundaries is much easier, however, with your garden-variety passive-aggressive types and narcissists. Mean men have a tendency to see a boundary as a challenge to defeat, at least initially. Because of their tendency to be manipulative, it can be especially hard to hold the line.

You don’t need to announce to your boss your desire to set boundaries—and in many cases you shouldn’t, as it may only raise his defenses, provoking aggression. Boundaries are more about your own behaviors than those of others. Sometimes, nonverbal cues can be extremely useful. When you let certain phone calls roll over to voice mail or wait to respond to e-mails at particular parts of the day, you’re setting boundaries. When you leave the endless heap of work-related Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn notifications for the next day, you’re setting boundaries.

When Disney and Pixar president Ed Catmull began working with Steve Jobs, he picked up quickly on Jobs’s controlling and often confrontational style. But he ended up managing Jobs by intentionally avoiding those situations that had a pattern of leading to conflict. For Catmull, managing Jobs was all about timing, not avoidance. Eventually, he’d get back to Jobs with an answer or other response but not until he believed Jobs’s toxic energy had been depleted on the subject.

Boundaries are especially important when dealing with disordered personalities. Sometimes, active listening is not enough to quell a conflict with the more difficult types. As much as I depend on this technique in my professional work and personal relationships, I’m always intrigued by its failure with those displaying psychopathic traits, as subclinical as they may be.

A consulting client of mine, Aaron,* who definitely fit the profile of a mean man, was in an abusive relationship with his girlfriend, Lisa,* that showed no signs of getting better until she began to set boundaries. Near the end of their relationship, Lisa learned from a counselor that implementing boundaries could bring down Aaron’s rage level. When he acted in an inflammatory manner, she would simply refuse to engage. When he started screaming, she would stay in her own psychological space, barely listening to him while she resumed doing other things. When he tried to start a fight, she would respond with something along the lines of, “I don’t know what triggered this mood you have, but I know that I’m feeling okay.” And then she would leave the room. With her boundary firmly in place, Aaron’s maladaptive way of seeking control lost steam; he got less relief from screaming or being irritating. Her refusal to engage with his irate behavior left him swimming in his own swamp.

Mean men require considerable stimulation in their life. Simply put, they become bored more easily than the rest of us. A mean man often experiences an extreme type of boredom that best be described by the French term ennui: an oppressive boredom that often leads to lethargy. Drama is a mean man’s recipe for staving off ennui, but it requires an audience and perhaps an additional actor or two. As the drama begins, he feels invigorated and alive. Control and manipulation can empower a mean man, especially when he can successfully elicit the emotions of others. Crazy as it may sound, he thrives on this drama, regardless of what it is, as long as he sees it as a result of his actions, a sign that the world revolves around him.

Having the key to a victim’s emotions is just what the mean man needs to feel in control. Manipulation is a form of success for a mean man, and he must create drama in order to achieve it. The more reactions he sees as a result of this drama, the more he craves it, and an addiction begins to grow.

But what happens when the reward for drama stops coming? What if the person who consistently reacts to his wrath chooses to disengage like Lisa did with Aaron? More often than not, the person with psychopathic tendencies, the mean man, will become bored, and we know how intolerable that is for him. If those around him show no emotion, he may decide it’s not worth creating the drama if he gets nothing from it.

This strategy—essentially to become boring to him—is a highly effective way to create a boundary. Employees of a tyrannical manager can set boundaries merely by taking away the usual satisfaction he gets from seeing them afraid and upset. When he sees these reactions dwindle, his power is challenged, and he will soon grow bored.

If you are cursed with a boss like this, you must at some point consider more seriously an exit strategy. While boundaries can “shape” some elements of his repulsive behavior, you will not stop it; you will not change him. Assuming you don’t want to be a leading character in this melodrama, start with boundaries and then determine how to get off the stage with him. Permanently.


*Names have been changed.

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.

American Psychos: The Dark Side of Entrepreneurship

Last week, I talked about the line between “mean” and disordered. I used the example of “Noel,” who’d been a patient of a colleague of mine and who had, after a lifetime of abominable behavior, been diagnosed as a psychopath. I noted that in some ways Noel was particularly well suited for an entrepreneurial life. Why might a psychopath thrive in this arena? It’s helpful to look at personality traits on a spectrum, and to think of a person’s traits being monitored by a temperature gauge. For most people, most of the time, a collection of traits will hover somewhere in the middle, the “normal” range, and only periodically heat up and brush against the red zone. Let’s take our ten traits of the entrepreneur—drive, autonomy, need for control, etc.—and imagine these in the higher midrange for a long duration. This could identify our signature mix for the “entrepreneurial personality” while still indicating a relatively well-adjusted person.

But what if several of the traits within this defined set were always in the red zone? If an entrepreneur is unable to adapt to the extent to which these traits have effectively taken over his personality, then this may be the sign of a disordered personality, specifically of psychopathy. These men have crossed the border into the realm of lying, manipulating, if not downright cheating, and perhaps even engaging in criminal behavior (though they may never have been caught). They are completely unfettered by anxiety and totally unbound by conscience.

Let me be clear: I do not mean to make the definition of psychopathy so broad as to easily lump into it those who are merely objectionable; this is a matter of extreme personalities. The notion that psychopaths choose entrepreneurship as the stage for acting out their internal psychological drama adds a new and disturbing dimension to our understanding of the entrepreneurial phenomenon. The data indicates that this connection is anything but random.

Because those with disordered personalities fail to change, the pathological themes that tend to dominate their lives become vicious cycles. So blind are they to opportunities that may lead to improvement that repeated dysfunctional themes provoke new problems and create situations that remind them of their failures over and over again.

Discovering the relationship between the List of Ten—specifically, when a disproportionate number of the characteristics are in the red zone—and the personality disorder of psychopathy was, frankly, a shock to me. I had not expected to find a correlation with a disorder with such dark implications. Perhaps some garden-variety narcissism combined with one or two other traits? Sure. But this was a revelation. When I first made this connection, my own understanding of psychopathy—a complex disorder that has been more fully understood only in the last decade—was at the time superficial at best. But as I dug into the research on psychopathy and matched it with the characteristics and behaviors of the mean men I’d observed, I became convinced that this disorder was by far the best fit. Let’s explore it.

The Mask of Sanity

The psychiatrist Hervey Cleckley was a top pioneer in understanding people who blended dangerously antisocial behaviors with a mask of normalcy. Cleckley worked at a psychiatric hospital in the late 1930s, a facility that often housed criminal offenders believed to be suffering from some form of mental illness.

These men seemed “normal” under most conditions. Cleckley watched as they charmed and then manipulated and took advantage of other patients, family members, and even hospital staff. As a result, he recognized that the psychopaths he worked with wore a cloak of normalcy to help them live in the world. He also came to believe that unlike the stereotypical criminal, these men generally came from “good homes” with loving parents and yet still ended up ruining lives without remorse, shame, or conscience.

Cleckley also found that these patients continually repeated dysfunctional or unfruitful behaviors; adaptiveness, as noted earlier, was elusive to them. They lacked insight about themselves and the impact their behaviors had on others. Because they were unmoved by the feelings of others, notions of remorse or shame were alien concepts. While they often appeared to be very honest—at least from the perspective of those with little experience interacting with them, particularly new staff members—they were frequently insincere.

Cleckley’s review of his patients’ records indicated they could be extremely egomaniacal and virtually unable to experience deep emotions, particularly love and compassion. They seemed unable to feel intensely any of the emotions that others experienced with the exception of a category known as proto-emotions, which includes very primitive emotions such as anger, frustration, and rage.

He personally experienced these patients as having superficial charm and reasonably good intelligence. They could tell creative, believable stories; they did not seem to show the delusional thinking that often characterizes psychiatric patients.

As he noted in his fifth edition of The Mask of Sanity, this patient “presents a technical appearance of sanity, often one of high intelligence capacities, and not infrequently succeeds in business or professional activities” [emphasis added]. The book’s title captured Cleckley’s belief that these men do not show obvious symptoms of mental illness.

Cleckley was quite taken by a profound underlying characteristic of the psychopathic disorder in which the language and emotional components of thought are not properly integrated, a condition known as semantic aphasia. Individual emotion-laden words or phrases are understood—“I adore you,” “I’m annoyed,” “I’m heartbroken”—but the psychopath cannot grasp the broader meaning of what he hears. This individual has a deep-seated inability to understand the emotional dimension of language, particularly those aspects associated with attachment and empathy. He can say the word “love,” for example, without an understanding of what it means, and certainly without any idea what it feels like.

Cleckley was startled by something else: nothing about the disorder suggested oddness, inadequacy, or moral frailty. The “mask” is one of robust mental health. But behind the mask he found pathological liars, adept at sizing up situations and feigning sincerity. Put the sum of these ingredients together, stir lightly, and you’d have a dangerous psychological profile that should sound awfully familiar to those reading this blog.

When Does “Mean” Become a Personality Disorder?

In last week’s post, I talked about how crucial my time at the Austen Riggs Center was for me in terms of making sense of my research about entrepreneurs, and understanding the true impact that mean men can have not only on the organizations they run but on anyone who crosses their path, especially their children. It was an awakening to the deeper question of who these men are and, frankly, what is wrong with them. In a much earlier post, I discussed the ten traits that entrepreneurs share. In moderation, these traits aren’t necessarily problematic, but if taken to extremes, this cluster of traits can add up to a personality disorder.

Take Noel*—a patient of a clinical-psychologist colleague of mine—a senior executive who was forced to resign from his position in a large company. Persistent difficulties with top management compromised his ability to perform effectively, and his long-standing interpersonal problems grated on many who crossed his path. Superficially charming, he manipulated the affections of others to get what he wanted and withdrew his attention when he found them no longer useful. Friends and colleagues eventually came to avoid him.

“All is fair in business” was Noel’s rallying cry. Asking subordinates to manipulate the sales numbers to increase his bonus was in keeping with another of his mantras: you are guilty only if you get caught, and the law is for losers.

Noel was the only child of wealthy parents, an Ivy League frat boy who drank heavily while underage, used illegal drugs, vandalized neighbors’ homes, hired hookers, and bragged that all the while he was never caught. He eventually married a family friend because “it was good for business.” Over the years he had a number of extramarital affairs for which he never expressed remorse.

After he was fired from his executive position, he fell into a depression—which he eventually overcame. Back on his feet, he moved into an arena where men like Noel often thrive, up to a point: entrepreneurship.

Noel wasn’t just your run-of-the mill jerk, however. My colleague went on to diagnose him as a Psychopathic Type: having a sense of inflated grandiosity and a pervasive pattern of taking advantage of—and manipulating—other people, disregarding ethical considerations and moral norms, and showing little if any remorse for his actions.

So what’s the difference between a guy like Noel and a more “normal” person who has the traits that Noel had in extremes? In normal individuals, these traits tend to be more adaptive. Normal people may have an intense level of ambition or drive, but they also have an ability to rein it in, to adapt those traits to circumstances when it’s prudent. Not so for the disordered personality. Their ambition or drive doesn’t adapt to reality or convention. The internal censor or sense of restraint just never kicks in.

Being adaptive allows us to size up situations with greater objectivity. And it makes us easier to work with or for, too. Normal, adaptive people don’t gift their female employees vibrators—as yet another lawsuit against Dov Charney of American Apparel alleged that he did—or say things like: “I frequently drop my pants to show people my new product.”

Characterizing and cataloging personality disorders was the life work of Theodore Millon, former Harvard and University of Miami professor and author of nearly a dozen books on the subject. Millon was among the most influential psychologists in the world, taking complex disorders and distilling them down to understandable traits. Equally important, he conceptualized the notion of personality disorder in a way that’s clearer than any I’ve examined.

Millon showed how personality disorders are made up of maladaptive traits, and he offered two explanations for the severity of a disorder as one moves along the continuum from health to pathology. First, specific traits can be more intense in the ways they are expressed, or have a higher dimension. Second, the number of an individual’s maladaptive traits can increase along that continuum.

For most people, coping strategies are diverse and flexible. When one strategy or behavior doesn’t work, we just try something else. But those with personality disorders tend to practice the same strategies repeatedly with only minor variations in outcome. When things fail to improve, their stress level keeps rising—which further amplifies their sense of vulnerability—and, ultimately, they find themselves in crisis mode. Their perception of the world becomes increasingly distorted. Though oversimplified, the throwaway cliché of craziness defined as doing the same thing over and over again while expecting a different result has a kernel of truth here.

Psychologically healthy people know when to change something in their lives and also know how to adapt to what the world offers them. If, for example, the boss wants something done in a particular way, most people will follow directions without much fuss. In many ways these situations are almost scripted; we know what to do and how to behave in a seemingly limitless number of situations.

But personality-disordered people are limited by having far fewer alternative strategies in their repertoire. To make matters worse, they impose strict, irrational conditions for implementing these alternatives, almost as though factors (and this often means other people) in their environment will somehow knowingly conform to their needs. Ultimately, when the environment cannot be arranged to suit the person, a crisis erupts. Unlike normal people, who often find new experiences enjoyable and seize opportunities to learn new and more adaptive strategies, the disordered individual derives far less enjoyment in these circumstances. In fact, new situations that require rather quick adaptability can be a living hell for them, and they react with seemingly inexplicable behavior.

Seen through this lens, I began to wonder if some of the most extreme mean men I was studying—the Dov Charneys and Peter Arnells of the business world—weren’t quite beyond help. And what of the society that made them heroes?


*name has been changed

My Own Awakening to the Impact of Mean Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Messy Management Research: Why We See the Entrepreneur as a “Great Man”

The image of the high-flying, individualistic entrepreneur is so ingrained in our culture today that it’s hard to believe that this archetype was not always the ultimate American hero in the business world. To understand what’s led us to mythologize this breed of worker so, it’s important to look at where we get our ideas of what makes him who he is; interestingly, the debate over whether being an entrepreneur is a practical distinction or a deeply psychological one goes back a ways.

One of the grandfathers of my field of research was the Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter (1883–1950). Schumpeter made a clear case that entrepreneurs translated inventions into businesses, and these businesses generated wealth—a line of reasoning so central to our way of thinking now that it seems obvious. Schumpeter referred to the entrepreneur as the “Great Man,” and other scholars and observers quickly built upon that label, suggesting strongly that potential entrepreneurs might be identified and supported as a means for bolstering economic growth.

Schumpeter’s work found an admiring audience in Harvard psychology professor David McClelland. McClelland’s seminal 1961 book, The Achieving Society, showed how people could be trained to behave as those who had a natural psychological need for achievement did, could be taught, in other words, to be achievers.

McClelland’s findings sparked the beginning of an academic movement to cultivate entrepreneurs rather than simply identify them. In 1972 the US Small Business Administration began sponsoring academic programs built on McClelland’s ideas, which set the stage for the growth of entrepreneurship as a business discipline instead of a specialty in psychology. The race was on to uncover the unique formula for the perfect entrepreneur.

Most of this research—conducted from the 1970s until about 1990—was deeply contentious. The equivalent of an academic food fight broke out as researchers first took sides and then began criticizing one another’s work. One source of conflict was the burgeoning assortment of business school–based academic programs on entrepreneurship. Despite the fact that much of the field of management is based on the social sciences, psychologists felt unwelcome in a business-centered venue. Another source of conflict was that, in some important respects, the psychological view of entrepreneurship was muscled out as more practical (i.e., moneymaking) uses for the research emerged. Economists hypothesized over the outcomes of entrepreneurial endeavors, trying to determine the formula for success. Then the strategic planning advocates cut their way into line, arguing for their approach as a prognosticator of entrepreneurial success.

This conflict wasn’t necessarily bad news. Such friction is generally vital to protecting the integrity of any new area of research, ensuring that all of the tough questions and dubious conclusions are laid out on the table to be thoroughly vetted in order to establish a firm foundation for further research.

Unfortunately, no firm foundation was ever established. During this period, the percentage of psychologists based in business schools and studying entrepreneurship declined steadily. Harvard Business School became a center for psychoanalytic organizational theory, and much of this work was focused on the effort of getting inside the heads of entrepreneurs from a Freudian perspective, something that other psychologists avoided. By the 1980s, it was becoming clear that the entrepreneur was a type of manager emotionally and psychologically different from salaried managers, and while maybe not a “Great Man,” he or she was clearly a different one.

But no single discipline seemed able to connect the dots.

By the 1990s, most psychologists studying entrepreneurs had been hammered by the strongly leveled critique of William Gartner, a professor of entrepreneurship at Clemson University.  Gartner bristled at what I call the “Garbage Can” approach to understanding the psychological profile of an entrepreneur. By this point in time, a startling number of traits—some of which I’ve discussed—began being attributed to the entrepreneur. To put them all together would be to create a person not only larger than life, but also full of contradictions.

As a result of these issues, multiple formal definitions of “entrepreneur” were being used by different researchers. This obviously creates huge problems. If you and others are measuring something, then everyone needs to be on board with precisely the same understanding of what that “something” is that’s being measured. Without consensus on what an entrepreneur was, the research became an exercise in comparing apples to oranges.

For example, the guy who owns and operates a service station, earning enough take-home pay to provide a comfortable life for his family, is called an entrepreneur. But so is the guy who identifies high-potential and high-risk unmet market needs, gets investors excited about building an organization to meet those needs, scales the organization quickly, and then sells it to go off and start another firm. Are these really two of a kind?

Meanwhile, there  was biting criticism of the data emerging from some ambitious research studies on entrepreneurs. Psychometric methodology—the design of the research projects and the processes by which they analyzed data—was being raked over the coals by other scholars. Researchers sprinkled around the United States who were delving into the personality of the entrepreneur were accusing one another of being less than rigorous in reaching conclusions through the highly complex—yet possibly inappropriate—statistical techniques they employed. They were also politely reprimanding each other in research journals for the lousy population samples of “entrepreneurs” being used.

One common example: A management professor would hypothesize that certain personality characteristics were associated with entrepreneurs, and he or she would test their theory by corralling a bunch of students in management courses. The students would be given a questionnaire and asked to check a box if they planned to start a business within the next five years, and—voilà!—the professor potentially had a few hundred “entrepreneurs” to glean data from. The next step was then to run a regression analysis to see if the suspected potential relationships among variables existed. Unfortunately, checking a box to indicate desire to be an entrepreneur and actually being one are quite different.

Entrepreneurs, as it turns out, are not as easy to identify as “people who want to start their own business”; so what, in fact, are they? We’ll dive deeper next week.