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.

Five Common Misconceptions About Psychopaths

As we explore the link between entrepreneurship and psychopathy, it’s crucial to examine some common misconceptions about what a psychopath is. This Halloween season, dozens of movies and television shows featuring crazed axe-wielding villains chasing screaming coeds will hit the airwaves. And those gory pictures may match up closely with what we think of as a psychopath. The research on psychopathy that I’ve delved into, however, offers a much more nuanced portrait of this complex disorder, one that debunks some common misconceptions about this most pernicious of personality disorders. But as we look more closely at what may be our own biases for who is and is not behaving in a way that indicates psychopathy, it’s also critical that we understand the ways in which our cultural narrative may steer us away from seeing those disordered individuals who hide in broad daylight, or in the corner office.

Misconception: Psychopathy is synonymous with violence.

Many of us most readily equate psychopaths with the famous serial killers whose unimaginable and outrageous acts captivated the public’s imagination: monsters like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer. The media continues to use the terms psychopathic and killer almost interchangeably. But psychopathy can and does occur in the absence of any criminal behavior, and many individuals assessed as psychopathic have no history of violence. Psychopaths, more broadly, tend to engage in behaviors that may cause harm in a social or emotional sense (malicious gossiping, lying, manipulating others, or acting without regard for the feelings of others). As distasteful as these actions may be, none of them are violent or illegal.

Misconception: Psychopathy is synonymous with psychosis.

Owing perhaps in part to the similarity of the words psychopath and psychotic, another common assumption is that psychopaths are irrational, out of touch with reality, or both—these being characteristics of psychosis. Not helping matters is the news media using the term psychopath when featuring such famous killers as Charles Manson, David Berkowitz, and John Hinckley, who all showed indications of unmistakable psychotic thinking. More recently, the term psychopath was used by at least one political commentator in the context of Jared Lee Loughner, who shot and killed six people and wounded thirteen others, including US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, in Tucson, Arizona.

While psychopathic traits can appear in conjunction with psychotic symptoms, they don’t necessarily do so. People with psychopathy alone generally look quite different from those presenting with psychosis only. Psychopathic individuals are generally rational, free of delusions, and well oriented to their surroundings. Psychotics act very differently from this.

Misconception: Psychopathy is synonymous with antisocial personality disorder (ASPD).

Until the most recent version of the DSM was released, it was strongly implied that being psychopathic and being antisocial were interchangeable. Many may find their differences to be unremarkable, but once again, the crucial difference comes down to violence and criminality. Psychopathy is determined by characteristics of someone’s personality, whereas ASPD depends on the individual in question engaging in antisocial, criminal, and—to some extent—violent behaviors. This is not just scientific hairsplitting. As diagnostic methods have become more precise, seeing a history of criminal and violent behavior as an indicator of psychopathy has dropped precipitously.

Misconception: Psychopaths are born, not made.

Our understanding of the interplay between nature and nurture in shaping someone’s personality is ever evolving, with current thinking being that psychiatric conditions—including psychopathy—are not either born or bred but are a combination of the two. Based on what is now known, it seems very likely that psychopathy has many causal factors in addition to its genic component, and that one’s environment (particularly family setting and dynamics) could have a significant effect.

Misconception: Psychopathy is inalterable.

Despite the fact that this belief lacks convincing scientific basis, it is extraordinarily pervasive. So pervasive, in fact, that researchers have not even bothered to test the notion until recently. Initial empirical work now suggests that personality traits in general, and psychopathic traits specifically, do change as one moves through what are known as “developmental transitions.” Intentional, motivated change—with the help of highly skilled therapists—is showing some promise in limited clinical settings.

The difficulty in coming to terms with psychopathy—and psychopaths—has largely been due to overreliance on criminal behavior to define the disorder. Unquestioned assumptions have fostered the mistaken impression that psychopathic individuals invariably commit crimes. Leading researchers in the field have now made a significant pivot away from this belief. The behavior of psychopaths might be much subtler than we imagined but, in many ways, no less dangerous.

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.

One Significant Way Good People Can Go Bad

The mean men we’ve discussed on this blog come from diverse sectors of our economy and culture: from organized religion to politics to apparel companies. But one thing that their disparate trajectories have in common? They were all enabled for years—in some cases decades—by those who surrounded them. How could this happen? Even if we consider that some of these men are actually evil, surely most of those who worked for them—who literally followed their lead—were not. How did ordinary people witness years of abuse without stepping in and, in some cases, even participate in mean behavior themselves? Probably nobody is more qualified to answer this question than esteemed Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo. His real-life experiments have asked these questions and tested our shared notions about the boundary between good and evil—and the ease with which someone might cross it. He’s come to rather shocking conclusions.

In his now-famous Stanford Prison Experiment in 1971, Zimbardo and several of his colleagues set out to answer the questions: What happens when you put good people in an evil place? Does the institution take over or does humanity emerge? They chose twenty-four college-age male volunteers—all deemed to be normal, healthy, and well-adjusted—and randomly divided them into two groups: “guards” and “prisoners.” The prisoners were arrested and put in “jail,” and the guards were given custody over them. The experiment was supposed to last for two weeks.

Despite the fact that the students were all judged to be normal and healthy and were fully aware that they were participating in an experiment, by the sixth day, all hell had broken loose. Some of the guards were displaying alarmingly sadistic behaviors, and the prisoners showed worrying signs of depression and trauma. Zimbardo put a halt to the study. His findings have gone on to have profound effects on how we analyze the behaviors of humans in institutional settings.

Since that time, Zimbardo has dedicated his career to examining how ordinary people become capable of deplorable acts and, perhaps more importantly, how situational circumstances affect our behaviors—how the barrel, if you will, can poison the apples. He may also know more than anyone else about the monstrous realities of torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, having served as an expert witness for one of the guards tried. Zimbardo testified that the guard was not innately evil or sadistic. Rather, the root of the problem was structural mismanagement (since the far-flung CIA ran the prison, there was no one qualified in an executive leadership role to establish a culture of civility) and horrendous working conditions. The guards were low-level, inexperienced military police, slogging through twelve-hour shifts for forty straight days, with no oversight to guide their actions under extreme stress.

The key factor missing in those who participated in the Abu Ghraib scandal was empathy. Long before this case even began, Zimbardo had found that in similar situations, it’s crucial to be able to see a given situation from different points of view. The only way for the suffering of the prisoners to become real for the guards was to have the guards see the situation through the prisoners’ eyes.

“Empathy,” as defined by Cambridge University neuropsychologist Simon Baron-Cohen, “occurs when we suspend our single-minded focus of attention and instead adopt a double-minded focus of attention.” Single-minded attention happens when we are thinking only about ourselves, our current thoughts and perceptions. But if we engage in double-minded attention, we are thinking of someone else at the very same time. When empathy is switched off, we focus only on our own interests. If we are capable of flipping the switch to “on,” we then focus on other people’s needs simultaneously with our own. Through those different points of view, we may not feel what other people are feeling, but we do see what they are seeing. Only then can we make a judgment.

This brings us back to Hannah Arendt and her indictment of Eichmann and his inability to take into consideration an “enlarged mentality.” If we are too narrow-minded, our judgment can become thoroughly invalid, out of whack. If we do not try to enlarge our mentality, we will never be able to think from another person’s point of view.

When people are in a situation in which they do not utilize double-minded attention, they’re prevented from identifying what others are thinking or feeling. The result is that they act out toward others in ways that, at the very least, are inappropriate. At worst, they can be diabolically mean. What Zimbardo’s experiment showed us is that this lack of empathy can become ingrained in an institution’s culture to the degree that otherwise normal people will act in deplorable ways.

One need not be a subclinical psychopath to be incapable of empathy and act egregiously toward others. Otherwise normal people are put in organizational contexts that turn off their empathy “switch” more often than we may think. I’ll bet we all can think of a time when this happened to us, when without our conscious awareness, the switch was turned to “off” and we acted in ways that shocked us or made us feel ashamed. It may be unpleasant to think about, but until we accept that empathy can be turned off, we can’t figure out how to turn it back on.

The Banality of Meanness

Mean. Uncivil. Abusive. Controlling. All of these words could easily describe Barry Freundel, Mark Driscoll, and the other men I’ve discussed on this blog. In my countless interviews with victims of mean, an even more sinister descriptor emerges: these guys aren’t just jerks; they’re evil. Looking at our last two case studies of Driscoll and Freundel, we find it’s not so hard to make the leap. These are men who invoked the divine for their own selfish ends and caused a great deal of pain and suffering in the process. But where exactly is that line between bad and evil?

We often characterize evil as an aberration of human nature because it’s so difficult to rationalize. This difficulty of getting our brains around evil behaviors often leads us to create narratives around those responsible. Perhaps, we suspect, the evil is in response to unbearable circumstances a person may have experienced earlier in life. Or maybe the person is a psychopath, is innately evil. To this way of thinking, the evildoer is damaged or crazy or both.

But there’s an alternate school of thought that tells us that evil might not be such an aberration after all.

In her groundbreaking 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, philosopher Hannah Arendt tried to reconcile the actions of Adolf Eichmann—a Nazi SS lieutenant colonel and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust—with Eichmann the person. In her reporting on his trial, she makes a highly controversial argument that remains polarizing to this day: neither Eichmann nor his fellow Nazis were motivated to commit their acts out of hatred and malevolence. Rather, they were the result of lack of thought, imagination, and memory. Eichmann, she adamantly believed, was incapable of empathizing with his victims’ suffering because he lacked the judgment needed to perceive it. He was not smart enough to think for himself and therefore was “just doing his job” as he claimed in court.

Arendt enraged many people with her views on Eichmann as being “ordinary.” She resisted making an explicitly psychological analysis of him in her lengthy report of his 1961 trial. Her assessment was that Eichmann’s ability to do evil came from his inability to think from others’ points of view or to have an internal dialogue with himself. Evil itself was banal, she said, in that it was “thought-defying.”

Her conclusions were profound. People who do evil are not necessarily monsters; sometimes they’re just bureaucrats. The Eichmann she observed on trial was neither brilliant nor a psychopath. He was described by the attending court psychiatrist as a “completely normal man, more normal, at any rate, than I am after examining him.” Evil, Arendt suggested, can be extraordinary acts committed by otherwise unremarkable people. All of the court psychologists who examined Eichmann pronounced him “normal.”

Still, one wonders what could possibly have been going through Eichmann’s mind to allow him to commit such atrocities. How is it that this seemingly normal German bureaucrat could be swept up in the tide of Nazism to become one of history’s most hated and perplexing criminals? What explains the participation of thousands of ordinary Germans just like him in the events of the Holocaust, from concentration camp guards to civilians who turned a blind eye? These questions broaden to become both more personal and more universal, and therefore more distressing, as we ask ourselves, What would I do if faced with these circumstances? Would I act for good, or would I succumb to evil?

Two years after the trial, Arendt reflected:

The longer one listened to him, the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, that is, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words of others, or even the presence of others, and hence against reality as such.

Arendt had a supporter in Richard Sonnenfeldt, the chief US translator at the Nuremberg trials. He too believed that Eichmann and his peers seemed without intellect or insight, distinguished only by being susceptible to flattery and ambition. “Dictators have no peers,” he said at the time. “Only sycophants to do their bidding.”

Arendt felt very keenly that what really connects us to one another is the commitment to try to see the world from others’ points of view—not to subscribe to their points of view or to merge with their points of view, but to be able to walk around and see what the world looks like from where they’re standing. She was all about dialogue. In Eichmann’s case it was precisely the incapacity and lack of interest in that perspective that she found to be at the core of Eichmann’s banality and Eichmann’s evil. It was his thoughtlessness, his inability to think from any other point of view but his own.

While Arendt and others argue that evil is banal, empathy is not. It is not common to all, pervasive, ordinary, or unremarkable. If you are capable of empathy, you may assume that most people are capable of it. You take it for granted that what you see and feel is obvious. It is not. Someone who is capable of empathy is at the upper end of psychological health. Empathy, some experts suggest, may even be relatively rare.

Could it be that knowing how to skillfully practice empathy is the key to minimizing and managing mean?

The Lurid Scandal of DC’s Most Powerful Rabbi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do You Have a Mean Man in Your Life?

In a recent post, I came up with a working definition of the kind of “mean” man I discuss on my blog and in my forthcoming book. We defined him as a man who is “almost pathologically driven to succeed and doesn’t care who has to suffer for him to do so. His flagrant, unchecked abuse of others is enabled by the immunity granted to him by his wealth, power, and/or sheer charisma.” If this describes the genus of our bête noir, what are the different species of mean men that roam our halls of power?

1. The Unprincipled

This man has an inflated sense of self, shows an indifference to the welfare of others, and is routinely deceptive in his social interactions. He exploits others and expects special recognitions and considerations without taking on the necessary, reciprocal responsibilities. Unprincipled has little access to an inner moral compass, what psychologists call our superego, which represents society’s standards and determines our personal sense of right and wrong. He enjoys the process of outwitting others, and he maintains relationships only so long as he has something to gain. Unprincipled displays an abject indifference to the truth and an artful, cool lack of concern if confronted with his own deception. He is adept in the nuances of social influence, using glibness, charm, and a studied naïveté to get away with his lies.

Mascot: Double-talking, bloviating New Jersey governor, Chris Christie

2. The Disingenuous

Disingenuous is the life of the party, characterized by friendliness and sociability. But it’s all a show. While he makes favorable impressions on new acquaintances, the facade begins to crack as the hallmarks of his true self come through: unreliability, impulsivity, and deep resentment and moodiness. He is facile in social settings, seeking attention and excitement with more than a hint of seduction. However, his relationships are shallow and fleeting and often come to a disastrous end. Underneath his superficial charms, Disingenuous is contriving and plotting; crafty and scheming; insincere, calculating, and deceitful. His insincerity is boundless, as he does anything necessary to get what he needs and wants from others. He seems to enjoy seductive gamesmanship, deriving satisfaction in the excitement and tension of the deceit. Disingenuous is sometimes mistaken for Unprincipled when seen in the wild, but his deep need for attention and approval are a marked difference from Unprincipled, who has an essential self-centeredness that leads him to not care too much what others think.

Mascot: Shady, sneaky, desperately insecure founder and once again CEO of Zynga, Mark Pincus

3. The Risk Taker

This species engages in risk taking just for the thrill of it. Taking risks gives him excitement and makes him feel alive, which he’ll pursue regardless of the damage to his bottom line, his reputation, or those around him. Risk Taker responds quickly without thinking, his reactions unreflective and uncontrolled. His behavior goes beyond impulsiveness; he is essentially fearless, unmoved by events or circumstances that most people would find dangerous or frightening.

He may appear to others like a fool or a hero—Risk Taker doesn’t care. His need for autonomy and independence overrides his self-discipline. Internally, he is consumed with doubt about ever truly achieving his potential, and his experiences often leave him feeling empty and forever chasing new ways to prove himself.

Mascot: Shamed subclinical psychopathic cycling legend-turned-disgrace Lance Armstrong

4. The Envier

The essential feature of Envier is his blatant self-aggrandizement. Envier feels that life has not given him his fair due, that’s he’s been deprived of his rightful amount of love, support, and material rewards. And now, Envier wants revenge. He wants what’s coming to him. Envier is the most likely species to have brushes with the law, since he may pursue what he feels he’s owed through acts of destruction, theft, or abuse. He will never feel he has acquired enough to make up for what was taken from him in the past.

He is pushy and greedy. He is the poster boy for conspicuous consumption. He is self-centered and self-indulgent, unwilling to share with others for fear that he will lose again what he’d so desperately desired. Envier never achieves a deep sense of contentment. He feels unfulfilled, empty, and forlorn, regardless of his success, and will probably remain forever dissatisfied and insatiable.

Mascot: Rags-to-riches-to-reprehensible advertising impresario Peter Arnell

5. The Explosive

This quarrelsome species is known for their rages and may draw much attention for their temper tantrums and outbursts at friends, employees, or family members. Not unlike the tantrums of children, Explosive’s behavior is an instantaneous reaction to cope with frustration or fear. While this behavior may have the effect of intimidating others into silence or passivity, for the Explosive, it releases pent-up feelings of humiliation. Disappointed and feeling frustrated in life, he loses control and seeks revenge for the mistreatment and criticism to which he feels subjected. His rages often have no apparent provocation. He is hypersensitive to feelings of betrayal or may be deeply frustrated by the perceived futility and hopelessness of his life. Explosive is unable to verbalize what he feels and why, so he responds in the only way possible to remove the irritation. A sense of impotence and failure typically lie beneath his aggression.

Mascot: Impassioned, ranting, raging tech/design genius Steve Jobs

6. The Dogmatist

Dogmatist may be more overtly and directly contentious and argumentative than other species. To him, everything and everyone is an object available for nagging, a sounding board for discharging his anger, or even a target for litigious action. He is relentless in magnifying every minor friction into repeated and bitter struggles. He may insist that his argumentativeness is rooted in certain higher principles, but while there may be a grain of truth found in their beliefs, these “higher principles” are mostly simply opinions. He is unquestionably right; others are unquestionably wrong. Dogmatist achieves delight in contradicting others, regardless of the legitimacy and logic of his reasoning. His hostile and oppositional style is at the core of his persona. His knack for denigrating anyone in the name of whatever principle he happens to espouse is well rehearsed and relentless. Criticism of others “is good for them.” He believes he takes no personal satisfaction in berating people or has any ulterior motives for imposing his opinions, so he feels unconstrained, free to say anything “to set people right.”

Mascot: Scumbag former megachurch preacher who claims to speak for God himself Mark Driscoll

Strength in Numbers: Lessons from the Downfall of Mark Driscoll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mean Men vs. Mean Women

The obviously gendered title of my book, Mean Men, as well as one of the theories behind it—namely that there is a huge societal problem in the way we routinely excuse abominable interpersonal behavior in successful, powerful men—is something that, I’m happy to report, has been drawing strong reactions from my blog commenters. Some readers seem relieved that I appear to be pointing out a huge discrepancy in what behavior we deem acceptable in men versus that which we’ll tolerate in women, while others decry me for what they see as sexism. Let me say first that I’m thrilled that my posts are encouraging spirited discussion. To question and unpack these ideas is the very purpose of writing this work.

Male and female commenters alike have jumped in to say that they’ve worked for mean female bosses. To clarify, I am not claiming that mean female bosses—or mean women in general—don’t exist. But innumerable studies have shown that women are socialized to behave quite dissimilarly from men, and their relationship with power is a wholly different one. It’s not that women are never nasty or overly competitive, but this is not the kind of mean I’m talking about.

In this context I don’t use mean to imply that someone is unpleasant to be around or difficult or nasty. Mean in the context of the men I discuss is something much darker; it’s the deeply American trope of the self-made man taken to its most malignant extreme. A mean man may be surrounded by many enablers and yes men, but at his core, he’s a lone wolf who is obsessed with control. He’s almost pathologically driven to succeed and doesn’t care who has to suffer for him to do so. His flagrant, unchecked abuse of others is enabled by the immunity granted to him by his wealth, power, and/or sheer charisma. It’s not simply the meanness that sets these men apart; it’s the lack of consequences earlier in their careers that potentially could have extinguished or reduced the behavior after years, or decades, of getting a free ride.

I searched diligently for female examples of this in the course of my research—counterparts to men like Peter Arnell, Dov Charney, Harvey Weinstein, and Lance Armstrong—but they were so scarce that to focus on those I could find seemed to be blatant cherry-picking rather than presenting a representative sample. Partly, this is because there are simply not as many women in positions of power that rival those of the men I discussed, but it goes far deeper than that.

Successful self-made women such as Sara Blakely and Oprah Winfrey are often praised for their good nature and efforts to work collaboratively with their respective teams. Rarely do we see a woman praised for being a solitary genius the way that Steve Jobs was. By the same token, women are not permitted to behave the way men like Jobs are known to: that is, to be emotional, abusive, and out of control. And the truth is, women are socialized out of this long before they ever enter the working world. Women are encouraged to play well with others, where men are often taught they will be measured on their personal achievements. Individualism is key.

In Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville is struck by how individualism began as the first “language” through which Americans tended to think about their lives, how they valued independence and self-reliance above all else.

These qualities are expected to earn success in a competitive society such as ours, but they are also valued as virtues in themselves. American individualism demands personal effort and stimulates great energy to achieve. But it provides little encouragement for nurturance. This narrow view adopts a sink-or-swim approach to moral development as well as to economic success. It admires toughness and strength and sneers at softness and vulnerability. Win, win, win.

This kind of radical individualism is also a key determinant in the making of a mean man. Mean men represent a type of alienating individualism that endangers our more interdependent ideals: commitment, community, and citizenship. And women simply are not encouraged to behave this way.

With all that said, mean women do exist, outliers though they may be. So where are they? You’ll have to wait until next week.

More Strategies for Coping with a Mean Boss

The comments section of last week’s post included some impassioned responses. There were tales of bad leaders, incompetent HR departments, and mean bosses—male and female. As much as it’s important to address the cultural change that’s needed to stop mean men (and women) from getting a free pass, let alone encouragement, to behave as they do, mobility in one’s career is a considerable privilege. Whether it’s because of shifts in the industry you work in, your family situation, geographical location, or any number of other factors, leaving a bad boss isn’t often an option. Certain workers in highly sought-after professions and in particular circumstances (skilled software engineers in San Francisco, for instance) may be able to be as picky as they like, but we all have bills to pay. Many employees have to stick it out until they have better options to choose from, and even those of us with a great deal of autonomy in our work come across mean men from time to time. I may not report to a mean man, but I’ve worked with plenty of them and have learned to get in their heads to better negotiate my dealings with them. When I feel myself getting emotionally wrangled into a client’s need for control and desire to manipulate, I redirect my thinking from how he’s pushing my buttons to what might be pushing his. As I’ve discussed, the need to control is often fear based. In the mean man’s mind, he’s protecting himself from perceived threats to his fragile internal self-control system.

But manipulation or control through verbal abuse takes two, regardless of who is at fault. “He acts mean, and I respond to his meanness,” is how we might sum up the situation. But seizing opportunities to break the dynamic between a mean man and his target may require turning attention inward. You may need to look at the elements that have led you—usually unknowingly—to participate in this lopsided exchange.

This isn’t to say that victims should be blamed. But over the years I have seen many cases in which someone unconsciously gives a mean man an opening for his controlling and manipulating behavior to manifest. If you’ve been in these situations, you may not realize in the moment that someone’s demands are unreasonable and that giving in to them will pull you into a toxic tango. You may believe that in responding to your boss’s demands, you’re just being a good employee. You may even be fully aware of the abusive behavior but unable to resist it; your reactions feel automatic. Chances are there is also a considerable power imbalance between you and your boss.

We all have many layers of personal history that affect how we respond to abusive behavior: the way we were treated as kids, our self-image, the burdens we carry from our past. The behavior of those around us can tap into a pure, raw emotion that has been stored away and simmering for some time. We all have our buttons that get pushed. Some of us have more buttons than others; some of us have buttons that need barely a tap to engage. I have learned to control my emotional reactions to these men by consciously thinking about the needs that drive them to act so inexcusably. Often, I find myself thinking how pathetic their internal machinations must be in that moment, how their sense of helplessness and vulnerability (despite their tough exterior) is probably a theme in their daily lives. Trying to get inside their heads always helps me get inside my own; I’ve learned to better understand my own buttons and what happens when they get pushed. An awareness of this cause and effect often tends to provide me greater control in the midst of managing, say, a malignant narcissist.

What are the triggers that show someone’s vulnerability to these men? Psychologists have identified a few of the most persistent personality characteristics:

  • Very high need for approval
  • High level of self-doubt
  • Low tolerance for conflict; strong desire to keep the peace
  • Fear of anger
  • Tendency to take responsibility for others’ lives

In moderation, these are typically admirable traits; they can also set us up for potential abuse.

Building off my strategies from last week’s post and asking, “What is my part in this? What button is being pushed by this troubled person?” can be a difficult but empowering exercise. It can help you find your own reactive patterns to situations in which there is an imbalance of power and you are faced with someone’s attempt to control or manipulate you.


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

Incivility in America

  One of The New York Times’ most emailed stories last month was an article by Christine Porath, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, entitled “No Time to Be Nice at Work.” Porath made a powerful case in her piece that rudeness and incivility in the workplace have grown dramatically over the past twenty years, during which she’s been studying and collaborating with organizations. And she posits that we as a society are paying the price for this rudeness with our emotional, physical, and mental health. Throughout the course of my research for Mean Men, I’ve noted the same alarming trends. Professor Porath’s work is only the tip of the toxic iceberg.

The 2014 annual report on “Civility in America,”—a national survey of Americans conducted by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate, public relations companies, with KRC Research—showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans across four generations—Millennials, Generation X, Boomers, and the Silent Generation—perceive incivility to be a major problem.

A 2010 Allegheny College survey, for example, on Americans’ views of civility in politics was revealingly titled “Nastiness, Name-Calling & Negativity.” Professor Porath’s 2011 workplace survey found that just over half of employees reported that they experienced rude treatment from fellow employees at least once a week. A 2012 Rasmussen survey found that some 75 percent of Americans felt that people “are becoming ruder and less civilized.”

Much of the discussion generated by reports of increasing incivility focuses on its negative effects on democratic discourse or its direct costs to individuals. Various research initiatives have popped up to promote more thoughtful, less rancorous political engagement, while new “civility projects” and other programs aim to encourage people to “choose civility” and thereby reduce stress in their life.

The findings of these reports are generally consistent with other research published in recent years on the frequency of disrespectful speech and behavior. Though everything from anonymous Internet commenters to politicians was cited as contributing to the issue, most Americans regarded common actions of their fellow citizens as uncivil, such as the way they use cell phones in public or conduct themselves on social media. But the concern with incivility was really driven home by direct personal experiences of rudeness and disrespect, daily experiences of which were especially common at work and online.

Here’s the problem: data from the “Civility in America” project don’t seem to indicate any “incivility cycle” among the general public. Very few people acknowledge having an uncivil behavioral reaction when confronted by the rude, mean, and inconsiderate actions of others. But there was one consistent reaction to rude or mean behavior: tacit avoidance. And avoidance constitutes a problem of its own. In unpleasant face-to-face situations, people often either leave, simply ignore the offender, or suffer in silence under a torrent of abuse. Encountering online ugliness, they often respond by “defriending,” leaving a site or online discussion, or dropping out of an online community. Incivility at work leads people to quit their jobs due to the perception that there’s nothing that can be done to effect change. Although all of this is understandable, avoidance may be cumulatively fostering the incivility problem. The “art of living together,” to borrow a phrase from Reinhold Niebuhr, requires interaction. Take that away and incivility may be self-perpetuating.

There’s reason to believe that Millennials may represent a part of the solution to this issue. While their older counterparts believe the rise of rudeness is rather hopeless and unstoppable, Millennials are up to four times as likely to believe that civility will improve in the near future. They are vastly less pessimistic than the preceding generations.

Rather than quietly avoiding uncivil situations, Millennials tend to speak with their wallets. Because of how they were treated by someone in an organization, nearly half (49 percent) have either stopped buying from the company and/or advised others not to buy (44 percent). They have stopped attending pro and college sports because of uncivil behavior they witnessed on the field or in the crowd.

Word of incivility can spread with incredible speed via social media—the domain of Millennials—and it can have real costs to those who make missteps, such as in the case of the new media firm that sent out a crude tweet on behalf of Chrysler or any number of brand fails that have damaged companies’ reputations, in some cases beyond repair. Loyalty is essential to maintain a stellar brand, and Millennials are very aware of their power of choice and are equally as willing to exercise their power and hold companies and public figures accountable. Social media users have also shown that they can unite for good causes and spread the word about events where abuse or unfairness might be taking place, such as they did during the uproar in Ferguson, Missouri. Millennials also make good use of sites like Glassdoor to anonymously share the unfiltered truth about what goes on at a company, and particularly how fairly employees are treated, making it harder for bosses who behave badly to recruit new talent.

With social media giving the individual unprecedented ability to make their voice heard, there may yet be hope that the uncivil amongst us will be left with no place to hide.

Why Christie’s Meanness Will Be His Undoing

Chris Christie returned to his hometown of Livingston, New Jersey, this past week to make an announcement that many saw coming despite his recent troubles. In the gymnasium of his former high school—scene of Christie’s youthful glory days as president of his class three years running and captain of the baseball team—he took the stage to throw his hat in the ring and join an almost absurdly crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls vying for the 2016 nomination.

In his admittedly rousing speech, he flayed not only President Obama and his “second mate” Hillary Clinton (yawn) and presumptive opponents like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, but the government at large for its utter lack of ability to compromise and get things done. It was stirring stuff, but no one’s ever criticized Christie’s skills as an orator. Will his inarguable charisma be enough to get him back in the good graces of the American people in time to make a serious bid for the White House?

Governor Christie of New Jersey rose to fame as a brazenly incautious politician. He was the “straight talker,” defined by his blistering rants, searing insults, and perennial public feuds—all of which he labels as “harmless theatrics.”

But Christie’s meanness may be what does him in before the 2016 presidential election, something he spent much of 2014 and 2015 to date getting ready to throw his weight into. Bridgegate, the New Jersey lane-closing scandal rooted in a ruthless act of political retribution, promises to be a visible narrative of the belligerence he’s so known for and which can as easily work against him as it does for him. In early May 2015, two of Christie’s most loyal and trusted lieutenants were indicted. Brigid Harrison, a professor at Montclair State University, says it’s probably the death knell for Christie’s national aspirations. “Even if he is not directly connected to the indictments,” she noted, “he is guilty of creating a political culture in which corruption was allowed to flourish.” In other words, the polar opposite of what he vowed to accomplish with all of his “straight talk.”

There’s backlash too for Christie throwing his trusting staff under a bus in the wake of the scandal, as Christie and his minions are infamous for punishing any who cross him. When times get rough and you need friends, that kind of turncoat behavior makes others nervous. “Exoneration of the man is not exoneration of his leadership style,” commented The New York Times in the wake of the indictments.

During his meteoric rise, as he won hearts and minds during a series of town hall style meetings throughout New Jersey, Christie was the envy of the Republican Party for his savvy branding as a tough-talking but likeable, relatable guy with heaps of New Jersey swagger. His popularity was such that certain Republican insiders are rumored to have begged him to run instead of Romney in 2012. But in a post-Bridgegate world, Christie’s path to the presidential nomination is buried in the underbrush.

As it stands, a mind-blowing fifty-five percent of Republicans polled couldn’t imagine voting for Christie. In fact, the only Republican candidate less popular at the moment is America’s favorite bloviating buffoon, Donald Trump. And even The Donald was told “you’re fired” by NBC, his syndicating partner for beauty pageants and The Apprentice. Might it be more than a coincidence that the two loudmouths with the lowest polls going into the Republican nomination process have a worldview that the best way to influence others is to bully them?

Americans have historically shown considerable forgiveness for personal scandals (there was a little kerfuffle with the now-beloved Bill Clinton, if you’ll recall). But the public sees Bridgegate not merely as Chris Christie’s scandal but as a singular case of public betrayal, an event notable for its bullying quality and indifference to the thousands of people who were impacted by it. Extraordinary rhetorical skill notwithstanding, meanness is what threatens to take Christie down.

Why Transparency Is Tricky

I’ve posed the question before on this blog: Who is responsible for holding mean men accountable? For exposing their wrongdoing when necessary?

There may be hundreds of reputable news outlets covering business, but they often don’t do as much as they should. It doesn’t help that mean men are, almost by definition, charmers. Combine money with power with connections with influence, and you begin to see why the mainstream media seems to “miss” certain truths that the general public has always sensed. And while the media catches up or reorganizes its priorities, we need greater transparency inside our largest corporations and organizations.

Just a few decades ago, it was unthinkable that subordinates would evaluate a leader. We aren’t talking as far back as Mad Men even—we are talking the era of Friends. The 360-degree evaluation didn’t become popular in US organizations until the 1990s. Now, in Fortune 500 companies and top nonprofit organizations, it’s the norm.

Executive coaching also used to be a rarity, and when it came into full bloom—also in the nineties—it carried as much stigma as seeing a shrink did back in my parents’ day. A CEO that needed a coach was a CEO who couldn’t manage his or her problems. Today, a large percentage of people are turning to executive coaches, and surveys show that having an experienced professional coach in their corner helps good leaders achieve more.

Let me emphasize that last statement: experienced coaches help good CEOs and leaders, not those who are “successful” psychopaths with highly complex narcissistic issues.

I should know: I’ve been in the executive coaching business for two decades, and I’ve worked with young, unpolished entrepreneurs who simply needed a little sanding around the edges, and I’ve also worked with egomaniacal mean men. Only in the rarest of the latter cases did we make significant, sustainable headway.

Tools exist for making any one of us more accountable, but forcing people to use these tools—even if they themselves claim they are up for change—can be challenging. Not many of us can easily open up a part of ourselves and allow others to sit in judgment. Entertaining the idea of change is one thing—being forced to do things differently based on feedback others are giving you can be anathema, particularly to entrepreneurial men who thrive on control.

Most leaders today recognize that if they want to be considered “modern,” they’d better step into the coaching and self-evaluating ball game. That said, how do we advise employees who have information about unethical or illegal behavior in the higher levels on how to proceed without fear? Transparency for transparency’s sake does no good unless each and every employee feels they can offer the truest feedback and criticism. But in organizations led my mean men, it’s a sure route to HR for the exit interview.

It’s clear we need to also address how to better advise CEOs and boards about handling reports of unsavory or illegal misconduct. We’ve seen in the news what happens when powerful people get tossed a damaging report only to then juggle it like a hand grenade—take Dov Charney and the American Apparel case for example. Talk about a story with excessive shrapnel.

So what took everybody so long?

One person—whether he or she is reporting misconduct or is the board member taking note of it—can make a difference. In all my years of coaching CEOs and advising boards, I’ve found it exceedingly rare that any serious concern finally being reported has not already long been on the minds of other employees and executives. All it takes is one person to get up the nerve to act, and the situation, if handled properly, can then move quickly and directly into action against the perpetrator.

Too many boards wrongly assume that the absence of complaints means that all is well. I am often called in on these cases after employees reached their limits and reported to external parties. Boards must invite transparency before it’s too late. They must reach out, ask questions, and encourage dialogue. In the age of the web, sure, powerful founders and CEOs can spin stories and create impressive branding to match their narcissism. But the web is also gaining power as a mouthpiece for employees. Glassdoor is only one of many websites that invites people to anonymously share the pros and cons of where they work and whom they work for. Leaders can snub sites like Glassdoor.com if reviews are horrific and may even go on a witch hunt in search of the employee who posted about the SoB CEO, but that typically leads nowhere. And despite what I said in the opening of this post about media sellouts, more and more online news outlets are making it their business to highlight controversial leaders.

Responsibility for creating a system that encourages constructive self-criticism belongs to those at the top. Responsibility for maintaining the integrity and usefulness of this system lies with every employee at every level. Firms that don’t allow for a transparent culture risk great peril.

Credibility and reputation are lost quickly in the Internet era. No firm is too big to fail. Once the story of Dov Charney’s firing broke, pundits came out of the woodwork, asking: Why didn’t the board do this years ago when they had more than sufficient evidence for cause? But why should a board failing to act surprise us? Charney was no fool when he put the American Apparel board together—he recruited members who had little experience running a major public company and was therefore able to keep them at bay. Board members have traditionally been left in the dark, and mean men are calculating—this does not surprise us.

The message that boards and mean men cannot help but hear right now is this: if you don’t fully embrace a transparent culture, the Internet will eventually out you. Some of your media ties will do the dance with you, but stories leak. Stories about assholes leak faster. The Internet has more muscle than you do, and you will only get away with it—whatever it is—for so long.

As of early June 2015, in response to Charney’s case against them for defamation, American Apparel delivered a restraining order against him, prompting one reporter to refer to him as the bad ex-boyfriend who just isn’t taking the hint and another to ask: “Does anyone know if American Apparel even makes clothes anymore?”

Is Mean the New Normal?

I love reading the comments I receive each week on my blog posts. Most reader reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, with folks from all over the country reaching out to share their stories of how they are struggling with mean men in the workplace and elsewhere. But of course, I’m also hearing plenty from the old boys’ club—“Hey, Lipton, quit your whining. This is the way business is done!”

These are the men who hate to see the status quo questioned and who are threatened by equality, openness, transparency, and civility. In other words, to not have unfettered control over other people drives them nuts. I believe that the more we call out mean behaviors and discuss how to extinguish them, the more those who rely on such tactics will eventually be left in the dust. I know the next generation of smart and worldly workers doesn’t take meanness sitting down, and many new companies—such as Google, Guidewire, and HubSpot—consider meanness already a thing of the past. But that old boys’ club isn’t going down without a fight. And in the meantime, we have our current reality to contend with—where there’s plenty of mean to go around.

Most of us shape our behavior according to cues in both our immediate environment and the broader culture. If you live in a small Midwestern town where strangers greet each other on the street, you’ll start to say hello. Likewise, if being mean, aggressively competitive, and outrageously rude seems not only okay but culturally encouraged, you’re more likely to be a jerk.

A number of recent polls indicate that Americans think authentic leadership is in decline. Authentic in this context means the leader has a clear vision and focuses on the big picture (rather than just obsessing over the next quarter’s results). Authentic leaders have strong values and beliefs, and their behavior is consistent with those values and beliefs. These are leaders who are guided by not only their heads but also their hearts: they show emotion and vulnerability and truly connect with their employees. Authentic leaders are results driven, but they put their organizations’ and employees’ interests ahead of their own. Too pie-in-the-sky? Take a look at Bill George’s powerful research. These leaders get results.

Americans now see the workplace as ruder and more competitive than ever, and they blame leadership for setting this tone. Other polls have found that fewer Americans than ever like their jobs or see their employers as trustworthy and loyal.

But you don’t need to go into the office to witness our nation’s cultural descent; just turn on your television. How many shows feature nothing but backstabbing, conniving, and catty contestants and characters? TV has taken the trend in crass far beyond Donald Trump’s “You’re fired!” Now, Chef Gordon Ramsay reams nervous chef wannabes. Real housewives from every major US city engage not just in catfights but in full-fledged brawls. Investors on Shark Tank have themselves a ball ridiculing striving entrepreneurs’ start-up ideas.

The level of public brutality, shaming, and shamefulness we mindlessly ingest today would have been unthinkable during the days of Norman Lear’s merely sarcastic sitcoms. Even (the late) Tony Soprano, a mafia man for crying out loud, contextualized his meanness—and was psychologically troubled by it. In sports too, look at our so-called heroes. From doping dramas to cheating scandals to the rampant domestic violence in a number of sports—it’s not a pretty picture.

What messages are we sending our kids about consequence and reward when we laud these people? It’s no wonder that a 2012 survey of high school students found that 57 percent agreed with the statement: “In the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.”

We’re spending millions per year in our schools to preach the anti-bullying message to kids—and how is that going? How will it play out when they get to the workplace?

A ruder society brings everyone down. Nobody wants to be the nice guy wearing his sunscreen and sun visor in the shark tank. Nobody wants to be the chump who dots every i and crosses every t when everyone else is cheating and getting away with it. Mean men can, and do, point to the harsh world around them as an excuse for their actions, and so mean begets mean in a never-ending cycle.

Prominent psychiatrists Harold Greenwald and Nathan Ackerman saw psychopathy as a “contagious and virulent” social disease. Greenwald noted that a few of his trainees had even asked if he could help them “become” sociopaths, saying they would like to learn how to do whatever they pleased and not give a rat’s ass about everybody else.

Sure, we might all appreciate the supervillain in the movies or in our favorite novel. Leonardo DiCaprio makes a handsome wolf. Mad Men’s Don Draper oozes charisma. And maybe enjoying one cutthroat TV show isn’t enough to turn a person into an aggressive a-hole. But the problem is, there’s too much adoration of jerks. Even worse—studies find we actually give jerks power.

In Jerry Useem’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” we meet Darren Dahl, a professor of marketing and behavioral science at University of British Columbia. Dahl reports having entered a high-end retail store one day not quite looking high-end himself. When the saleswoman in the shop looked him over and shook her head, Dahl didn’t leave the store—instead, he made purchases he hadn’t intended to make. After berating himself, Dahl then wondered if other people would open their wallets in the clear face of rudeness too.

I wish I didn’t have to report what he discovered: “When it came to ‘aspirational’ brands like Gucci, Burberry, and Louis Vuitton, participants were willing to pay more in a scenario in which they felt rejected.”

Maybe shopping for luxury brands isn’t your thing, but the point is this: mean men don’t operate in a vacuum. Something is operating deep in our psychology in the way we react to and actually succumb to them.


I want to hear from you, commenters: Why are we so drawn to mean?

When Entrepreneurs Get It Right

The conversation inside the boardrooms and offices of companies that consistently make Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For has moved well past why abusive leaders shouldn’t be tolerated—they just aren’t.

Instead, smart and successful leaders focus on cultivating employee engagement, which results in greater loyalty, reduced absenteeism, increased reliability, and better job performance. This isn’t merely driven by a feel-good human relations philosophy; it’s data driven, and studies conducted over the past five years build a bulletproof case for this approach.

Researchers are finding that the new generation of top talent expects nothing less than to be valued. They expect to work for someone who not only invites their input and allows them to solve problems creatively and independently but who also is willing to share the spotlight and loosen up the confines of the traditional hierarchy.

At the core of this mindset is loosening the control held by those at the top. I’ve noted in past blogs how mean men need control, often an obsessive and counterproductive level of it. This flies directly in the face of what millennials are seeking from work.

Forty-one-year-old Guidewire CEO Marcus Ryu is an excellent example of this new breed of leader. He runs his organization in a way that ensures “the right answer wins,” no matter where it comes from in the company. A result of this guiding core principle, Ryu says, is that important decisions “are virtually always decided by consensus, by all the relevant key parties.”

Guidewire’s zero tolerance for what Ryu refers to as “two-facedness” means that a tyrant cannot sneak in using charm as a guise, or if one does, he faces “strong and instinctive pushback from his peers.” And guess what? The company has proven that mean men aren’t necessary to driving a successful business: Guidewire’s stock has more than doubled since going public in 2012.

Respect and trust are critical to a civil company culture. CEOs like Brian Halligan of HubSpot—which was named best midsized company to work for in Boston in 2010—talk the talk and walk the walk. To start with, they treat time differently. Employees are encouraged to work the hours they are most productive, and there is no vacation policy—meaning Halligan essentially is saying to his employees, “I trust you’ll know when you need time off, you’ll take it, and you’ll return refreshed and ready to give this company your all.” In other words, “I entrust you—the employee—with the control to determine what’s best for you and the company.”

Google, of course, is often at the top of Fortune’s famous list, coming in No. 1 for 2015. The tech giant also regularly tops Universum’s “Talent Attractive Index,” which surveys thousands of American college and graduate students about where they would like to work. The current CEO, Larry Page, has a ninety-five percent approval rating on Glassdoor, and over ninety percent of employees would recommend working at Google to a friend.

Mean men, with their overabundance of narcissism, are too infatuated with their own vision to ever cede the kind of independence stronger leaders encourage. Rather than a collective vision that others can rally around, it becomes one man’s manifesto. By placing profit over purpose, mean men often crush employees in a senseless grind. They end up not only losing talent; the reputation they develop repels it. Ultimately, the paradox becomes the actual compromise of profit because of employees’ diminishing motivation and ability to innovate.

On the other hand, I’ve found three key traits that distinguish well-liked and organizationally successful entrepreneurs from their tyrannous peers. “Civil” leaders are

  • One aspect of successful leadership requires embracing the reality that employees’ needs vary. One size does not fit all. One small but illustrative example: rather than offering an employee a generic gift card, for example, find out what the employee’s favorite shop is and buy them a gift card there. No sense giving a vegetarian a hundred dollars to spend at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. Civil leaders scale this concept and find strategies large and small to find ways to accommodate their employees rather than simply saying, “It’s my way or the highway.”
  • They give accurate and timely feedback on specific accomplishments or initiatives, showing employees they are interested in their unique contributions, even if they were not ultimately successful. I’ve found in my client work that most organizations could stand to do a far better job at creating cultures where continual feedback is the norm, rather than the exception.
  • All-inclusive. They take time to recognize the role that behind-the-scenes people and teams play, knowing it helps instill in them a sense of ownership and pride in the business. Think about how David Letterman used to turn the camera on the cameraperson.

Great leaders treat their employees with civility, and they are also united with their peers. Though the leadership team may be spread out across the country, they try to spend time together outside the office. Whole Foods CEO and cofounder John Mackey found that this type of bond leads to a high degree of trust, better communication, and a willingness to work things out when problems and disagreements arise.

It makes sense that when the most senior members of an organization are civil, it trickles down. When a big challenge arises, they’ll be ready to analyze it from multiple perspectives—rather than go into “turf war mode,” while everybody on the sidelines watches and wonders, Are these people doing what we are supposed to aspire to?

As entrenched as mean-man culture can seem, these new CEOs are showing a better way forward. And that’s a fact.

Can We Protect Those Who Confront Mean Men?

We’re all privy to the dramas of mean men as they unfold in the media, but what about when those offenses happen closer to home? What if it’s you or one of your colleagues suffering at the hands of a mean boss? How do you call them on it . . . and who do you call? What may be the consequences of blowing the whistle? The intricacies of whistleblower protection in the United States came to the public’s attention in 2002, when the exceedingly bad behavior of a group of rogue top executives at Enron begat the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. This act provides protection to employees who decide to blow the whistle when they have evidence of illegal conduct.

Whistleblower legislation is not new. The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 covers federal whistleblowers; the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 covers employees of publicly owned corporations; and in 2014, protection was significantly widened by the US Supreme Court to include private corporations functioning as subcontractors to publicly owned firms.

Still, all this legalese provides little comfort to the individual who is working in an organization that fails to meet these criteria for protection.

The ethics violations that are most frequently reported are not confined to obviously illegal acts such as financial fraud or safety violations. The Ethics Resource Center notes in its 2011 National Business Ethics Survey that the top unethical workplace behavior cited was misuse of company time. The second and third most frequent forms of misconduct reported were abusive behavior and lying to employees.

Patricia Harned, the center’s president, says that although abuse is not often labeled unethical, it is the number one reason people leave their jobs.

It gets worse.

Whistleblowing is on the rise, but so is retaliation. According to the Ethics Resource Center’s report, more than one-fifth of employees interviewed—two times as many as reported in 2007—said they had experienced negative consequences for reporting workplace misconduct. Some were simply given the cold shoulder, while others were passed over for promotion.

And it gets worse still: in 2011, 31 percent of whistleblowers said they received physical threats when outed, compared to 4 percent in 2009.

Retaliation against whistleblowers doesn’t just threaten individuals: it threatens our culture. To curb this egregious behavior, we must attempt to do all of the following simultaneously:

  • create a system and a process that fosters the exposure of abusive behavior
  • protect the whistleblower
  • ensure that the information gets to the proper authorities

One major obstacle to employees of entrepreneur-driven firms safely and securely naming or ousting mean men is that they have no “big law” backing. Many of these firms lack a strong internal system of checks and balances, and higher-ups simply don’t know what’s going on day to day in the ranks. In these cases, implementation of a 360-degree review or upward review process, where employees rate their managers, can help.

In 2013, I was asked to consult for an aggressive sales-driven firm with a mean entrepreneur at the helm. This man hoarded as much control as possible, and in the arrogant style typical of so many mean men, he believed he couldn’t lose.

A few years earlier, he had created a board that he planned to use whenever he needed to. Believing that his new board members would be happy simply to take a directorship fee and add some gravitas to meetings, he was shaken to discover that, in fact, they had a very low tolerance for behavior that could damage their company.

When word about his toxicity began to trickle in from reliable sources, action was taken. I helped set up a full management assessment process, and the company swiftly kicked this individual to the curb. Nobody has looked back since.

Another organization I worked with recently was founded by a brilliant entrepreneur who many considered demonically possessed by the will to achieve. He worked nonstop in a cutthroat industry, and yet, unlike our arrogant control freak above, this man expected and fostered civility. He promoted the notion that if you treat employees with respect, they’ll do their best.

This man wasn’t threatened by the idea of implementing a system of checks and balances; in fact, he invited me to create one that was anchored in the values he aspired to for his firm. Employees participated enthusiastically because they felt safe and empowered. The culture quickly became even healthier, with everyone, literally, reaping greater net profit.

There is no singular silver bullet to address mean men who are in positions of power. Context-specific solutions work, but they must be organization-specific and leadership-specific as well. Clarity about the values that undergird the firm’s culture, along with a zeal for actually instilling those values, must exist. Consequences for breaching civility must be meaningful in order to bring about cultural change.

Leaders who tend not to play well with others tend to play even worse when cornered or exposed. And according to the numbers above, these leaders are getting away with committing abuse upon abuse now more than ever before—despite whistleblowing legislation and the increased public awareness of bullying.

Setting up better internal systems of checks and balances will help ensure that whistleblowers do report. How can we expect brave whistleblowers to put their careers—and sometimes even their well-being—on the line if we don’t have their backs?

The deeper issue here, however, is the culture that permits these abuses to run rampant to begin with. When mean men are excused for egregious behavior by their boards as long as they have a solid bottom line, when they’re given a pass from the media for as long as their success holds, and when we explain them away as fragile, emotional geniuses, we’re giving them the green light to treat people however they see fit. And we all need to blow the whistle on that.