Why really smart executives do really stupid things

Viewed in The Wall Street Journal

No doubt, you have seen at least one of these cases of late, and likely many more: A top Fortune 1000 chief executive officer seemingly has it all on the ball.

Publicly acclaimed

He or she is leading their company in strategic and creative ways, beating expectations, growing market share and profitability, receiving awards and public acclaim, and is both richly rewarded for this leadership.

What is more, they do all of this in ways that may even appear seemingly effortless.

Abrupt leaving

Then, unexpected for his or her many admirers, comes a shocking public allegation of inappropriate advances, harassment, or relations with an employee under his or own direct or indirect supervision followed by an abrupt, career-killing departure, sometimes characterized by an abrupt corporate statement that he or she would be leaving to “spend more time with their family” or some such generic corporate statement. 

How can this happen?

The question, of course, is: How could such a seemingly smart, intuitive, strategic, and career conscious executive make such an utterly self-defeating career mistake, harming his or her company, his or her family, and obviously himself or herself in the process?

It is a deep question, and it turns out there actually are a few very common answers. Rosabeth Moss Kanter dives into the most common ones in this Wall Street Journal article. None of these, of course, are excuses for ill-advised, harmful, and often illegal behavior. But it is true that the very characteristics of many chief executives, including the culture in which they function, increase the probability for hugely inadvisable, inappropriate, and prohibited behavior.

Isolation

It starts with a chief executive’s isolation. Surrounded often by aides and without peers who are inclined to speak with him or her directly, chief executives sometimes begin to feel their behavior is beyond the typical levels of scrutiny that accompanies their subordinates.

Entitled

“Therefore,” Kanter writes, “they feel justified in seizing what they want for themselves, believing they are entitled to indulge.” Of course, they also are usually wrong in such an assumption, but culture that surrounds a top executive sometimes can create that false sense in which what should be obvious is not.

Then there is the sense of entitlement. What entitlement? Well, of course, there is none. But the very characteristics of self-confidence that likely aid a top executive on his or her course to the pinnacle of professional accomplishment can sometimes falsely blend into a sense that the totality of their behavior is beyond reproach.

Self confidence

“Self confidence can veer if an executive isn’t careful,” Kanter contends. Too regularly, of course, “careful” is not a characteristic exhibited by the wayward top executive.

Strongly engaged

Then there is the factor of a top executive’s self-talk. One characteristic of most chief executives is that they do actually invest themselves hugely in their jobs, often working into the night and seven days a week.

Additionally, even if they do not labor to this extent, they often pursue, and actually achieve, lofty goals that at first seemed beyond grasp. But each of these realities often can create a third sense—what business schools teach as “equity theory”–that they are deserving of something they almost certainly know is outside bounds of corporate guidelines and often even the law.

Over achieve

True, top executives often do work hard. True also that that often achieve goals few others could. But not true is any assumption they might hold that either of these facts justifies inappropriate behavior. That assumption alone sometimes begins a wayward executive’s downfall.

Flattery

The final contributing factor is that a top executive always runs the risk of becoming accustomed to and believing of the flattery that is thrown his or her way daily.

What often is no more than a subordinate’s efforts to maintain a collegial and positive interaction with their company’s top executive gets mistranslated as being more than it really is. Buying this verbal hype also can send an executive down a course that proves harmful and self-destructive.

Life is different at the top

“In short,” Kanter concludes, “life is different at the top. Without great strength of character, humility in wielding power, openness and transparency, top executives can forget that the rules do apply to them, too.”

Rules also apply at the top

But as we all have likely seen in what certainly seem to be an excessive number of such cases of late, the lesson is that the rules do to apply to them too. The time to realize that, of course, is not when an executive is on the receiving end of allegations but before even the misguided thought of such an offense ever occurs.

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