It’s Not Worth It
Three times in my career, I’ve had firsthand experiences with CEOs who behaved badly. I’m not talking about poor judgment as it relates to business decisions; but actions that were unethical, immoral and/or illegal. In each of these, the damage to the CEO and the company was significant. In addition to my firsthand experiences, I’m aware of a couple of dozen other instances that were shared with me by people I trust. Stories like these rarely show up in the media or blog posts. The circle of knowledge usually stays very tight in order to minimize shrapnel which can cause even greater damage to the company, its employees, customers, debtors and shareholders. Board members and lawyers wind up working ’round the clock to contain the damage and importantly, fulfill the duty of care that board members are bound by.
In each of these instances I’m convinced that the behavior was not premeditated. In not a single case I was involved in or aware of, do I believe the CEO set out to build a company with the intent of placing themselves or anyone else in jeopardy. As I reflect on the circumstances surrounding each one, I believe that these CEOs were feeling tremendous pressure (more internally driven than externally) and the resulting behavior was a coping mechanism to deal with it. What’s interesting is that the size of the company was irrelevant. One was a startup with about $1M in revenue. The second about $25M and the third well over $100M.
Once you’ve gotten to know enough CEOs, you begin to understand that it’s one of the loneliest jobs in the world. Unless they’ve learned to practice radical transparency with at least one or more of their board members (an acquired skill) or have a mentor/coach/friend with whom they’ve built a profoundly trusting relationship, most don’t have someone to share their deepest fears with and the pressure can be debilitating. Like a magma chamber boiling below the surface, eventually the building stress needs a release. Without the self-confidence, skills and set of experiences to give them the courage to open up to someone, a lapse in judgment (mostly by people who pride themselves in having a strong moral compass) isn’t as rare as you might think.
Nothing is worth compromising your values and placing yourself and the company you’ve worked so hard to build in this position. It’s a brutally difficult job and you’re a beautifully complicated human being. None of us are infailable. Find a CEO coach. Seek out other CEOs and build relationships with people who understand the challenges of the job and with whom you can open up to (and vice versa). It’s been great to see the recent proliferation of CEO peer groups and I’m heartened to hear how much value CEOs I know are getting out of them.
Whatever you do, if you find yourself peering into the abyss and are contemplating something that you know in your heart crosses a line; talk to someone. It’s simply not worth it.