Watching the latest installments of Must CEO TV--disgraced corporate execs carted off in handcuffs or robotically taking the 5th in front of congressional committees--I found myself thinking that instead of the usual talk-show pundits, it would be more useful to convene a round-table discussion on the subject featuring Dr. Phil, Dr. Jung and Dr. Freud. Call it "The Three Doctors." I'd love to hear what these legendary explorers of the human psyche would make of the likes of John Rigas, Dennis Kozlowski, Bernie Ebbers, Sam Waksal and those Three Horsemen of the Enron Apocalypse--Ken Lay, Jeff Skilling and Andy Fastow. What led these men to do the despicable things they did?
In "Without Conscience," renowned criminologist Robert Hare identified the key emotional traits of psychopaths: the inability to feel remorse, a grossly inflated view of oneself, a pronounced indifference to the suffering of others and a pattern of deceitful behavior.
Could there be any better example of a person with a grandiose--and sociopathic--sense of entitlement, of feeling that the rules that mere mortals live by don't apply to him, than Adelphia's Rigas? He thought nothing of "borrowing" $3.1 billion from his shareholders.
If you are looking for a poster boy for the inability to feel regret or shame, Tyco's Kozlowski is definitely your man. Tyco shareholders may be out $80 billion in market value, and he may be facing trial as a notorious tax cheat, but "Deal-a-Day Dennis" refused to let a few unfortunate details like these stop him from hosting a lavish Fourth of July holiday bash that featured cases of vintage wine and rides around Nantucket Harbor on his $25-million yacht.
And you'd be hard-pressed to find a man more willing to play fast and loose with the truth than that indefatigable social climber, Sam Waksal. He didn't just lie about big things, like the prospects of FDA approval for his company's cancer drug Erbitux. He lied even when there was nothing to gain, claiming he was 52 when he was 54 and that he was raised in Toledo, Ohio, when he grew up in Dayton. Either way, he's a middle-aged Middle American, so why the subterfuge?
But before we get too comfortable pointing our fingers, we need to admit that their antisocial behavior could not have flourished in a vacuum. We allowed it. Even celebrated it. Like the klepto-CEOs, our culture also suffered a severe empathy shortage during the irrationally exuberant '90s.
For instance, few seemed to care that, even at the height of the bull market, we still had more than 14 million children living below the poverty level. But who had time to notice, especially when another hot new IPO was about to turn some twentysomething computer geek into a dot-com billionaire?
And just as Jeff Skilling, who abandoned the sinking Enron ship, exhibits the psychopath's profound proclivity for denial--continuing to insist that he "made the right decisions"--so too did our culture. During the '90s, denial replaced baseball as the national pastime. We buried our heads in the sand, unwilling to question the integrity of the bulls rushing down Wall Street for fear it might jeopardize the 30% rate of return we had come to see as our birthright. And the buoyant pronouncements of our political leaders only served to hammer home the delusion that the party would go on forever.
"Never has the promise of prosperity been so vivid," said candidate George Bush in the days leading up to the 2000 election, while his opponent, Al Gore, blithely hailed "the greatest prosperity ever" and promised voters: "You ain't seen nothing yet." Just as our culture at large has celebrated shallowness, so too did the corporate culture. It started putting a premium on charismatic CEOs who looked good on the cover of Forbes and Business Week.
It turns out, of course, that far too many of these golden boys were good on the tube but tended to overlook mundane little things like where to list the assets on the balance sheet.
Reckless grandiosity? Grotesque delusion? Sheer madness? Paging Dr. Freud.