I knew the company had big people problems. Everyone did. If organizations had personality and mood profiles like people—and I would argue that they do—I would describe our company as having chronic major depression. Something did need to be done for our company to be successful in the long run. And while the president was behind this meeting, everyone—except him—seemed to know that the bottom-line problem was the president himself. He was one of the most un-people-persons I’ve ever known.
He must have been aware of this—at least at some level. People close to him must have told him because at one time he held a series of breakfast meetings to reach out to people with three or four headquarter employees at a time. In my meeting with him, he spoke about the great progress of his company. I don’t recall anyone else saying a word. He asked no questions. He did all the talking.
Once when I passed him in a hallway and said hello, he said nothing, turned his head up and away from me and kind of smirked. I don’t think he did this on purpose. I think he lacked awareness of how his interactions affected others.
Another thing he did was to abruptly fire people—including his key vice presidents. They were directed to leave the building immediately. This seemed to happen when things weren’t going well for him with the company owners. In my mind, he gave the phrase “thrown under the bus” a whole new meaning. I heard an engineer coworker once comment at the water cooler that when there were lions around, the president would throw out the bodies of employees ahead of him.
The time for the big two-day meeting came. It was held in a large basement conference room without windows (probably not a good choice for a meeting like this) in a hotel near our office building. Incidentally, this hotel is where former NFL football star OJ Simpson stayed the night after he fled on a plane from Los Angeles after his wife had been brutally murdered. We employees called the hotel “The OJ Hotel.”
The meeting was okay—not too weird. It felt like kind of a sensitivity training session. We were asked to be very open and share our thoughts and feelings.
While we met, I couldn’t help thinking that there was a big elephant in the room: It was the president’s interpersonal skills and his management tactics. The key problem was that the president didn’t care about and respect other people. In turn, people didn’t respect and care much for him. The emperor wore no clothes.
Please picture this. All company managers at a chronically depressed company held a sensitivity training session led by a cult organization in the “OJ Hotel.” There was a big elephant in the room, and the president wore no clothes. As is said, sometimes fact is stranger than fiction!
But seriously, I don’t think the meeting did much good. Things continued working in pretty much the same way, and the president continued in his old ways. Several months later, I was abruptly terminated and asked to leave the building immediately. The reasons for my termination given by my boss were not the real reasons, I don’t believe. At the time the president was taking heat from the owners and others about some financial projections that the president and I had prepared together. I understand that later, the company and all its operations were sold and the management team was dissolved.
In my mind, I don’t blame the president for what happened to the company or to me. I think he did the best he could at leading the company given the skills and values he possessed at the time. If blame were to be assigned, perhaps it would be with the company ownership who decided to hire him. Even there, however, they did the best they could in their hiring methods.
Even more importantly though, I am sympathetic to his situation. My subordinates in some of my past positions could write pieces like this one on my past gross inadequacies in leadership—and they’d probably be right! This is painful for me to ponder. It’s easier for me to write about someone else’s flaws!
As I look back, the roots of my issues were the chronic clinical depression and anxiety from which I suffered for years. I was unaware of the impact they had on how I led other people. I was focused inward —self-absorbed—and I was insensitive to others. At the prompting of my dear wife, I got help even though I didn’t see the need when I first began. I participated in psychotherapy. I did a lot of work on understanding myself, my suppressed emotions, and painful unresolved memories of my childhood. I now take an antidepressant. My wife and children, who know me best, tell me my interpersonal skills have improved significantly. I like to think that I’d be a better boss although I don’t supervise anyone right now. I’m much happier and life is more fulfilling.
I have no way of knowing the mental health history of the president of my old company. Nevertheless, I suspect he too had issues. Perhaps like me he was unaware of them. I hope he has recognized these issues and has received help to get to a better place.
The leadership lesson here is that people’s interrelationships do have a significant impact on the success of their organizations—and the pattern is almost always set at the top. Mentally healthy leaders lead healthy organizations. Unhealthy people lead depressed organizations.
In his landmark business leadership book Good to Great, Jim Collins addressed the critical impact of top leaders in organizations. He described traits of chief executives of companies he identified as “great”: “No airs of self-importance,” “lack of pretense,” “ambition is first and foremost for the institution, not themselves,” “willful, humble, and fearless,” “they’d talk about the company and the contributions of other executives…but deflect discussion about their own contributions,” and “never wanted to become larger-than-life heroes.” To me, these sound like outward-looking, mentally healthy people who are at-ease with themselves.
There is no easy fix for leaders who desire to improve, to take-on these traits. These are attributes that come naturally from deep within a healthy being. Significant improvement comes from first resolving personal mental health issues. Practicing nice techniques learned in the classroom are just window dressing. Real change in core attributes takes recognition, help from professionals and others, and a lot of time and effort. There are no shortcuts.
Experts say that 25 percent of the population suffers from mental illness that should be treated and of those, 40 percent go untreated. I speculate that these percentages are greater among highly-driven people in management.
In my experience, this journey of achieving awareness, seeking help, and working to recovery are gut-wrenching. Mental illness stigmas, finding the right fit of mental health professionals, discouragement, and other obstacles are tough. But, it’s worth it.
Most of my career has been spent as a bottom-line oriented CPA. I spent over 25 years with “Big Four” international accounting firms and in the financial management of multinational large enterprises. But now I focus on the touchy-feeling matters of people relationships in the workplace and the mental health of organizations. I’ve come to believe that these matters have a bigger impact on the long-term success of organizations than finances, strategic plans, and metrics. (Gasp! Did a hard-nosed, numbers-driven CPA really say that?)
So what is the most important thing a leader can do if his or her organization is struggling with interpersonal relationship issues? Consider looking inside yourself first. Ask the people with whom you are closest and whom you trust if there are personal issues you should address. Listen very carefully. Then, if they so suggest, get help.
This likely will do more than holding an all-management meeting led by a questionable organization in a hotel with a history.