After working with a lot of different organizations over my career, I've learned that many people who run the executive suites and boardrooms are sick puppies. Emotionally and mentally, they are unhealthy.
Although there's no research that I've come across, my estimate is that many large corporations have people in very senior positions who are clearly not normal.
Now, as you, yourself, have probably figured out by now, a lot of individuals move up the organization chart because they're prepared to do what others will not. They show the decision-makers that they deserve to be promoted because they'll do things like: work 80-hour weeks, forego vacations, travel away from home routinely, take crappy jobs no one else could succeed in, and generally give the corporate bosses anything they ever asked of them.
As a leadership coach, I don't applaud or encourage this behavior. But if it works for them and doesn't hurt others, then so be it.
But some people in C-level or top executive roles do hurt others. And, making matters worse, their behavior and style is often copied by less-senior execs who think that they're modeling "appropriate" management style. In doing this, these copycats usually hurt themselves (both physically and emotionally) and often short-circuit their careers.
As a rule of thumb, modeling the successful behaviors used by the bosses is a pretty worthwhile move. That's because when one behaves as if they share the same values and style as the decision-makers, they often get promoted more quickly. The decision-makers assumed that the time required to develop these individuals will be less than for other managers who don't act the same as the bosses. The old adage, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do," still pays off.
But what if the boss is a sicko? What if (s)he has a style, which, although it gets results, is not healthy for the long-term success of the company or those involved? In those situations, by modeling the boss, these folks are creating a company-wide culture as toxic as the guy or gal they're using for a style model. I'm talking specifically about bosses who are either narcissists or psychopaths.
Avoid these folks as much as possible. Do not use them as role models even if they appear to be successful and happy. If you don't take this advice, ultimately, it will hurt you.
But how can you recognize these people who may have good titles but unhealthy style? Here are a couple of tips from Paul Babiak, PhD and co-other of the book "Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go To Work" to help you recognize them:
1. Psychopaths - "exhibit a strong charisma, charm, and sense of self worth. Many folks are attracted to these types because they are so charming, only to discover conning, manipulation, and deceit." When you discover that they are deceivers, move away as soon as you can. These people don't have the same emotions that you and I share. They will eat their young.
2. Narcissists - "in love with themselves, they believe everything revolves around them. Selfish, demanding and self absorbed, deep down they often have a lack of self-confidence and can't take criticism well." Although they're not cannibals, their unhealthy style usually results in a crash and burn outcome. But they'll blame you or someone else because they can't even contemplate that the reason for a failure is them. So you go down.
If you want to move ahead organizationally but think that you're in a company managed by either of these personality types; you've got to make a conscious decision regarding how much you are prepared to change your style to match theirs.
If you are prepared to act and manage like they do, recognize it will ultimately change the person you are. Otherwise you won't make it. If you are not prepared to change, then accept the fact that you need to get out while you are still clear headed.
And finally, accept that you won't succeed if you try to show a more enlightened style in this culture. But you may lose your true self if you're there long enough.
John M. McKee is the founder and CEO of BusinessSuccessCoach.net, an international consulting and coaching practice with subscribers in 43 countries. One of the founding senior executives of DIRECTV, his hands-on experience includes leading billion dollar organizations and launching start-ups in both the U.S. and Canada. The author of two published books, he is frequently seen providing advice on TV, in magazines, and newspapers.