Why would someone do that? I mean, when you have all that success and power, why would you put it all at risk?

No, my client and I weren’t talking about Michael Jackson – although we could have been because some of the reasons behind his sad death this week were no doubt due to his issues and behaviors. Many of them are fairly common. They also affect leaders at all levels. You’ve probably witnessed them in action firsthand. If not, you will at some point.

We were talking about a leader in a large well-known corporation. He’d just shot himself in the foot; caught fudging his expense reports. He was now under review by the accounting department and the CEO was cranky about his dumb actions. Although it probably won’t cost the leader his job, it will result in his career being stalled. And so, the question was: “Why would someone who clearly doesn’t need the extra money exaggerate his expense reports and risk getting busted?”

That’s where his situation and Michael Jackson’s come together with those of many other individuals in leadership roles – whatever the business or profession.

Each of us has what social psychologists call underlying automatic commitments, or UACs. These are behaviors that we do repeatedly, regardless of risk or the fact that, intellectually, we know what we are doing is not wise. There are many studies as to what drives people to behave in ways that could damage their lives; and each of us have unique situations and experiences. But, for our purpose here, the bottom line is this:

Many leaders, develop a kind of “king of the universe” mentality. They have success where others failed, or perhaps like the real superstars in any sector (business, entertainment, politics, etc) they’ve had monstrous success that is way beyond those of mere mortals. They’ve achieved and done things that most others tried and failed. At some emotional and not intellectual level they start to believe they are bulletproof and cannot fail.

If, in addition, to this feeling of infallibility, if they have emotional problems or psychological insecurities (most people, in one way, shape or form), they can really start acting like men behaving badly. And, for the most part, these traits are exhibited mostly by men, by the way.

So we hear and read about Michael Jackson feeling so “ugly” that he needs continuous facial reconstruction, and being so preoccupied about nobody loving him that he can’t spend time with most adults for any length of time. We see a future-presidential candidate, the married Governor of South Carolina, admitting that he lied to people about his travel and expenses while he had an affair with a woman in Argentina. The same with John Edwards a couple of years ago. In the corporate environment, we hear of millions of dollars being spent for company parties by heads of large financial institutions even while the company’s earnings are tanking.

And on a lower level, we see successful executives trying to bilk a company’s expense policies; risking their reputation and career progress. We see leaders – who know the importance and significant benefits that come from frequent interaction with their teams – not being around or available for one on one meetings enough.

All of these folks “know” better, but are “driven” by UACs.

As a leadership coach, I have a lot of discussions with folks about motivation and what it can create. Both good and bad. It is important to recognize your motivators and then ensure that what you are doing is done consciously. When you are conscious, aware, or present-centered you make your best decisions and the successes follow. But when you allow your deep-seated issues to move you, the results can be disastrous.


Career Coach