Worse Than Enemies: The CEO’s Destructive Confidant

Posted on November 2, 2007 
Filed Under Management

The article by psychoanalyst Kerry J. Sulkowicz in HBR, Feb 2004 explores how trusted insiders to the CEO can at most times complement their strengths, deriving their gratification vicariously – ie. Steve Ballmer to Bill Gates, Charlie Munger to Warren Buffett – but sometimes the confidant relationship can become toxic.

“Dangerous confidants come in all shapes and sizes. They are sometimes intentionally scheming and deceitful. Like Rasputin, the crafty manipulator of the Russian imperial family, these overtly bad confidants have sociopathic personalities: They habitually lie and cheat to achieve their aims without any apparent constraints of conscience.

“Take someone we’ll call Sanford Anderson. (I have changed the names in our examples to protect the privacy of the individuals and companies depicted.)

The CEO of a privately held real estate business in the Midwest, a company worth billions, Anderson fell victim to just such a confidant. Early in his career, Anderson’s corporate attorney, Gregg Mayer, had saved the firm millions by deftly handling a discrimination lawsuit, which earned him Anderson’s undying gratitude and respect.

“As the years passed, Anderson came to rely on Mayer’s advice about everything from investment strategy, architecture and design, to personnel development.

“Although Anderson was in most respects a highly effective CEO, he had never seriously contemplated the prospect of retiring. Anderson’s worries about retirement took the form of denial of his own mortality.

“Instead of acknowledging his anxiety, he manifested it by plunging even more deeply into work, while ignoring his fatigue and gradual loss of passion. Consequently, he had never set in place an adequate succession plan.

“Given the toxic confidant that he was, Mayer used the lack of succession planning as an opportunity to advance his own interests. Mayer preyed on Anderson’s anxieties about aging and retirement by fueling his fears about whom might want to wrest control of his business.

“… When Anderson stepped down, he impulsively handed the reins of power to Mayer. Shocked by the announcement of the new CEO, several key members of the management team stormed out in protest. Unfortunately , without the skills of these key players, the company was soon in trouble, and Anderson’s legacy was ruined…”

Sulkowicz describes three distinct types of destructive confidants:

1. Reflector: Mirrors the CEO, constantly reassuring him that “he is the fairest of them all.”
2. Insulator: Buffers CEO from organization, preventing critical info from getting out and in.
3. Usurper: Cunningly ingratiates himself with the CEO, in a desperate bid for power.

He says most CEOs are narcissistic – or else they wouldn’t be leaders – and select reflector confidants who cater to their fragile self-esteem but are themselves driven by their own neurotic needs to please authority.

CEOS who seek insulators tend to arrogant, abusive and abrasive and so at odds with their subordinates they need a mediator who can translate their poorly communicated ideas. The insulator is constantly apologizing to the others on the CEO’s behalf and shielding the CEO to a point where he gets cut off from senior management and the grassroots.

Usurpers are the worst of the lot. They are sociopaths, deliberately scheming and ambitious, and only uses the relationship to empower himself.

The best literary example of this: Shakespeare’s Iago who manipulated Othello to kills his beloved Desdemona.

Sulkowicz cautions that ousting the toxic confidant is often difficult because of the personal stake the CEO has in it. The most unaware CEOs choose the worst confidants, and may repeat this pattern if unable to see how destructive the relationship has become.

Often, the best thing to do is jettison both at the same time.

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