Tim had been on the fast track. An Ivy League graduate, he had joined one of the premier consulting firms as an associate. He went on to take an MBA at INSEAD, graduating at the top of his class. Recruited by a pharmaceutical firm he rose quickly through the ranks, joining the executive team in record time. Within just eight years after joining the company he was appointed its CEO.
That was when things started to fall apart. Colleagues soon noticed that Tim seemed oddly reluctant to take important decisions. He would put off big projects and spend an inordinate amount of time on minor problems. As a result, the company missed out on some big opportunities.
His behavior became increasingly worrisome. He would turn up visibly drunk for important meetings. Although the board cut Tim some slack at first, his shortcomings quickly became too obvious to be to be ignored and within two years of his appointment the board dismissed him.
What went wrong?
Tim came to ask me that very question after he had lost his job. Listening to his story, I realized that its origins stretched back to his childhood. Tim seemed to have unconscious feelings of guilt about his success. I discovered that he was consumed by the idea (crazy as it may sound) that his being too successful would upset his father, who had repeatedly failed in his business endeavors and had become embittered by it.
He had taken out these emotions on Tim, constantly telling him that he (Tim) didn’t have what it took to be successful. As the years went by, Tim had internalized these criticisms. But his debasing sense of self remained dormant until he became CEO. With nowhere further to go, he revealed the inadequacy he had been so anxious to conceal, perversely sabotaging his own career in order to fulfill his belief that he wasn’t up to the top job.
This fear of success is a more common dynamic than you might think. Many years ago, Sigmund Freud tried to explain it in an essay called “Those Wrecked by Success”, published in his 1916 workSome Character Types Met With in Psycho-Analytic Work. He noted that some people become sick when a deeply rooted and long-cherished desire comes to fulfillment. He gave as an example a professor who cherished a wish to succeed his teacher. When eventually the wish came true and the professor succeeded his mentor, depression, feelings of inadequacy, and work inhibition set in. It was as if this professor felt he had not deserved his success in some way and that it was a manifest travesty to step into his mentor’s shoes.
I’ve encountered many high-flying executives like Tim who function extremely well as long as they aren’t in the number-one position. But the moment they’re placed in the spotlight, they are in uncharted territory and can no longer hide behind someone else. As President Truman used to say, “The buck stops here.” CEOs — whoever they are in whatever organization — have to make crucial decisions. They can’t pass the buck to anybody else. In that extremely visible role, they become highly vulnerable. Their effectiveness diminishes as they succumb to self-destructive behaviors. Some of them feel like impostors. Most also fear that the higher they climb, the further they’ll fall when they make a mistake. There’s also the constant worry that rivals will take their success away. As the writer Ambrose Bierce said in The Devil’s Dictionary, “Success is the one unpardonable sin against one’s fellows.”
The first step towards getting over the fear of success is to recognize it. Think back to your childhood. Did a parent, another family member, or a teacher, or a sports coach keep telling you that you weren’t very capable or likeable, or never seem to be satisfied with your work, no matter how well you performed? To overcome his fears, I had to get Tim surface his associations around success. He needed to better understand the sources of his fears and discard his secret self-image as an unsuccessful, undeserving person.
During the coaching process, Tim came to realize how busily he had engaged in self-sabotaging activities that held him back from achieving his goals and dreams—including in his personal life. What he found particularly helpful was being asked questions that challenged his internal narrative of success. For example, how did he envision success? Could he do a “cost-benefit analysis” of what it meant to be successful?
Tim was lucky; he got a second chance at another company. And thanks to his voyage of self-discovery he was able to overcome his fear of success. As boards consider promising executives for promotion it’s probably worthwhile engaging some coaching help to make sure that the young star they have such high hopes for does not get extinguished by some hidden and unjustified sense of unworthiness.
Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries is the Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development and Organizational Change at INSEAD in France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi. His most recent book is The Hedgehog Effect: The Secrets of Building High Performance Teams(Wiley, 2011).
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