Executive Careers Blog

Sex, Money, and Power: How to Avoid Disaster

Another CEO got fired last week.  Big company, big scandal.

I take these stories personally.  What's the chance, I wondered, of that happening to me? 

Imagine checking your horoscope one day:  "Get ready for some excitement! 

"You're about to be axed for falsifying $20,000 of expenses, and trying to conceal your relationship with an attractive consultant.  She's now accusing you of sexual harassment.  Have a great day!"

Who would believe that prediction? 

No one—not even the CEO.  If he'd seen that horoscope years ago, he would have laughed.

"I'd never do that," we tell ourselves.  The scandal is always about someone else, different from us, and we explain it with clichés: 

Power corrupts.  Don't trust anyone over 30.  All men are swine.


But it's more instructive to look at the story as if you were in it.  Suspend judgment for a minute—imagine you're the CEO.  What would make you act like that? 

Temptation.  And a (temporary) lack of self-control.

Well, that affects all of us.  For example, right now, working at home, I'm tempted to interrupt work, go to the kitchen, and eat a double chocolate energy bar. 

I'm not really hungry, and I don't really like energy bars.  But who cares—eating is an escape.  So is checking email.  Maybe I should do that; it's been at least five minutes. 

Think of self-control as a muscle—it gets depleted over the day.  (That's according to research by psychologists Mark Muraven and Roy F. Baumeister.)

To strengthen your muscle:

1) Pace yourself.  Schedule tasks that demand discipline and self-control in short bursts of 30-60 minutes. 

Then take a break.

Also break when you're emotionally triggered.  Are you tempted to say something, email something, or do something that you'll later regret?

STOP.  Picture a big red stop sign.  STOP.

Distract yourself.  Take 10 deep breaths.  Or walk around the block.  Or, if you absolutely must, eat an energy bar.

2) Take "The New York Times test" when faced with an ethical dilemma

How would you feel if a major newspaper splashed a story about you and your behavior all over the front page?

Embarrassed?  Then don't do it.

3) Make commitments that you can keep.  Then keep them.  You're only as strong as your word.

The CEO mentioned earlier had a stellar record, at least financially.  He'd doubled the share price in five years.  But he also broke the company's code of conduct. 

So the board fired him. Later that day, the stock fell 8%.  The board must have known that would happen.

It's not easy to do the right thing.


Consultant, author, speaker, and founder of express potential® (  Paul Hellman has worked with CEOs, executives, and managers at leading companies for over 25 years to improve performance and productivity at work. His latest book is “Naked at Work: How to Stay Sane When Your Job Drives You Crazy,” and his columns have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and other leading papers.

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