Importantitis, Hubris and the Entrepreneur

By | April 25, 2011

Tim Askew - CEO Corporate Rain InternationalIn her book, Stephen Sondheim: A Life, Meryle Secrest quotes composer Steven Sondheim on his friend and colleague Leonard Bernstein’s consistent failure to produce any significant music after his great masterpiece “West Side Story.” Sondheim says Bernstein developed “a bad case of importantitis.” That is, anything he touched, by self- definition, had to have the weight and portent of the great.

Importantitis can sure be a killer of creativity and corporate health for the entrepreneur, as well as for the artist. I was reminded about this by the dizzying fall from grace of Mark Hurd at Hewlett Packard, a man of achievement and power brought low by ethics violations and the apparent attitude that he was above the rules. (Or who can forget Leona Helmsley‘s famous statement that the rules apply only to “the little people.”)

Jonah Lehrer wrote an article  on this in the Wall Street Journal called “The Power Trip”. Lehrer notes what psychologists call the “paradox of power.” That is, the very traits which help leaders rise to power disappear once they ascend. Instead of being courteous, honest and outgoing they often become impulsive, reckless and rude—subject to hubristic overreach and Icarus-like arrogance. He quotes extensively from University of California, Berkely psychologist Dacher Keltner‘s scientific findings from studies of power and success. Dr. Keltner states, “When you give people power, they basically start acting like fools. They flirt inappropriately, tease in a hostile fashion, and become totally impulsive.” Dr. Keltner goes on the compare the feeling of power to brain damage, stating that people with great power tend to behave like neurological patients with a damaged orbito-frontal lobe, a brain area essential for empathy and decision-making.

An entrepreneur is usually a boss. He is a person of power, if only in his own very small pond. As such, I believe it is crucial to avoid importantitis. At my own outsourced executive sales firm, Corporate Rain International, I try to guard against this in several ways. One is I never stop cold-calling. At this point I could have other people take over this task completely for me. But I want to experience what my associates and employees experience for clients each day, which includes a great deal of rejection. Another way Is that I genuinely try to never employ anyone who isn’t better than myself, and then I listen to their input.

In a recent article, Patrick Caddell, a Democratic pollster, observes there is an increasing inability of executives to admit mistakes, even including both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and how unuseful a quality this is in an executive. He says, “As we’ve seen again and again over the past few years, admitting a mistake is almost constitutionally impossible for today’s corporate chiefs and even harder for politicians.”

Thomas Bailey Aldrich states in “Ponkapog Papers” (1903), “The possession of unlimited power will make a despot of almost any man. There is a possible Nero in the gentlest human creature that walks.” Thanks, Thomas.

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2 thoughts on “Importantitis, Hubris and the Entrepreneur

  1. Julie

    Hi Tim, I very much enjoyed reading this article because it provided some great quotes and observations of what I have seen over and over again in the legal profession. Obviously the syndrome is greatly influenced by personality however even the most intelligent and experienced seem to fall prey to their need to enforce their perceived superiority. The seductive trap of believing one is “higher thinker” and therefore always right really comes down to a either laziness or a startling inability to understand and empathize with your opponant’s argument. As you have described, the cost is high and impacts all those associated with the affected person, both through business and in their personal life.

  2. tim askew

    Dear Julie,

    Thanks for your well-written and thoughtful response to my post. I do not doubt that this post is especially pertinent to the legal profession, thought that is not my purview. You win in business long-term by simply concentrating on results and service. Besides, it’s simply a better, more comfortable and practical way to live. At least that’s my naive belief.


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