It is frequently reported that many top executives have integrity and character issues. Not true. Most senior executives are bright, stable, balanced, manage their emotions, work well with others, have sound interpersonal skills, and display prudent judgement. Their names rarely appear in the headlines.
Yet, if you spend your professional career in executive coaching, leadership development, and/or human resources, you will periodically encounter a character disorder(CD) executive. This is an executive with serious personality flaws that compromise their effectiveness, make life miserable for people around them, and create a corrosive atmosphere. To be clear, these are not serial killers or demented drug addicts. We all possess "character" flaws; it's a matter of extremes. This is the "bad" boss and bully. This is the executive whose employees have gone to HR, complained many times, and returned frustrated. The CD's employees are chronically unhappy, frustrated, discouraged, and are busy looking for a new job. Turnover in his/her area is consistently high. They tie everyone around them in knots, destroy careers, undermine teams/divisions and ultimately can wreck an organization. And while they are terrible bosses managing down, their political skills and ability to manage up are outstanding. They bully down and flatter up.
One diagnostic indicator is a very large "ego". They have an ego the size of Montana. Now having an ego is not a bad thing, even one that has swelled a bit. As they say, "it isn't bragging if you can do it". But, when the ego gets too large and can no longer be reined in or managed, when narcissism takes center state, you have a problem and likely a CD. Is it always about them? Can no one else generate a good idea or close a deal? If you're lower in the organization hierarchy--what have they done for you lately? How do they greet you? or do they even bother with the "little people".
If the CD is a senior executive and an even more senior executive starts asking questions about what's going on in the CD's department, they will encounter an eerie silence. Few people rate out their boss. We all know what happens to "whistle blowers". Remember Enron? The downside risk for speaking up is bad: everything from getting "chewed out" to losing your job.
Everyone wonders how they get away with it. Do they have awkward photos hidden somewhere? Or perhaps they have powerful negative information about someone senior they worked with earlier in their career. Is their boss so susceptible to flattery they're blind? Are they managing the company's biggest account, the one it can't afford to lose? Do they control important business relationships representing over 15% of profit? Is anyone brave enough to tamper with that level of "success"?
When trouble erupts and spills into the corridors (and it will) their boss pulls out all the stops to protect them and/or look the other way. It is much easier to have HR soothe the disgruntled and unhappy employee(s). Tell them they're exaggerating or being overly dramatic or misinterpreting their boss's well meaning behavior. It's not harassment, that's constructive criticism. The polished CD executive can be extremely politically correct.
Randy Cheloha, Ph.D. has been consulting to senior executives for over 30 years. He is a licensed psychologist with graduate degrees in both industrial and clinical psychology. This foundation anchors and informs his perspective. He has expertise in executive assessment and coaching, succession planning, and career transition.