The CEO Disease Revisited

Much has been written about abuses of power and violations of trust by would be leaders. In a classic Business Week report, “CEO Disease,” Byrne, Symonds and Flynn cited examples of many CEOs who seemed to change dramatically once they came into power. The seductive nature of the self-serving power shift has negative effects on the organization. “Pampered, perked and protected, many American CEOs have developed an unhealthy love of power which threatens their companies.” They note that power to control this “CEO Disease” rests with shareholders, but by the time it gets to them the damage is often irrevocable.

Lacking Accountability

Often, CEO Disease emanates from a lack of meaningful accountability and a shortage of effective communication. The CEO wants to hear only good news. Subordinates are reluctant or even afraid to ask questions, challenge decisions or bring bad news until it’s too late. In fact, the afflicted CEO often demeans people who bring bad news. Since there’s little accountability, the CEO operates in an alternate reality that can lead to organizational demise.

It’s important to realize that this condition can strike anywhere. Consider the case of Mark Driscoll, Pastor/Founder of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Between 1996 (the founding date) and 2014, Mars Hill grew to some 13,000 members and created 14 branch churches. Driscoll also founded several other organizations including the Gospel Coalition and Acts 29 Network. While he was successful, that success also revealed a harsher side that was unchallenged for years.

According to Christianity Today, when Driscoll finally was challenged, accusers claimed he was, “…guilty of arrogance, responding to conflict with a quick temper and harsh speech…He led staff and elders “in a domineering manner…” Driscoll was also accused of plagiarism for one of his books, and a group of former Mars Hill pastors confronted him about his behavior. Pastor Tim Keller commented that, “The brashness, arrogance and rudeness in personal relationships—which he himself has confessed repeatedly—was obvious to many…and he has…disillusioned quite a lot of people.” Eventually Driscoll resigned and church attendance dropped from 13,000 to about 8,000 in less than a year. By 2015 the doors were closed.

Living a Double Standard

It shouldn’t surprise us when organizational heads abuse power for self-serving purposes. Actually, Driscoll’s behavior wasn’t terribly outlandish, but it was enough to close several churches and hurt organizations with which he was affiliated. It also diminished trust and increased cynicism because his behavior was contrary to the Gospel values taught by the church (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control).

According to one former congregant, “He had always made very clear that he was accountable to a board of elders…that if at any point he needed to step down or change, he’d submit to a democratic process. But on the sly, he had the bylaws rewritten, reconfigured the elders, and pushed out certain people.”

Absent any sense of human obligation grounded in core values, we’re left with a culture driven by preference and power. That’s why consistent alignment of behavior with values is so important. It brings stability and often prosperity to organizations and communities. It also mitigates the misuse of power. Conversely, when individuals and particularly leaders operate using double standards it creates disruption and instability. It also undermines trust, enhances cynicism and lowers productivity.

One has to look no further than government and the media to see a lack of trust that brings cynicism. Consider that recent Pew Research polls reveal that just 22% of Americans trust their government and 24% think the media are believable. That’s why alignment of a leader’s behavior with core values is so crucial, and why its absence is called a disease.