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The Superman Complex

CEO describes the post-Vietman trauma and its effect on his business.
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If it hadn't been for the added stress of trying to save his company, says the author, the grief and fear he'd buried from his Vietnam War days might never have surfaced

Max Carey was a golden boy. He came back from Vietnam a hero. He single-handedly saved his business from going under. But the trauma of both experiences eventually caught up with Carey and forced him to take an unsparing look at who he was -- to admit that he was not a superman, and that he could not go it alone anymore. -- The Editors

* * *

The episode began on a bright Saturday morning in 1984. I went out on my deck with a cup of coffee and the morning newspaper, ready to ease into the weekend. When I opened the paper, there was a picture of the second Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington -- not the famous wall, but the statue of those three combat soldiers. Immediately, something happened to me. I got a cold chill, a twisted knot in the pit of my stomach. My wife found me a few minutes later, sobbing uncontrollably. She was horrified. Since I could not explain to her what was happening, I grabbed a pen and paper. All I managed to scribble was a single word: "Vietnam." And then I really got scared.

Fear, you see, was as foreign to me as failure. The world had always known Max Carey as a winner, number one -- able to do it all, anytime, anyway. Fifteen years before, despite being the smallest football player in the league, I'd been an All-Ivy defensive halfback, setting five school records at Columbia University. As a U.S. Navy pilot, I'd graduated number one in my flight school and was the first in my class to qualify for high-risk missions. From 1971 to 1973, during the last years of the Vietnam conflict, I'd piloted an A-7 off the aircraft carrier USS Midway. I came home a decorated war hero: a golden boy. My business had almost failed in 1982, but I'd turned it around. There was no mission I couldn't fly, no challenge I couldn't overcome.

So my instinctive reaction to this episode was to push it aside. Vietnam? Well, it must have caught me at a weak moment. Within a few hours I was back to normal. Or was I? Driving to work some weeks later, I felt tears trickling down my cheeks. What on earth had happened to make me cry? Nothing I could put my finger on. Now, fear -- real fear -- overtook me. I thought: Oh my God, I'm having a nervous breakdown. Visions of Jack Nicholson in One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest flashed before my eyes. "Max," I told myself, "you can't deal with this right now. You've got a wife and three young children counting on you for their sustenance. You've got eight people in the office who've put their future in your hands, and a world that's always expected the impossible from you. Oh Lord, not now. Please give me more time." But it was not to be. The episodes increased in frequency, and at times I was totally incapacitated.

In simple terms, I'd always been a "stuffer." Rather than deal with difficult emotional issues, I stuffed them deeply into my subconscious. This meant I'd stuffed all the grief and fear brought on by the horrors of combat and death. I had never told my family or employees there was anything I couldn't do. In combat, it was "Keep up the bravado. Don't tell anyone you're scared or weak." In business, it was "God forbid anyone should know you're not perfect.'

In retrospect, I might have been able to go on indefinitely without dealing with the war and my grief. But the cumulative stress of my business is what broke me. It forced me to do something I'd never done before: ask for help.

In 1981, when I began Corporate Resource Development Inc. (after being top salesperson at Ryan Insurance Group, in the Midwest), I was an optimist whose ego exceeded his capabilities. My partner and I had borrowed $150,000 to start the company; yet, as it turned out, we had no idea how to target our sales and marketing services.

Coming home without a paycheck for the first time was far more destructive to me than trying to avoid my first surface-to-air missile in a combat mission into Hanoi. It hadn't been my fault that the guy on the ground was shooting at me, but it was my fault that I couldn't bring money home to my family. When you're the daddy and you're the husband and you walk in and you have no money and you have to look at your family eyeball-to-eyeball -- I couldn't handle it. That's when my partner and I started drinking after work instead of going home.

The company hit bottom in January 1982. We'd been in business eight months and had forecast $50,000 in revenues that month. January was going to make us, was going to heal us -- and we did no business. That's when it came apart. It broke my partner's back. He couldn't stay any longer. I couldn't believe that I'd parlayed a great career for this mire. If I were as strong as I said I was, and as smart, the company would work. Because the ideas were good.

One night in February I took my wife out to dinner on my overextended American Express card. Driving home, I apologized to her for what I'd done to the family. I told her I didn't believe I'd given the business my all yet, and that from that point forward, as long as we could keep the doors open, I was going to give it everything I had. I wanted to build this company; I wanted to build something that would be around after I was gone. And she gave me her unconditional support.

Since I knew it would take two or three years to get on top of things, I was even more determined, more single-minded, more compulsive than ever. I got more dogmatic, less willing to delegate, less understanding, more domineering. I was driving myself further and further away from everybody -- at home and at work. I dealt in staccato communication:

"Did you do this? Why not? I'll do it.

"Why didn't you do it better? Why didn't you think of this?'

The fear of failure -- of being broke again, of not bringing home a paycheck -- was constant. When I was in combat, the terror I felt was instantaneous. I'm in an airplane over somebody else's country. They shoot a missile; I turn to beat it, and I avoid it. It explodes as it passes by. I'm OK. I proceed. That real gut-wrenching terror is over. But this fear is as if a tidal wave were after me. If I stopped and turned around to look at it, it would inundate me. Then on that morning in 1984 the built-up pressure of single-handedly trying to save my company intersected with the subconscious pressure from the Vietnam experience -- and it was just too much to hold in.

* * *

To this day I am still in awe of the resources that were available once I was finally able to admit that I was not, and am not, omnipotent, omniscient, clairvoyant, perfect. Eventually, I went naked to those closest to me and, most important, to my God. My road to recovery started when I met a Vietnam vet at a party, and he touched on the subject of delayed-stress syndrome. We started to meet privately, and he'd say, "Max, let me tell you what happened to me, and maybe it fits for you." He'd been through it; he was very involved in vet activities; he'd been in therapy.

The biggest hurdle for me to overcome was the fear that I was going to be found out. I thought, maybe I'm not strong enough to be who I've become. Maybe this game I've been playing -- accepting responsibility and attacking challenges -- has taken a weak guy and made him look strong. And if I seek help, they're going to get inside my head and are going to show me that I'm just a weak charlatan who's gotten where I am through sheer discipline, willpower, and hope. But when I completely broke down at a church function -- I had shaken hands with a woman who was wearing a POW bracelet -- I knew I had to act.

Again, fate was with me. I went to a college alumni meeting and a classmate of mine -- somebody I knew and trusted -- was there. He was a professional psychologist, and I started seeing him. For the vet in me, confronting the horrors of war after the fact, the solution was relatively straightforward: open the subconscious and deal with the grief and the fear. My monthly trips to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington were part of that healing process. My lingering grief has to do with the fear I was forced to experience. Fear that deep changes a man.

For the entrepreneur in me, though, the learning curve was far steeper. One day my psychologist said, "Let me guess what it's like at your company. The people are detached, they're a little afraid of you, they do what you tell them to do, and that's about it. You feel they're not contributing." I said, "You're absolutely right. What's wrong with them?" "Max," he said, "the question is 'What's wrong with you?' '

Then this thing unfolded about my trying to be perfect, never admitting weakness. With his help, I eventually tried a very simple exercise. "Go back to your employees," he suggested, "and instead of using the word 'weak,' use 'real.' That is, don't say 'I need your help because I'm weak.' Say, 'I need your help because I'm real.' See, because you're not real to them, they can't understand you, they can't identify with you, and they can't help you.'

That simple act of redefining weakness was a breakthrough. The next day, I called in my number-two guy. I told him I was in therapy and wanted to know what he felt about our communication, our relationship.

"Max," he said, "we don't have bad communication. We have no communication. You bark at me and I tell you what you want to hear. You second-guess every decision we make while you're away. Max, you and I don't have a bad relationship. We have no relationship.'

So I let him know that I was real. I said, "I don't have the personal strength left inside me to run this company alone. I can't do it. The success of the company doesn't rest with me anymore. It rests on me and you and everybody else out there, and they're going to learn that today." And before the day was over, I had talked to each of my 11 employees. And I promised that I would no longer second-guess their decisions. I initiated an open-door policy in my office; I made sure that everyone in the company who wanted it could get some sort of psychological counseling -- and that the cost would come from our operating budget.

And this amazing transition took place. All of a sudden projects were going on throughout the company, lifting one responsibility after another from my shoulders. When someone made a mistake, we started approaching it from a learning/therapeutic angle -- not "You stupid bastard, any fool knows you should have done it this way." My philosophy now is that if we're doing our job taking care of each other, taking care of the client is easy.

* * *

In the past few years, Corporate Resource Development has become the success I'd always hoped it would be. By 1986, we were turning a profit, and we'll do $1 million in revenues this fiscal year. One of my goals, to make the INC. 500 list of fast-growing companies, was realized in 1987 (#395), when I also received the Atlanta Small Businessperson of the Year and Georgia's Vietnam Veterans Small Business awards. I've got excellent people around me, a thriving company, a wonderful family, all the material things I need.

But I have something else that's of crucial importance to me. And that is a mission. The large gray mass of vets who came back from Vietnam without my kind of credentials, who were branded "losers" and "druggies' -- they're the ones I'm fighting for now. I teach a course for vets in entrepreneurship and sales and marketing; I do a lot of fund raising. What these guys need is a chance -- a chance, and the expertise of someone they trust. In that sense, it's important for them to know that Max Carey, the golden boy, also failed along the way. They're not so concerned about the guy who went right to the top, because they can't identify with him. But they can identify with someone like me, someone who went down and came back up.

To know you're not alone is a great relief.

* * *

William R. Carey Jr. is chief executive officer of Corporate Resource Development Inc., in Atlanta. n

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Last updated: Oct 1, 1988




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