Entrepreneurial Ego

Revenge is not only the most powerful motivator of all, it's also the most dangerous. At the first sign of an entrepreneur's success, it invariably turns destructive

Should I go public, or should I retain control of my company?" For every entrepreneur who confronts that question directly, the answer represents a turning point. But Lenny never had a moment's doubt: he knew he wanted the big cash infusion that the venture capitalists were waving before his eyes. What he didn't know was that his strategy would have dire emotional consequences, recasting him in a role he could not tolerate: being dependent on men whose criticisms he would have to endure--for as long as he could.

Within six months of creating the board of directors his investors demanded, Lenny (not his real name) was in constant turmoil. When one board member suggested that Lenny's decision to retain the title of director of sales along with his position as president and chief executive was "a stretch for even the most seasoned executive," Lenny cursed the man so cruelly he resigned on the spot. Another board member's remark that Lenny "had no marketing savvy" nearly led to fisticuffs. After two months of similar outbursts, Lenny was advised to take a medical leave of absence; three months later he was terminated by the company he'd founded.

Lenny, whom I treated for three years, is hardly the only fiercely independent business builder to have a head-on clash with a board. But his situation is instructive because of what provoked him to do battle with such ultimately self-defeating vehemence. Lenny was driven by a demon that haunts many entrepreneurs: rage at those who dared doubt him. While it helped drive him to succeed, his need to prove others wrong was so powerful that he couldn't begin to control it. Lenny was suffering from a perverse form of revenge-seeking that I have dubbed the Entrepreneurial Avenger syndrome.

At first, such behavior can sound like nothing more than an extreme version of the impulse to gloat that drives owners of expensive foreign cars to express their anger at ex-spouses through such vanity plates as HISMONY or SETLMNT. But among business builders, that kind of retaliatory mentality--"See, you called me a loser. Well, $*#*%&~!@, I'll show you!"--almost invariably turns self-destructive at the first sign of success. If the main pleasure you derive from your accomplishment is proving someone else wrong, you'll likely go to even self-destructive ends to "beat the bastards."

Among the dozens of entrepreneurs I've treated, the psychological "enemy" is almost always a highly critical parent, who must be "punished" for his or her harsh judgment. Often, the offspring delivers the payback by achieving a higher level of prominence than the parent ever did.

Lenny had something to prove to his father, who had humiliated and degraded him as a kid, nicknaming him "moron" after his academic performance in junior high dashed any hope that he'd become a doctor. But through determination, pluck, and a somewhat unusual (in the very early 1960s) penchant for computer technology, Lenny went on to earn decent grades in college. With a computer-technology degree in hand, he paired up with a gregarious buddy to form a company that produced computer software that simplified the back-office functions of major corporations.

Lenny's self-destructive decline was first manifest about three years after he and his partner started the company, when Lenny decided, at the urging of a meddlesome older sister, to buy out his cofounder. Lenny's rationale: "The idea was mine; he was just 'Mr. Outside." Better to buy him out before it got prohibitively expensive to do so. Once he did, nothing could block Lenny's dream of taking his company public, and with the help of a venture-capital firm, he secured $1.8 million in funding.

But being forced to report to a board rekindled the unresolved contempt Lenny felt for his father. The moment a group of older men who could exert control over his fate began to question him, Lenny felt as if he were reliving his adolescence. Before he took his leave, he attempted to dismiss his board by denigrating their intelligence, their understanding of his industry, their business acumen. What made that diatribe as valuable as platinum to me was when Lenny revealed that the insults he spewed that day mirrored the ones his father had hurled at him.

You might assume that people driven to such overpowering vengefulness would eventually outgrow it, becoming capable of achieving a sense of self-esteem independent of their "I won't get mad, I'll get even" orientation. That is almost never the case.

However, I have seen many such business owners helped because those closest to them courageously pointed out the hollowness of their distorted form of joy. Here are the telltale symptoms of people who are in the grip of the Entrepreneurial Avenger syndrome:

There's chronic litigation in their lives. I've learned that the more a successful person sues others, the greater the contempt with which he or she views the world. So if you see a pattern of unbusinesslike litigation in someone--the type that nets no money but only causes the opposing party pain--the litigant is likely using the courtroom as a proxy for the living room where he or she once wanted to retaliate against a punitive parent.

They see competition as the enemy. Living with the anxiety that the competition will "beat" you is not only maladaptive, it's disabling. But it's a chronic preoccupation of Entrepreneurial Avengers, even when success is clearly theirs. One CEO I worked with recently, who was in merchandising, had most, if not all, of his main competitor's advertising posted around his office. When I visited, I would hear him scream, "The bastards stole this idea" and "Those SOBs are copying us!" His concern was plainly irrational because had his competitor evaporated, his operation wouldn't be able to satisfy market demand. All that rage, and not one picture of family members on his walls.

They trust almost no one. When I had a clinical practice full of people like Lenny, the first question I would ask them was who their friends were. What I would find, invariably, was that such people had no comrades outside business but rather referred to colleagues, industry acquaintances, or, at best, sisters or brothers, as "friends." The shorthand explanation for that lack of mature bonding is that people who have endured the crippling effects of abusive parenting fear that an "intimate" will ultimately turn against them. Siblings are exceptions, because they likely suffered the same parental reprimands--likewise, people in the same industry who are not competitors, because in bad times they share the experience of sinking in the "same boat." That commiseration creates a superficial sense of friendship.

Lenny's affliction left him with both a mortal fear of "outsiders" and a feeling that his older sister was the only person who understood his pain. As a result, Lenny often acted like an adolescent punk, feeling safe with such trappings of strength as a jacket adorned with the name of the karate school he attended. Lenny adopted this tough-guy pose with almost everybody.

After observing Lenny trying to act threatening--when he was scared out of his mind--I decided to intervene by holding up a mirror to his posturing and bravado, trying to show him how woefully inadequate his behavior really was, relative to his ideal. With that in mind, I forced him to contrast his public persona with that of one of his favorite action heroes, Chuck Norris. Norris stars on TV's Walker, Texas Ranger, playing a soft-spoken, self-effacing killing machine. (For another patient, I might have used, say, Colin Powell as the model of an effective power broker.) The six months I spent prodding Lenny to see his own behavior in the context of someone whose behavior he admired ultimately shamed him into finally accepting what I had been trying to convey: if you've got an internal sense of your own competence, flaunting your success over others--not to mention, raging against your detractors--is wholly unnecessary. As the saying goes, "The empty barrel makes the most noise." These days, Lenny is less wealthy but also far less noisy.

Dr. Steven Berglas is a consultant and a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School.