A-Rod. Anthony Weiner. Martha Stewart. Eliot Spitzer. You've seen the same story play out over and over with the predictability of a Greek drama. Leader reaches the top. Leader makes one dumb mistake. Leader comes crashing down.
You don't have to be a household name--the same career-destroying screw-up can happen to any of us, according to Steven Mundahl, author of "The Alchemy of Authentic Leadership." "We say, 'Wow, I can't believe Tiger Woods did that!'" he says. "But every one of us has that potential for a headline-making mistake, and we don't want to go down that road." Entrepreneurs and others in a leadership position are particularly vulnerable, he says, because of the stresses that come with responsibility.
How do you avoid the big crash? By watching out for subtle warning signs that you're getting into dangerous territory, he says. It's time to stop and regroup if you find yourself thinking the following:
1. "The thrill is gone."
This feeling sometimes leads happily married people to cheat on their spouses, but it can affect your business judgment just as badly as your marriage. "The highs of attraction fade out after some time, usually about two years," Mundahl says.
The key is to recognize this phenomenon, called hedonic adaptation so you can keep it from ruining your life. Don't expect to always feel the same way about your significant other or your new venture as you did the first week. And look for ways to spice things up, such as a tropical vacation with your loved one, or a fun new project within your existing company.
2. "I deserve it."
"Leaders may believe they 'deserve' forbidden treats because they work hard, they're smarter than others, or their status places them above the law," Mundahl says. Spitzer, a high-profile prosecutor and governor who used the services of prostitutes is a good example of this mindset. It cost him the governorship, and as I write this, he's trying to revive his career by running for the much lowlier office of New York City comptroller. How do you avoid this dangerous sense of entitlement? By growing a sense of proportion. "Self-awareness is the only way out of this particular trap," Mundahl says.
3. "Who's going to know?"
When you start convincing yourself that you can drive home after a couple of drinks, or "borrow" a little money from your company's cash reserves, it's time to stop and listen to your smarter self instead. You'll wind up a lot happier. "I used to be heavy-footed on the road," Mundahl recalls. "Whenever I passed a police officer, I'd look in the rear-view mirror to see if the blue lights were going or if I got past OK. Then one day, I realized that if I didn't speed, I wouldn't have to look for the blue lights anymore. It's a much nicer place to be."
4. "What's the worst that could happen?"
This is usually a rhetorical question, but Mundahl thinks we should all consider it quite literally. What's the worst thing that could happen as a result of your action (or lack of action)? And what's the best possible outcome you could create by doing what you know you should? Stopping to truly consider the possibilities will usually lead you to the right decision.
5. "I can't stand this!"
When stress peaks, the human brain defaults into fight, freeze, or flight mode, Mundahl says. The result is rarely good. AOL CEO Tim Armstrong learned this the hard way when he fired an employee on impulse during an all-hands conference call.
Mundahl recalls having that fight-freeze-flight feeling repeatedly as he worked to turn around a troubled company. "I had these moments of panic when I thought, 'You're not going to be able to do this,'" he says.
To avoid being sucked under at these moments, first make sure you're taking care of yourself in general--getting enough sleep, healthy food, and exercise. Deficiencies in these areas make you more vulnerable to stress. Next, when that fight-freeze-flight moment happens, make the deliberate choice to stop and take a few deep breaths. That will help you regain your emotional balance, so you can make a rational decision about what to do next.
6. "I've screwed everything up!"
When we already feel like we've made a mistake, it's easy to think that nothing else we do matters, so we may as well stop trying. "An example would be choosing to stay up late and watch a TV show," Mundahl says. "The next morning, you're short of sleep, so you skip the gym. You feel grumpy and depleted, so you grab a donut someone brought to work." And so on.
You can put a bad decision in its place by remembering that you'll get another chance to make a better decision very soon. And by listening to the wiser part of yourself that knows not to let one screw-up--or any other bit of adversity--derail you. "If we could get in touch with the higher nature we all have, we could work on the other stuff," Mundahl says. "Wouldn't the world be a better place?"