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Our Infinite Capacity for Self-Deception

Companies are only as evolved as the leaders who run them, and the people who work for them. What got us here won't get us where we need to go.
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Twenty five years ago, the New York Times Magazine ran an extraordinary article titled "How Do Tobacco Executives Live With Themselves?" by Roger Rosenblatt. At the end, he quoted an executive named Victor Crawford who worked for five years as a lobbyist for the Tobacco Institute and helped defeat a series of anti-smoking bills.

A smoker himself, Crawford had been diagnosed with throat cancer two years earlier at the age of 59.

Here's what Crawford told Rosenblatt about his career choice: "In a way, I think I got my just desserts, because, in my heart, I knew better. But I rationalized and denied, because the money was so good and because I could always rationalize it. That's how you make a living, by rationalizing that black is not black, it's white, it's green, it's yellow."

Crawford died two years later, at the age of 63.

His story is different than ours only by degrees. Each of us shares an infinite capacity for self-deception. What we fail to see - or willfully resist seeing - runs us, outside our awareness. What we're willing to see, however painful it may be, we have the potential to influence.

I've been mulling over this paradox the last few days in thinking about the economic crisis we're in and the stories that some of its most egregious players had to tell themselves to rationalize the choices they were making.

What explanation did Bernie Madoff come up with to justify systematically defrauding thousands of clients, including friends and philanthropies, out of billions of dollars over many decades?

How did James Coyne of Bear, Sterns feel comfortable flying off on a private plane for days at a time to play golf and bridge during the weeks that his company was going up in flames?

What could have made John Thain, the ousted CEO of Merrill Lynch, feel it was reasonable to spend $1.3 million decorating his office and then seek a $10 million bonus during a year that his company was reporting billion dollar quarterly losses?

These were all very shrewd, very successful men who behaved in ways that were stupendously stupid, tone-deaf, self-defeating, and devastating to others.

What I believe they were missing, above all, were active inner lives. The antidote to self-deception is self-awareness. Among the thousands of senior corporate executives I've met and worked with over the years, no single quality is more conspicuously absent, or less actively valued.

Introspection is a word you'll almost never hear inside a modern corporation. The strong leader doesn't hesitate, or waver, or question his motives. Suffering over a decision, expressing self-doubt, acknowledging uncertainty, and above all, truly stepping up to responsibility for a mistake or a misjudgment - all of these are viewed as potential signs of softness and self-indulgence, weakness and vulnerability. They're behaviors to be avoided at nearly any cost.

For most corporate executives I've met, the inner life is terra incognita - a vast, unexplored territory they scarcely recognize and assiduously avoid.

Human beings continue to make extraordinary leaps in mastering their external world - most especially through technology and sometimes in breathtaking ways. The mission of Google and its engineers, for example, is nothing less than organizing and making instantly accessible all of the world's information. To a remarkable degree, they've already succeeded.

But there has been no comparable revolution in mapping the landscape of our inner lives - our hopes and fears, values and beliefs, needs and motivations, complexities and contradictions -- and the impact they have on our everyday choices and behaviors.

People's inner and outer worlds remain largely disconnected - and especially so in corporate life. Fear of the unknown - of looking at the unvarnished truth -- is a much more powerful force in the lives of leaders than most of them consciously recognize.

Rather than seeking to grow, see more deeply, break past their own barriers and enlarge their worlds, too many leaders instead use their potent minds to rationalize, justify, minimize and disclaim responsibility for the dysfunctional, self-serving and expedient choices they make.

Allergic to uncertainty, ambiguity and nuance, they choose up sides, come to conclusions prematurely and view the world in reductionistic terms: black and white, right and wrong, good and bad, now or never. In the process, they narrow their vision and limit their options.

Self awareness - the capacity for objective self observation - is a way for leaders to recognize their limitations, fuel their humility and make choices reflectively rather than reactively. Cultivating an inner life also makes it possible to grapple with what they believe in and stand for, and make decisions from the inside out, rather than expediently, to drive the next quarter's earnings.

Companies are only as evolved as the leaders who run them, and the people who work for them. What got us here won't get us where we need to go. Incremental change isn't going to be sufficient, given the enormous challenges we face.

What we need instead is an evolutionary leap. It isn't going to come from a technological breakthrough, or new insights about operational efficiency, or a different system for managing people. It will happen when leaders have the courage to connect their inner lives to their outer behaviors and begin to hold themselves accountable for the impact of their decisions, not just on their companies, but on the greater good over the long term.