In ancient Greece, many tragically flawed heroes were brought down by their own hubris. Arrogance often blinded them to realities that everyone else saw so clearly.
Hubris shows its face in some of the greatest works of literature. Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” stands out as a dark and brilliant example. In modern culture, many powerful business leaders have fallen from lofty heights because they, like Macbeth, felt invincible and destined for success.
Over the past decade, the business page has read like an ongoing Greek tragedy. From Enron and BP to Lehman and News Corp. to JPMorgan Chase and Yahoo, leaders of big companies continue to show their utter disregard for moral fiber and the greater good in pursuit of profit and personal gain.
Now disgraced former Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson can take his place in this sad procession for lying on his resume and trying to cover it up. He has lost his reputation and golden parachute severance, although he does pocket a “Make-Whole” $6.5 million cash bonus.
He still has not fessed up to the lie.
After a disgruntled shareholder blew the whistle on Thompson’s resume showing a computer science degree that he didn’t earn, Thompson began playing the blame game. He had Yahoo try to dismiss it as a simple error. To employees, he blamed the media for the “distraction.” As pressure mounted, he turned on an executive search firm, saying it was the firm that accidentally added the CS degree.
Then the coup de grace: The firm reportedly produced to Yahoo’s board a padded resume Thompson had provided, thus showing that the lie predated the firm’s involvement. Thompson’s attempted cover-ups bespeak a major character flaw: hubris.
In an added twist to this speedy fall from grace, Thompson reportedly announced to the Yahoo board that he has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer. It should be noted that Yahoo dismissed Thompson with “cause,” meaning that the firing was due to the fake CS degree, not a health issue.
Yet wagging a finger at Thompson doesn’t tell the whole story.
Study after study ties unethical — even clinically psychopathic — behavior to the rich and powerful. Business classics such as Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” and Machiavelli’s “The Prince” don’t put a high value on morality or even fair play. Most business leaders have a simple world view with profit at the top and are driven with a get-there-at-all-costs attitude, along with the footnote: just don’t get caught.
So there isn’t much room for anything else, like empathy for others and truthfulness. “The only thing that puzzles me about these claims is that anyone would find them surprising,” writes essayist, critic and author William Deresiewicz in an opinion piece in the New York Times, entitled “Capitalists and Other Psychopaths.”
In fact, not many successful CEOs didn’t have hubris. Jack Welch had it. So did Steve Jobs. Larry Ellison, too. Meg Whitman thought she could be California governor. Thompson’s predecessor Carol Bartz sure had it. (Heck, Yahoo’s board fired her over the telephone to avoid a face-to-face confrontation.)
Maybe it takes hubris to think you can sail into a wreck that is Yahoo and turn it around quickly. Maybe it takes hubris to lay off 2,000 people shortly after taking the reins, like Thompson did. Maybe it takes hubris to believe that your way is the only way that could possibly work.
Maybe it takes hubris to think you’re above reproach.
If hubris, and all the ugly consequences that can come with it, is part of the job description, who would ever want to be a CEO?
Tom Kaneshige has been covering business and technology in Silicon Valley for two decades. As senior online writer at CIO.com, Tom covers Silicon Valley culture, BYOD and consumer tech in the enterprise.