Resisting the Seductions of Success

"The basic problem with the flow of success is that life can look very good when it really isn't," writes Harvard Business School's Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. His new book, Questions of Character, uses literature to look closely at issues of leadership. Here's an excerpt.
by Joseph L. Badaracco Jr.

In his novel I Come as a Thief, Louis Auchincloss introduces us to Tony Lowder, a lawyer in his early forties. Tony and his wife have two children. He works for the New York office of the Securities and Exchange Commission, but his job is just a resting spot. Tony has a promising political career ahead of him—in a recent election, he almost beat a heavily entrenched incumbent. Tony is a veteran, with a Silver Star for bravery in Korea, and an entrepreneur. With his good friend Max, another attorney, he has started a law firm and made large investments in a computer company and a restaurant chain. Tony is an up-and-coming leader with bright prospects.

Then Tony makes two extraordinary decisions. First, he commits a serious but brilliantly undetectable crime. Next, despite the advice and pleas of everyone around him, Tony goes to the authorities and confesses, which destroys his professional life, throws his family into chaos, and puts them in physical danger. Leaders aim at success, not self-destruction, but this is exactly what Tony brings on himself.

This story confronts us with one of the oldest and most perplexing themes in literature—the hazards of success. The story of Icarus, which F. Scott Fitzgerald uses to describe Monroe Stahr, may be the most famous example. We can understand that Icarus was carried away in an exuberant moment, but what about the men and women who have the time to see what they are doing and nevertheless make messes of their lives? Some are prominent figures who ruin splendidly successful lives and careers. Others have high potential for leadership, but fall far short of their early promise. And then there are others who do succeed but lead lives of quiet desperation.

These men and women all resemble Tony. They are talented, hard working, likable, and successful—but something derails them. In other words, the daunting challenge for many leaders and aspiring leaders isn't poverty or oppression or lack of skill or opportunity. It is, paradoxically, the very thing they aspire to achieve: a successful life and career and all that comes with them.

At first, Tony's crime and confession are hard to explain.

With Tony Lowder, Louis Auchincloss draws on his extraordinary dual career to give us a strikingly contemporary perspective on the hazards of success and the ways leaders can avoid them. Auchincloss was born into a large, wealthy New York family and practiced estate law in New York City. In his spare time, he wrote scores of well-regarded novels and short stories about characters who inevitably reflected the men and women—successful lawyers, bankers, and business executives—with whom Auchincloss lived and worked. Tony Lowder is a natural member of this group.

Tony's story strongly suggests that the most fundamental inner resource of leaders is a peculiar, negative skill. Leaders need the capacity to distance themselves from the pressures and seductions of success and to think and live for themselves. None of the inner resources described in earlier chapters [of my book]—having a good dream, a sound moral code, or unsettling role models—matters at all if leaders cannot resist the flow of success.

Tony's story is set in the 1960s, a time when the pressures and rewards of success were far less intense than they are now. One manager recently told me this about his life: "I wanted the promotion so badly I could taste it. The truth is that as much as I tried to quell my personal ambition, it was still a strong and sometimes overriding force in my life . . . it's not that I've been willing to sacrifice every other aspect of my life for professional achievement, but professional achievement has been at the center of my decision-making process throughout my adult life."

At first, Tony's crime and confession are hard to explain. By looking closely, however, we learn the ways in which success works as a psychological and emotional anesthetic. Its victims don't know their inner lives have shriveled and their healthy instincts have grown dull. In fact, these men and women often seem to be living exemplary, balanced lives, and they may be leaders in organizations and communities.

He often doesn't grasp what he is actually saying.

In other words, Tony's experiences serve as a peculiarly helpful warning. The word experience comes from the Latin words ex pericolo, which mean "from danger." By thinking through Tony's crime and confession, we find some valuable ways for leaders to resist the flow of success and safeguard a sphere of autonomy in which they can think and live for themselves.

This quest for autonomy should not be mistaken for an exercise in selfishness or a romantic rejection of society or the system. Auchincloss's strong suggestion is that leaders have a hard time meeting their responsibilities to others if they haven't first met certain responsibilities to themselves. This, in turn, requires keeping a healthy distance from the pressures and seductions surrounding successful men and women. By sticking to well-worn social paths, men and women can earn plaudits and promotions: This may look like leadership, but it is often followership in disguise. Leaders, Auchincloss suggests, must be able to turn away from powerful, beguiling messages about success and work hard to understand what really matters to them. [...]

"as If" Living

The basic problem with the flow of success is that life can look very good when it really isn't. In Tony's case, he is making money, building a business, and establishing a reputation. He also treats others with respect, sensitivity, and thoughtfulness. For example, Tony regularly visits his elderly father, who is in poor health. On one visit, Tony gently encourages his father, who is getting depressed, to try watching some different TV shows, and Tony says he will come by more often and tell his father he loves him. A few minutes later, Tony's mother comes home. She is happy to see Tony and says he seems genuinely happy to visit, unlike his sister, who seems to be checking items off a list.

To understand why Tony is impelled to commit a serious crime, we have to look beyond external signs of success and try to understand his mind and heart. Lee, his wife, senses that something is wrong, despite all of Tony's accomplishments. But when she tries to get him to talk about his life and what makes him happy, all she gets are clichés—that he likes to make her happy and still finds her the "cutest creature in the world."4 Lee ends one conversation by saying that Tony really seems to believe his clichés and telling him to shut up. What bothers Lee is that Tony is so good at following the social script: He always knows, almost effortlessly, what he is supposed to do and say. This facility earns him praise, affection, respect, and success.

There is a kind of success that is indistinguishable from panic.
—Edward Degas, artist

But Tony is living the life of a wind-up toy, going through the motions of being a good father, a loving son, a good husband, a charming politician, and a resolute friend. He can say just the right things in just the right way, but he often doesn't grasp what he is actually saying. When Tony's son, Eric, harshly criticizes the children of poor, single mothers, Tony tells him that every child has the same rights. Eric says he knows that, and Tony replies that it doesn't matter just to know it. You have to feel it, Tony says, "because to the extent you fail to feel it, you fail to be alive."5 Tony is unknowingly describing his own predicament. His ceaseless efforts to meet others' standards and succeed have deadened his emotional life and moral instincts. This happens in three ways.

First, Tony is chronically busy. In a world of smart, competitive people, success takes long hours and unremitting effort, and Tony is trying to succeed in a wide range of activities. As a result, his life resembles the vaudeville act in which a juggler has a large number of sticks standing upright on a stage and tries to keep a plate spinning on top of each. While the performer is spinning one plate, some of the others get wobbly, so the juggler has to run over and spin them again—but then other plates start wobbling. The juggler has no time to reflect on what he is doing, and neither does Tony, as he hurries from one commitment to another.

Another problem, perversely, originates in the fact that Tony's life is full of purpose and progress. His calendar is filled with meetings, and there are usually urgent phone calls to return. Tony is also accomplishing a lot, and success brings its own elation, satisfaction, and rewards. He doesn't seem to have any problems—at least, none that his very bright future couldn't take care of. But, by staying in perpetual motion, he is able to substitute a stream of successes and satisfactions for the hard work of grappling with bigger questions about his life.

Of course, Tony isn't a robot, and he senses, semiconsciously, that something is wrong, but he never has the time or impetus to find out what it is. To some degree, Tony is afraid of the answers, and his frenetic activity is a way to avoid them. He is the kind of person the painter Edward Degas had in mind when he said, "There is a kind of success that is indistinguishable from panic."6 Almost everyone has colleagues who seem to fit this description: their energy, focus, and productivity are extraordinary—they are the first in the building and the last out—but even their admirers sometimes wonder if they are running from something.

Tony's third problem is his steadily eroding autonomy. To others, he looks like an extraordinarily independent, active man, but his own experience of day-by-day life is very different. He feels he has few degrees of freedom because so many other people have a big stake in Tony being Tony and need him to fill certain roles. Tony is Max's big chance in life, the center of Lee's universe, his parents' pride, a rising star in his political party, his mistress's alternative to a dull husband and, after she is diagnosed with cancer, her dear friend and counselor. The needs of almost everyone around him help keep Tony in his world of busy, helpful, but emotionally empty achievement.

Tony has become a virtuoso performer in a role created by the people and society around him. In this respect, he resembles an increasing number of talented people today. MBA students sometimes call them resume-gods, with a mixture of admiration and scorn. But students recognize that resume-gods are merely the extreme version of themselves: In discussions of this book, a student will often tell a class that Tony is just like them, and no one disagrees. After his crime and confession, Tony describes the problem by saying, "there had always been a noisy grandstand of friends and family to applaud success, or the appearance of it, or even boo in a friendly way at failure."7

Auchincloss shows us that despite all the busy, purposeful activity, Tony feels dead inside. This is the answer to the first puzzle and the reason Tony takes the bribe. Recall that Tony is excited, not scared, when Max presents Lassatta's offer. Later that night, as he lies awake in bed, Tony thinks he will be reborn the next day. For forty-three years, he had "existed like something floating in space, subject entirely to the attraction or repulsion of other objects that happened to come within his sphere."8 Now, "a little muffled motor, deep in the recesses of his psyche, had started to revolve, to throb, to whir. Anthony Lowder was going to start his own motion in a black void, and it could hardly matter where that motion took him."9 Tony's crime is a self-administered shock treatment. It wakes him up and makes him feel alive. The prospect of living two lives—as the dutiful Tony and as a crook—thrills him.

In an odd way Tony's decision to commit a crime is his first moral act. The physicist Wolfgang Pauli once derided a colleague's idea by saying that it wasn't even wrong. Similarly, Tony's previous life was neither good nor bad. It was submoral because it was on autopilot. The bribe is wrong, of course, but by taking it Tony finally does something that has moral standing. He chooses and commits, and this gives him the sense that his life has finally begun. Most people who have just committed a serious crime would feel guilty and fearful of getting caught, but Tony is exhilarated. He had been living as if everything were just fine, but his was an "as if" life, not a genuinely or deeply satisfying one.

One test of the seriousness of an illness is the severity of the treatment it requires. For Tony, the bribe, with all its dangerous risks, is strong, self-prescribed medication. The flow of success had masked and exacerbated his illness and, to some degree, even caused it. Tony has a deep need to start acting and stop reacting, to feel he is alive, and to end his "as if" existence. The right answer, he concludes, is not more success, but risking everything.

About the Author

Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. is the John Shad Professor of Business Ethics at Harvard Business School and the author of several books, including Leading Quietly and Defining Moments, both published by HBS Press.