NYC mayoral hopeful Anthony Weiner, Yankees star Alex Rodriguez, and hedge fund manager Steven Cohen all share something in common. They’re all influential leaders in their field who engaged in risky behavior that caused them to plummet from positions of power. No leadership sphere is free of fallen heroes, whether it’s in business, the government arena, the entertainment world, athletics, or religion.
Why do powerful people make such poor decisions? Behavioral scientists, neuroscientists, and psychologists have identified attitudes, beliefs, and other factors that contribute to risky behavior. Here are seven of them.
They don’t know about “hedonic adaptation.”
The term hedonic adaptation describes the pleasure and excitement of something new wearing off. For example, a leader starts to feel a loss of interest in his spouse, and the wife seems unhappy and dissatisfied as well. He starts to resent coming home, and opts instead to stay at work in the company of a playful and attractive staff member. But if that leader acquired the scientific awareness that the normal “high” in any relationship lasts for approximately two years, he might instead look within his marriage for new activities, spiritual time together, and honest communication to keep the intimacy alive.
They have unchecked self-importance.
One reason people engage in destructive behavior such as overspending, overeating, shoplifting, smoking, pornography, abusing alcohol or drugs, gambling, embezzling, and infidelity is because they have an attitude of entitlement. They may believe that they “deserve” forbidden treats because they work hard, they’re smarter than others, or their status places them above the law. They believe they have the right to act without consequences and enjoy the risk-taking “high.” Working on self-awareness is the only way out of this particular trap.
They aren’t tuned in to their “vibrational gap.”
Picture a gap that widens if something in your life is pulling your emotional state downward. I call this a vibrational gap. Signs that your gap is widening include depression; a desire to get “high” with alcohol, gambling, or an affair; or a simple desire to leave the office a few hours early. Those intuitive signals are meant to lead us to take action to close the gap instead of filling it with destructive short-term “highs.” Leaders need to continually monitor their vibrational levels, overcome blocks to resolution, and take corrective action–aligning with their purpose, securing true satisfaction in relationships, and building a spiritual inner life, for example–instead of succumbing to the pull of negative behaviors.
They don’t weigh the reward.
Leaders who pursue behaviors that make them feel good for a moment forget to ask, “What is the greatest reward I could receive from taking this risk? What is my greatest fear?” These two questions, if asked, would eliminate most impulsive and risky behaviors. The reality is people are internally “outed” the minute they perform the risky or addictive behavior. Guilt, shame, embarrassment, self-talk, remorse–these are all internal reminders that we’re not living in accordance with our true values. It’s our conscience on one side vs. the immediate gratification on the other. We have to learn how to weigh them.
They experience “amygdala hijack.”
Author Daniel Goleman coined the term amygdala hijack, which describes how brains under stress are not properly equipped for self-control. The amygdala is the part of the brain that triggers the parasympathetic nervous system (fight, flight, or freeze), which takes over for the thinking parts of the brain, in the neocortex, which are responsible for rational decision making. The key here is for leaders to learn ways to manage stress, because if they don’t, they’re liable to make poor choices at work and in their personal lives. One quick strategy is to take deep breaths, which slows down the heart rate and enables the prefrontal cortex to regain control.
They have weak will power.
Some neuroscientists say our inner voice that seeks immediate gratification is akin to having a second self living inside us. One version of us acts on impulse; the other version controls our impulses to protect our long-term goals. We switch back and forth between these two selves. These two opposing parts can and do work together. If what we desire comes with a big negative such as a high price tag or big danger, our more primitive instinct, or “gut reaction,” can agree with our wiser self, which is already saying no. The will-powered self can only be operational if one handles stress throughout the day. Ensure your brain has plenty of sleep, good food, proper exercise, and ongoing stress reduction each day to act on those values.
They tumble from the “domino effect.”
When one poor decision is made in a distracted or unaware moment, a door to an unsavory path opens for us to walk through. An example would be choosing to stay up late to watch a TV show. The next morning you’re underslept, so you skip the gym. You feel grumpy and depleted, so you grab a donut someone brought to work. And the repetitive tumble continues. Research shows if you’re feeling bad about a mistake, it can lead to other bad decisions. With your brain now under stress, you may say “what the heck” and keep going down the self-destructive path.
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Steven Mundahl is a leadership scholar and professor, and president and CEO of Goodwill Industries in Western Massachusetts. His new book is The Alchemy of Authentic Leadership (2013). Learn more at www.alchemyofauthenticleadership.com.
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