William Czander, Ph.D.
For almost 20 years corporate America has resembled the Wild West. CEO's and their executives, Wall Street bankers, and others have been quietly engaged terminating millions of jobs, stealing pensions, breaking up companies, committing fraud, outsourcing, and engaging in incomprehensible risk taking, all for the purpose of outrageous personal gain. This is the first of three articles that will explore the cultural, psychological and psychodynamic motivations for this behavior.
(This is part three of a three part series)
Living in the CEO's World
We do not have a deep understanding of what excessive pay does to the executive and perhaps the reason is the prevailing belief that it's a good thing to become wealthy, and money will bring happiness. Not only is this not true, it may have the opposite effect. For many executives being a millionaire is a distraction. Just as the research that investigated CEO's who were building new homes were so distracted that their companies started doing poorly. Having money is a distraction because it means that one must now spend time holding on to the money. Many CEOs have built into their contracts hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover the employment of tax consultants and financial advisors. Even having someone do the work requires effort in the selection process, meetings, and of course worries. But what else occurs? They tend to remove themselves from the general population and join the world of "like minded" people. The system of social and economic stratification once distinguished between the "old moneyed" and the "nouveau riche". It was quite common for social and country clubs to be delineated across these lines. Now there is a blending at these clubs, a democratization if you will, where the only ticket is wealth. Nouveau riche has been given a new definition in the 20th century the old line snobbishness has faded and now almost anyone can enter the elite world of the wealthy. All one needs is a lot of wealth and a little celebrity to gain entry into the club and this has created a "gold rush." Some maintain this cultural and attitudinal shift began with President Ronald Reagan who encouraged and made part of his "right wing" ideology the "free market" spirit of the "Market Man" who championed the "takeover" of corporations and the splitting up of conglomerates. These financial gurus were touted as purveyors of increased efficiency in corporate America and were the new "captains" of industry; the bankers, cost cutting CEOs, hedge fund executives and the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. They became the new heroes and celebrities and students in B-Schools would study cases on their rise to fame and wealth and in the process it promoted such profound identification that the flood gates were opened where all thought if they went to college and got their MBA they could join the club. A Darwinian/Randian atmosphere was created in the 1980s and moved on through 2008 where it was every man and woman for themselves.
Like the "landed gentry and old moneyed," these wealthy CEOs and ex-CEOs distanced themselves from the non-wealthy as they go went off to live in their gated communities or mansions with a fence and security measures. There social life centered on the country club. They sent their children to private schools attended by other children of the wealthy. And they attended charity events with other "swells" and sought to have a building or school named after themselves at their college, and it was not Harvard or Yale, now it was Richmond's and Purdue's of the university world, or perhaps some state school.
The CEOs World
What does this distancing mean? What does it mean to live a life removed from a community of employees? It quickly breeds a type of detachment both emotionally and intellectually. Consider George Herbert Bush running for president against Bill Clinton. On the campaign trail his entourage entered a supermarket and watching the checkout person scanning the items he marveled at what he described as the new technology. Voters were outraged that he was seeing products being scanned for the first time when it had been around for years and anyone who shopped was aware of the technology. He was quickly described as an out of touch rich guy, so rich he does not need to shop, and he lost the election. His son GW Bush may not have shopped but he had no aristocratic aires about him, as a matter of fact the non-elite loved him, he talked just like them.
In reality; insulation, isolation, or detachment produces an uneducated person where a major part of life experience is absent. This is particularly problematic when the entire executive constellation is remote and lacking in the experience of the so-called common working person. If their only experiences and emotional attachments are made in their own social grouping with other wealthy people they will be unable to connect with the experiences of their employees consequently their employees become remote objects and this process is so apparent that some corporations do not even referred to their employees as people, they are called resources and when they are terminated they are referred to as "redundant." At work, when with their employees they are merely present in the intellectual sense. They no longer can associate with activities, places and people experienced in the past. Their emotional detachment serves a function, they no longer experience the pain associated with decisions that hurt other people, and they are now surrounded by "yes men" who see their job as protecting their leaders from anything resembling failure, pain, or suffering. These mind guards are paid to protect the CEO by using defenses of denial, rationalization and projections.
By moving into circle of people in similar circumstances they can successfully avoid the so-called "hanger-on" and avoid people who are emotionally overly demanding. Consider the executive, who has a private elevator, this is symbolic of the life he leads. Making millions adds to this life of detachment.
The Psychodynamics of the CEO's need for Wealth
In our culture money occupies a central position because it is perhaps the most dominant expression of the social ties we have. It defines our position and consequently the nature and kind of social ties we have in the present and will have in the future. It defines our "station in life" and whether we keep it or lose it, it will define our future "station in life." We typically feel sadness for someone when they report "at one time I was a wealthy person." The sadness is not so much connected to the person's loss of money but the loss of "station in life" the loss of something one once had. In some sense psychically similar to the loss of a loved one. In our culture money holds a key position in the regulation of our relations with others and is related to our appreciation of our worth or specialness. Money in our psychic life serves both a function and, of course, a dysfunction.
Being wealthy has a built in uneasiness about it and that is because it is a surface manifestation of a deep, psycho cultural and psychic aberrations, in that it may contain unconscious wishes associated with oedipal and preodipal longings. If one couples emotional resonance with its cultural meaning then we may connect the wish to accumulate wealth in the context of cultural symbolism and its relational meaning in interpersonal and love relationships.
Money serves an important symbolic function, it can be a symbol of power, sex appeal, love, attractiveness, and it can be serve as a vehicle to reduce feelings of guilt by giving some of it away, by making reparations. Money can also be used to hide or correct stigma real or imagined and can be used as a vehicle to over compensate for an array of real and imagined inadequacies. This explains the drive to obtain wealth when one arrives in the CEO position. Rarely can one feel a sense of mastery occupying the top position of a corporation. If we apply the "Peter Principle" one can say with reasonable certainty that the higher one moves up the corporate ladder the less certain one feels they have control over the direction they want the company to move in. Going further one can say they are typically over their heads. Under these conditions one typically feels the experience of powerlessness, and dependency upon others. The capacity to succeed which is pathological in many CEO's is firmly thrown into question when they sit in the catbird seat. Vulnerabilities need to be hidden and the deep seated feelings they will be found out, that they are in reality fraudulent creates excessive worry and anxiety. Here we see the utility of money and its psychic as well as cultural symbolism. Money is a defense against these anxieties. Money makes one feel powerful, on top, an oedipal winner, admired and loved by mother. It may be that the less powerful one feels the more wealth they need.
To fully understand the CEO's need for wealth from a psychodynamic perspective is to follow Levine (2000), who suggests that the end result of greed or the need for superior compensation is not a gain in satisfaction, but a method to the avoid frustrations associated with feeling helpless which is perhaps the most common experience in the role of being a CEO. Wealth provides an important function for the CEO who feel helpless, impotent and over-their heads in the face of often complex and multiple dangers. Wealth provides the feeling of power and success. In agreement Wachtel (2003) sees greed as a defense against fragile self-esteem. Reich (1960), sees a fragile self-esteem system marked grandiose fantasies, inflated self-esteem, that shifts to bouts of helplessness, rage and anxiety when faced with threats
We now see the function wealth provides. For CEO's, who feel helpless, impotent and over-their heads in the face of often complex and multiple dangers, the more they need wealth. Wealth provides the feeling of power and success. This is the meaning of greed. Greed is a method to defend against angry, frustrated, bad, and destructive feelings that evolve under these conditions where they feel helpless and impotent. Do CEO's suffer from a real or potential loss of self-esteem? Given the nature of the work, constant pressure to succeed their self-esteem is certainly under attack. While most people feel a sense of helplessness from time to time, the typical reaction is to feel depressed and seek help and support to overcome the emotional state. However, with this CEO population, the reaction to helplessness is a type of panic that motivates them to quickly extricate themselves from this experience. Consider this, a CEO came into treatment, and during the initial session he proudly announced that he was a proponent of "managing by walking around". Later on in treatment it became clear that during a typical workday when he would experience a bout of helplessness, he would immediately bolt from his desk and take a walk around his company and greet his employees. The walks were his method of replenishing his self when he felt depleted, that is, when he experienced helplessness and impotence.