What Boards Can Learn From The President’s Erratic Exit

Five warning signs that a CEO is veering into the kind of monarchical behavior that can jeopardize a smooth transition.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks about the 2020 U.S. presidential election results in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 5, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, anyone displeasing the Queen of Hearts was summarily condemned by her command “Off with his head!” No matter how you feel about Donald Trump’s reign as a disruptive president, his exit is not a model for any leader in any sector.

Figuratively, heads rolled in the administration’s final days as Trump fired honest, competent officials to settle scores with anyone countering his conspiratorial narratives with facts, as he endeavored to unravel his election loss to Joe Biden. Brooding and angry, Trump barely appeared for a virtual G-20 summit with other allied heads of state or showed up at his own pandemic task force while deaths soared to a record high of over 260,000 at a pace of 2,000 a day—preferring the frequent escape to the golf course. He threw around wild, unsupported accusations of fraud, pushing dozens of lawsuits that were tossed out by state and federal courts in rapid succession for lack of evidence, as senior partisans in his orbit avoided incurring his wrath by challenging his assertions. His behavior epitomized the monarch-like behavior that entrenched CEOs occasionally exhibit.

As Emperor of Rome, Caligula supposedly appointed his horse to a high government role and decreed it illegal to glance his way on a street, believing he was a god. William Shakespeare’s King Lear portrays a senescent monarch who collapses with rage as he loses his reign and his royal court when his judgment is blinded by vanity. HBO’s Game of Thrones featured the Mad King, whose conduct made his own paranoid delusions self-fulfilling prophecies.

My study of CEO exits, The Hero’s Farewell, describes the roughest typology of leader for boards to partner with as monarchs determined to undermine a smooth succession process. These leaders do not leave office gracefully but instead depart in either a palace revolt or by dying in office—either way, a feet-first exit. Age is not the determining factor so much as a mercurial leadership style. They may be nonagenarians like Viacom’s Sumner Redstone or wunderkinds, such as Uber’s Travis Kalanick—or somewhere in between, like American Apparel founder Dov Charney.

The following five signs can serve as a warning that a CEO is veering into the kind of monarchical behavior that can jeopardize a smooth transition:

• An unrealistic sense of an immortal legacy. Steve Jobs never showcased another executive at his dazzling MacWorld product shows, believing that there was only one person in the world who was truly indispensable—himself. Obsessed with their own lasting historic legacy, monarchs are far more concerned with shoring up a myth of superiority than a smooth transition.

• Perpetuating a folie à deux. Boards must resist becoming enablers in what psychoanalysts label a shared delusion. The CBS board of scandalized CEO Les Moonves, dominated by cronies, fell prey to this with some members remaining loyal to the CEO no matter what misconduct came to light.

• Sabotaging credible successors seen as a threat. Redstone drove out strong leaders such as Frank Biondi, Tom Freston and Mel Karmazin. As firms such as Lehman Brothers and Freddie Mac collapsed, they believed they had to rely upon their failed incumbent CEO because no executive in the pipeline knew where all the problems were buried.

• Promoting a self-styled heroic identity. These leaders invent and build upon myths of their own greatness, which they often come to believe in themselves. No one ever called Alexander III of Macedon “Alexander the Great” until he called himself that and manufactured a false lineage to Odysseus and Achilles. Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski lost sight of where his pockets stopped and shareholder pockets began. Generic drug maker Mylan’s chairman Robert Coury named the corporate headquarters after himself. Occidental Petroleum Chairman Armand Hammer placed a life-size statue of himself in the lobby.

• Few interests beyond their CEO role. With little to turn to once they leave office, these leaders cling desperately to their titles.

Boards who fail to spot these signs in time invariably fall victim to monarch CEOs, self-destructive tendencies to tear down what they’ve built as they exit. Heed them or heads will roll.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is senior associate dean, leadership studies, Lester Crown professor of leadership practice, Yale School of Management, as well as president of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute and author of The Hero’s Farewell and Firing Back. You can follow him at Twitter @JeffSonnenfeld.