With the recent ousting of Lululemon’s chief executive officer Laurent Potdevin, Guess cofounder Paul Marciano under investigation (and on a leave of absence), the hasty retirement of Signet Jewelers’ ceo, and even Donna Karan excoriated for defending Harvey Weinstein, it’s clear that the fashion industry has far from escaped the conflagration of sexual assault allegations.
Though it’s hardly new — one need only think a few years back on former Lululemon leader Chip Wilson getting in serious trouble not only for alleged sexual harassment, but for equal claims of sexism and racism; or American Apparel founder Dov Charney’s serial accusations of sexual misconduct, not to mention Abercrombie’s former ceo Michael Jeffries well-documented attitudes — we’ve reached a critical point in society where these aggressive and highly inappropriate behaviors are finally being pulled into the spotlight, en masse.
In this long-overdue time of truth-telling and ethical outrage, I’d like to posit that these instances are, if not the tip of the iceberg, very much in lockstep with a larger set of personality traits and behaviors that run rampant in men who have gained success in just about every industry and public-facing aspect of American life.
I call this the “Mean Men” syndrome.
Why are we Americans so in love with these bombastic, outrageously inappropriate “leaders” that we lay down our own self-esteem and even our voices in their service? I posit that it’s because America loves a winner, especially the guy who has forged his own path. The tech or fashion entrepreneur. The Hollywood mogul. The rags-to-riches politician. The driven athlete. In 2016, a self-proclaimed winner and real estate mogul won the U.S. presidency and was named Time’s Person of the Year. Pass any newsstand and you’ll see their faces — mostly male, white — on magazine covers. Social media eats them up; they’re the darlings — and demons — of Twitter.
But there is another side to many of these talented individuals, a side too many of us like to ignore. These winners are often just out for themselves. They step on others to get ahead. They are deceptive and ruthless. They have explosive tempers and abusive personalities. And yes, they have little or no respect for women or minorities. In a word, they are mean.
A disproportionate number of them share characteristics of a dark personality disorder that compels people to behave badly even as it drives them to create and excel. This behavior seems to be rampant in entrepreneurial spheres such as fashion, where individual talent and ambition reign, and where a company, even an empire, can essentially be built out of one person’s vision.
The same men who flourish in challenging circumstances may also be mean: They are abusive to employees or colleagues, unprincipled in their pursuit of success, and devoid of empathy; they’re pathological liars, unable to feel remorse, and incapable of taking responsibility when they fail, and they’re arrogant and prone to see others strictly as tools for their own advancement or pleasure.
Does this constellation of traits sound familiar? Mean men are everywhere, and too often the full extent of their behavior is hidden from view. What’s more troubling is that even when they’re outed, we too often fail to hold them accountable. They are instead rewarded in an America enthralled with competition, risk-taking, efficiency and monetary success.
Zynga ceo Mark Pincus gets a second try at the brass ring after laying off 1,000 people and gutting his company’s financials; Donald Trump gets 306 electoral votes. In the face of their abusive behavior, their subordinates, suppliers and entourages are cowed, while board members, investors, voters and even the media look the other way. And in doing so we simply keep creating more mean men, teaching them in every instance that mean is not only tolerated, it’s celebrated.
Before we reach the point of no return, we must uncouple “mean” from our definition of American success — before these men don’t simply populate entrepreneurial firms and our government, but become the new American heroes for a generation of fledging leaders.
In fact, you can trace a long lineage of entrepreneurs who shared these characteristics. American icon Henry Ford, father of the assembly line, was also known for his outsized flaws and extreme behavior. They are characterized by a quest for total financial control, complete domination of product or design, the need to claim credit for success without any personal responsibility for failures, and difficulty working with other executives or partners. You could add emotional manipulation and rage to the list. While many of the companies would never have experienced such incredible growth without the entrepreneurial drive of their founders, look at all the businesses that have stumbled badly due to the dark side of the men who built them.
If they’re so awful, why am I so interested in mean men? A big reason is that I’ve seen them in action up close, and I’ve seen the enormous damage they inflict on both people and organizations. Their behavior is appalling, and it’s wrong. But more than that, I know it doesn’t have to be this way. Contrary to the popular wisdom, mean doesn’t “get results,” and it doesn’t “work.” In fact, a growing body of compelling research shows just the opposite. It is the leaders who support and empower people, act with authentic leadership, and inspire trust who get the best results in the long term. This is true across the board — in business as well as social and political realms.
Famed Harvard professor and psychoanalyst Abraham Zaleznik once said, “To understand the entrepreneur, you first have to understand the psychology of the juvenile delinquent.” Think about someone you hold in high regard or that you are close to. How would you describe that person? Most people would list positive adjectives or descriptive words like “friendly,” “generous” or “warm.” These are all examples of fairly stable characteristics that together make up our individual personality. Elsewhere, I’ve written on the top 10 personality characteristics of the successful entrepreneur; not surprisingly, these dovetail closely with personality traits associated with high testosterone levels.
So how are businesses — and in fashion, particularly brands — to cope? My rule of thumb is that the behavior of the brand is the brand. Boards need to step up and take on a new role, and become stewards of their companies’ culture. Research coming out of top business schools shows that the more gender diversity — and diversity in general — on boards, the better. It goes straight to the bottom line. But first we need the awareness necessary to bring truth and transparency into our workplaces.
Mark Lipton, Ph.D., is a graduate professor of management at The New School in New York and author of “Mean Men, The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man” (Voussoir Press, September 2017). For more than 40 years, he has been a trusted adviser to Fortune 500 corporations, think tanks, philanthropies, not-for-profits and start-ups.