Read the news headlines on any given day and you'll see examples of powerful, influential leaders whose risk-taking behavior left destruction in its wake. New York Yankee Alex Rodriguez, New York City mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, and hedge fund manager Steven Cohen are a few recent examples. Wherever there are leaders, there are fallen heroes, whether it's in the world of business, government, entertainment, athletics or religion.
Why do leaders who have it all then risk it all by making such poor decisions? Behavioral scientists, neuroscientists and psychologists have been studying the phenomenon for years, and have identified several attitudes, beliefs and other factors that contribute to risky behavior. Here are six of them:
- The amygdala hijack. Psychologist Daniel Goleman coined the term “amygdala hijack,” which describes how the brain under stress is poorly equipped for self-control. The amygdala is the part of the brain that rules the fight, flight or freeze responses of the parasympathetic nervous system, which takes over for the part of the brain in the neocortex that is responsible for rational decision-making. It is crucial to learn how to manage stress because if you don't, you’re more vulnerable to making poor choices at work and in their personal lives. When on the verge of a rash decision, take a few deep breaths, which slows the heart rate and enables the prefrontal cortex to regain control.
- The domino effect. Behaviorists have noticed that when people make one poor decision in a distracted or unaware moment, they are more likely to follow it with another poor decision and then another. For example, you get hooked on a TV show and end up staying up two hours after your normal bedtime. The next day you wake up feeling groggy and depleted, so you leave for work late and skip your morning workout. At work, you grab a doughnut in the break room, figuring the sugar will give you a jolt. And the bad choices go on and on. Research shows if you're feeling bad about a mistake, it can lead to other bad decisions. With your brain under stress, you may figure "what the heck" and just keep walking down the self-destructive path.
- Addiction to pleasure-seeking. Psychologists use the term “hedonic adaptation” to describe the pleasure and excitement of something new wearing off, much like the high of nicotine or some other addictive drug. For example, an executive starts to feel a loss of interest in his wife, and then begins to delay going home, opting instead to stay at work in the company of an attractive staff member. Hedonic adaptation is a normal part of life experience -- the high of a relationship lasts for approximately two years. The executive could instead look within his marriage for new activities, spiritual time together and honest communication to keep the intimacy alive.
- An overinflated sense of importance. Another reason people engage in destructive behavior such as overspending, overeating, pornography, abusing alcohol or drugs, shoplifting, smoking, gambling, embezzling and infidelity is that they feel entitled. Due to their wealth, power and influence, they have come to believe that they deserve forbidden treats because they work hard, they're smarter than others and their status places them above the law. They believe they are immune to consequences when they indulge in the risk-taking high. The cure for this dilemma is to work on self-awareness and surround yourself with people who tell you the truth.
- Failure to weigh the reward. Leaders who fall from grace due to risky or self-destructive behaviors forget to ask a simple question that could have helped them: "What's the greatest reward I could receive from taking this risk?" Asking this question 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 they’re not living in accordance with their true values. It's your conscience on one side vs. the immediate gratification on the other. You must learn how to weigh them.
- Weakened willpower. Some neuroscientists liken the inner voice that seeks immediate gratification to having a second self. People switch back and forth between these two selves. One self acts on impulse; the other self controls the impulses to protect long-term goals. Most of the time, these two opposing selves can and do work together. This is particularly true if what you desire comes with a big negative, such as a high price tag or grave danger. In that case, the more primitive instinct -- your gut reaction -- will agree with your rational self, which is already saying no. But in a weakened state of stress, the will-powered self loses its power and authority. You need to power your brain with plenty of sleep, good food, proper exercise and stress management techniques each day so you can act on your values, not on your impulses.
Steven Mundahl is a leadership scholar and professor, and president and CEO of Goodwill Industries in Massachusetts. His new book is The Alchemy of Authentic Leadership (Balboa Press, 2013).