Breathing Your Own Exhaust

If it is so wrong to stare at a car crash, then why are they so fascinating? And in these tough times, watching another crooked leader taking the “perp-walk of shame” brings a grin to even the most cordial of us. Leave it to the ever-precise Germans to define this feeling as “schottenfreud” or “the taking of pleasure in the misfortunes of others.” The more pompous or self righteous the civil servant, business titan, or do-gooder is, the more the French got it right, saying revenge is a dessert best enjoyed cold.

If schottenfreud is fun from a distance, why is it so painful to watch someone you care about become so impervious to their impact? It’s because we care. In my work, I have seen the following examples of owners breathing their own exhaust.

  • After failing to eliminate his salesforce by going direct to customers, the leader invites the reps to “come back home as all is forgiven” by his marrying the youngest sales rep.

  • Returning from France and bragging at work how much money he spent on wine, an owner cuts payroll and publicly borrows money from an employee.

  • After kiting a client’s postal check and firing his partner’s son, the tables are turned when he alerts the sheriff who impounds the owner’s boat just as he’s skipping town on it.

  • After showing off his new Ferrari, an owner takes me to his board room where he has taped (not framed) Penthouse centerfolds to the mahogany walls.  

While the stories are horrifying, I can vouch for the good intentions and years of sacrifice that preceded each owner’s fall from grace. But at some point a chip switched in the owner’s head and the disconnection from reality snowballed down a slippery slope of complete self-delusion.

How can you tell if an owner’s ego and braggadoccicio have overwhelmed their confidence and conviction? What kinds of brakes and controls can you hope they embrace? It is high time when an owner

  • Dismisses ideas as being irrelevant to their business when the ideas would create accountability

  • Responds to questions regarding how their business is doing, by insisting there is no way to better it. Period.

  • Believes that luck or being in the right place at the right time played no role in their success.  

Business ownership has so little accountability and oversight that without devil’s advocates and contrarian data to strike a balance, dysfunction is likely. When owners start believing their destiny is assured, it’s more likely that things are never as good or as bad as they think they are.

Here are some simple questions to ask and assure their feet are on the ground and they are not breathing their own exhaust.

  1. What is their true price of being wrong?

  2. What is their true benefit of being right?

  3. Where does their comfort zone really end?

  4. Where does their dogma really begin?

    In such crazy times, there seems to be a fine line between stoicism and irrationality. Help the owners you know to stay on the right side and remember my favorite quote, “We become what we tolerate!”


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