Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, June 22, 2020
I have been binging on the Netflix series “Ozark.” I have finished seasons one and two and am now halfway through season three when a moment in episode five flattens me. I have related this moment to a number of my peers who have had a similar response. So, at the risk of spoiling a tiny portion of the show, herewith.
The main character, Marty Byrde, works for a cartel drug lord. He is kidnapped by the drug lord, tortured and finally as a way of achieving his freedom, he pulls off a financial magic trick that only he can do, the result of which is worth millions of dollars to the cartel. There is this marvelous moment as he is about to be set free, when the drug lord asks him “What do you want?” Marty makes a simple request about having more authority in his work. Then the drug lord asks, “Is that all you want?”
And then it happens. There is a very long pause as they stare at each other. And finally, Marty looks at his captor and says, “A thank you.” What Marty wanted was what all of us want — recognition for a solid and successful effort. He wanted this powerful man to say thank you, to humble himself and acknowledge that he was a tiny bit beholden to Marty, that he was grateful for his skill. I won’t tell you the next moment, but what I will tell you is that I have shared this story enough times to know that getting a thank you is often very difficult, and sometimes impossible. And it really matters.
It is often easier to write a check, to give a bonus or offer more stock and a promotion, but to say thank you, well, that seems at times and from certain people to stretch the bounds of human interaction. In my own little world, from time to time, I have pulled off modest magic tricks, not the stuff of Penn & Teller, mind you, but valuable enough to save some companies and some people. And what I wanted most was to be thanked.
I have polled other advisers and leaders and it appears that a thank you ranks right up there with the dodo bird — nearly extinct. So when someone pulls a rabbit out of the hat for you, be sure to pet it.
The story above meshes nicely with a piece of research that was done by Charles O’Reilly, a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business. O’Reilly explores the confluence of leadership and narcissism. His theme is that boards often pick leaders who are ostensibly bold and visionary. But often it turns out, once they are in power, their true nature emerges. He says, “instead of being bold, they are merely impulsive, they are not just confident, but become arrogant and entitled.” Steve Jobs and Elon Musk fall on the high end of the narcissistic self-serving spectrum, but they were brilliant and effective. By contrast, for example, the CEOs at WeWork, Uber and Theranos share the fatal narcissist gene and wreaked havoc.
The board and the team want to believe in the strong leader, the person who will take the company to the promised land, but O’Reilly points out, “they are often reckless in their pursuit of personal glory.” These individuals tend to exhibit lower integrity and higher self-interest, and when they ascend to positions of power, their behavior can have a “malignant influence” throughout the organization.
O’Reilly sees this not only in politics, but also in young technology companies where the mantra of move fast and break things favors the confident leader who “believes he knows better than others, and thus feels even more justified in ignoring the advice of experts.” This type of “grandiose narcissist” often feels they don’t receive the admiration and credit they deserve and that leads to resentment. And that resentment leads to a purge of anyone who challenges them.
So, now the puzzle completes itself. It is precisely this kind of narcissist leader who is incapable of saying thank you, who is blind to acknowledging that the matrix of a company’s success has multiple strands. Being able to give a thank you not only empowers the recipient but also enhances and elevates your own status.
Rule No. 664