Success Can Drive You to Drink

Lessons Executives Can Learn From Chris Albrecht's Downfall

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Why would Chris Albrecht, who until May 10 was CEO of HBO, risk one of the best jobs in the entertainment industry by drinking?
Steven Berglas writes that the performance-impeding effects of alcohol can be a desired handicap for C-level executives who want 'timeouts' from performance responsibility. | What do YOU think? Comment below in the Your Opinion section.
Steven Berglas writes that the performance-impeding effects of alcohol can be a desired handicap for C-level executives who want 'timeouts' from performance responsibility. | What do YOU think? Comment below in the Your Opinion section.

If you think he's an anomaly, "Good morning, Mr. Van Winkle." C-level executives who drink abusively and act self-destructively following success plague companies. I have studied and treated these individuals for nearly 30 years, and while there is no simple explanation for what they do, a series of experiments I conducted prove that the pressures of sustaining life at the top -- vs. climbing there -- heightens the appeal of alcohol.

Self-protective handicap
The relief afforded by alcohol for superstars is actually an elegant self-protective handicap (I call it self-handicapping alcohol abuse): As a self-imposed impediment to success, people actively arrange their lives to protect their conception of themselves as competent and intelligent persons by drinking. It is a process analogous to what the ancient chess player Deschapelles did when he no longer felt sure of winning his games. He demanded every opponent have the advantage of one extra move and a pawn more than he had, thereby imposing a self-handicap that was transient and did not implicate his self-image or reputation. If he suffered defeat, he attributed it to his handicap; but if he won, he enjoyed a self-esteem boost for having overcome his impediment.

The performance-impeding effects of alcohol can be a desired handicap for C-level executives who want "timeouts" from performance responsibility. Their mantra: "I'll show you the real me when I sober up." Most do just that and return quickly to form. For some, however, tomorrow never comes. Because corporations exist in a society poisoned by the facile bromides of Media Shrinks, many are at a loss for what to do when a superstar comes begging "Help me achieve sobriety." Boards of directors think, "This guy's genius is rare; we cannot afford to lose him," and they are correct. They also assume that because his overt symptom is drinking, they might as well go ahead and cure that.

I have long argued that most C-level executives who act self-destructively following success are not the victims of character problems, but I have also lamented the failure of not recognizing that the 2 in 10 who do suffer psychological problems almost always fail to receive authentic psychotherapy for what ails them. How do you know who should be treated for a real problem and who should, for example, be considered a self-handicapping alcohol abuser? Simple. The self-handicapper uses alcohol to protect self-image by avoiding tests of his mettle and harms no one else. Therefore, if alcohol causes someone to aversely affect anyone else, it is not self-handicapping.

Rule of thumb
I do not know Chris Albrecht, but whatever his problem is, it is likely not simply alcohol abuse; consuming alcohol does not cause a man to throw punches. A good rule of thumb to follow is this: If a C-level executive's post-drinking behavior causes problems not localized to his body, his job or his possessions, he most likely has a problem and blames alcohol -- the old "the Devil made me do it" excuse.

What then, does a company do to save superstar talent with an authentic problem, one that Dr. Phil's "Get Real" cannot address? Commit all resources necessary to put him in one of the nation's best psychiatric facilities for as long as needed. I worked at one for 20 years and saw stellar results. I saw men with problems akin to what I believe Mr. Albrecht suffers gain complete control over their disorders through psychotherapy and drug therapy. What I would not do is what most companies do: Trust 28-day sobriety retreats. Those businesses do little more for what I assume cost Mr. Albrecht his job than a gauze pad does for a bullet wound: Bleeding can brought under control, but you ultimately need medication and stitches and to achieve a permanent solution.

Meanwhile, what's the executive's responsibility? I remind corporations of how many CEOs (e.g. Juan Trippe, former CEO of Pan American Airlines, and Ken Olsen, former CEO of Digital Equipment Corporation) can drive onetime Fortune 500 behemoths into bankruptcy by believing too much in their own force of will to overcome market adversities. Following this reasoning, I suggest all decisions regarding a CEO's fate, once he has suffered the "stress of success," be taken completely out of his hands. In this way, a company can avoid a Chris Albrecht circumstance, as well as being vulnerable to a Juan Trippe or Ken Olsen debacle.

Best tack to take
Actually, the best tack a CEO can take is to fess up to the problem. Do you remember Roberto Goizueta, former CEO of Coca-Cola Co., the man who tried to bury Pepsi with New Coke and instead created one of the world's biggest advertising gaffs? Mr. Goizueta understood leadership, power and image control. Instead of using spin doctors, image consultants and the like, he used chutzpah and an old-fashioned mea culpa following his debacle: He told the world he screwed up. My counsel to CEOs who are caught with empty Ketel One bottles in their attache cases is identical. I also add, having worked with Forbes 400 "luminaries," Grammy winners, Clio Award winners and countless CEOs, that if alcohol abuse is the worst issue they confront, their "case file" is benign compared to their peers.

By accepting responsibility for feet of clay, leaders discover -- as John F. Kennedy did when he accepted responsibility for the Bay of Pigs debacle -— public acceptance soars. Attempting to sweep a problem under the rug has one and only one consequence: It makes the problem you are trying to hide look bigger.

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Steven Berglas is an executive coach and management consultant who spent 25 years as a faculty member in the psychiatry department at Harvard Medical School. His last book on how high achievers cope with success, "Reclaiming the Fire: How Successful People Overcome Burnout," was named one of the 75 smartest business books by Fortune.
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