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CEOs and 'I don't do that!'

Marianne Jennings ( is Professor Emeritus, W.P. Carey School of Business, Arizona State University.

In an episode of the 1970s television series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary’s neighbor, Phyllis Lindstrom, over-planner, worrier, and meddler, was poised, once again, to wreak havoc. Mary tries to explain to Phyllis that she is exaggerating things as she always does. Phyllis, shocked, responds, “I don’t do that. My mother did that.” There are several other times in the episode that Phyllis, when warned about her pattern of inappropriate behaviors, repeats, “I don’t do that. My mother did that.” With Mary’s final warning, Phyllis repeats, “I don’t do that. You just do not know me, but it is amazing how well you know my mother.”

Introspection of our own behavior is a tall order. Our self-evaluations always come out higher than those done by others. As individuals become leaders, increasing self-confidence suppresses introspection. When yet another leader’s often bizarre behavior emerges in the news, déjà vu abounds. It feels as if we are living through a form of CEO Groundhog Day, in which the behavior patterns repeat, but the lessons from others, whose hubris felled them, are not studied or learned. The patterns, as well as the consequences to organizations, repeat and repeat. Breaking those patterns is also a tall order. Too many leaders fail to see the dangers of the road too often taken and upon which they have chosen, blindly, to tread.

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