I was a 37-year-old human resources leader when I decided to try my hand at consulting. I networked myself into a well-regarded firm as an organizational subject-matter expert who’d plug into consulting assignments as the need arose and my schedule allowed.
It was a fantastic scenario for me. I got to work on interesting projects and keep my travel to a family-friendly level. I was meeting tons of people and working on fascinating business-slash-human problems. One day, I learned something profound over a casual cup of joe.
I was chatting with a young consultant, Dan, in the break room where we’d both retreated for some morning caffeine. Dan was in his early 30s, at most, but had impressed me with his insights about people and strategy. I said, “I’m having dinner with a partner, Jack, tonight. Got any advice for me?”
“Oh! Dinner with Jack?” said Dan. “You’ll have a fantastic time. I can’t wait to hear about it tomorrow.”
“I can’t tell whether you’re teasing me or being serious,” I remarked. “I know Jack is a partner and a huge rainmaker, but I hear he’s somewhat fearsome, also.”
“Fearsome?” asked Dan. “You could say that. Or fearful—that might be a better description.”
“O.K., now you’re going to have to explain yourself,” I said.
“Let me lay it out for you,” said Dan. “You’ve met guys like Jack before. Jack is a partner. He earns a bazillion dollars a year. He buys handmade suits and hand-rolled cigars and will order one of everything on the menu at dinner tonight, plus the most expensive champagne they’ve got. He’ll order for you, even if you ask him not to. Let me guess: He’s taking you to the most expensive restaurant in town. He denies himself nothing, this Jack. He’s on his third or fourth wife and is 80 pounds overweight and drinks like a fish, but he’s the smartest guy in any room he’s in. Jack is the kind of guy who will argue a position, then switch sides and argue the other position just to show you he can do it. He’s delightful.”
“I don’t get the impression you have much use for this guy,” I said.
“Look, Jack is a beautiful example of a person who has no self-esteem outside of what he can achieve in the eyes of other people,” said Dan, who was starting to impress me with his powers of observation. “Jack is just like a million other Jacks in the consulting world and in business. If you ask him about his core values, he’ll say something glib and mark you as a loser, because he wouldn’t know a core value if it hit him in the face. He’s asked you to dinner to size you up, but I’m sure you knew that.”
“To size me up?” I asked. “He said he was impressed with my work on the Acme Explosives project and he wanted to get to know me.”
“You’re a decent-looking woman and Jack either wants to neutralize you, sleep with you, or both,” said Dan.
“Hmm,” I said. “How does a guy like Jack neutralize someone?”
“Well, in your case, he’d just intimidate you at dinner so that you’d be under his thumb and he wouldn’t have to worry about you,” said Dan. “To a guy like Jack, every person is either predator or prey. He has to make sure you’re not a predator.”
“I just can’t wait for this dinner, after hearing your description of my date,” I moaned.
“Oh, it’ll be fantastic,” said Dan. “Just keep him guessing. Don’t be impressed by his credentials—that will drive him crazy. Don’t ask for his help. You have two things he doesn’t have, and that’s got to bug the heck out of him. You were an officer in a Fortune 500 company, and you’re younger than he is. That’s one thing. Also, you have a media presence and a following. Of course Jack wants to have dinner with you. He wants to get inside your head and assure himself that you’re part of his fan club and one of his minions, so that he can dominate you like he does every human being he meets. I’m sure you’ve heard that Jack is a bully and a blusterer. He loves to slice people into ribbons. He’ll make the young associates think he likes them by goading them into telling stories that put our clients in a terrible light. That’s his favorite thing to do, in fact, to get people to let down their guard. Then he’ll destroy them, 10 minutes later, so they’re terrified of him forever after. He’s a peach.”
“Super fun dinner date!” I said.
“But you’re getting distressed by my description,” said Dan. “That is exactly my point. Jack is a pathetic human being. He’s terrified. He has no soul and no self-esteem when you get one inch below the surface. He browbeats people and pays for every fancy dinner and terrorizes the waitstaff to convince himself he’s Superman. He is a petrified shell of a person.”
“Here is the crazy thing,” Dan continued. “People look at a guy like Jack and say, ‘Oh, look how successful he is.’ How twisted is that?”
AN EMPTY MIRROR
Dan got me thinking. I had already met a dozen Jacks at that point in my career, but I had missed Dan’s point about fear and responded to the earlier Jacks the way each of them no doubt intended: with knee-knocking trepidation. As I thought about it, I saw that this reaction was just what each of my earlier Jacks had planned and hoped for. I hadn’t stopped to wonder why these Jacks bothered to spend their time and energy cowing someone like me. Sitting at the break room table, I realized the overbearing-genius-egotistical-hedonist persona made perfect sense. All the Jacks I’d known were acting out of fear, the terror that they’d be found out or run into a person or situation they couldn’t control. Fear that they’d have to, one day, look in the mirror and see nothing staring back at them.
Here’s the crazy punchline. Jack missed his flight and cancelled our dinner, and not long afterward I began pursuing my own consulting projects and left the firm. I never did get to meet him. The young consultant Dan went off somewhere and I never saw him again. The break room coffee conversation took on the quality of a Twilight Zone episode where a diner appears just when a stranded hitchhiker requires a refuge, and the next day turns out to have closed in the fifties and appeared for just one night in ghostly form.
Still, I never forgot Dan’s description of a terrifying and terrified businessperson. As I reflected, I saw how easy it would be for a CEO to hire a Jack and promote him. “Look how smart he is. Look how much he bills, and how devoted he is to his job. Look how competitive he is.” Given how we evaluate and promote leaders, we’re lucky if we don’t find Jacks on every executive floor in every company.
Dan’s words stuck with me: People say a guy like Jack is successful. The person who’s always scrambling to prove he’s the best, the wealthy, smart, top dog. That’s the guy CEOs are hiring to advise them in their decision-making. The guy who denies himself nothing, who has no balance and no purpose, who can’t encounter another human being without pegging him or her as minion or foe—that’s the fellow people are taking advice from.
Dan helped me cultivate a new lens on leaders that day. The person who knows who he or she is, who stands in himself or herself, and who operates from trust at any level in an organization—that’s a healthy person. The one who operates from fear, seeking out and neutralizing potential predators while terrorizing underlings and offering scathing criticism of his clients behind their backs—that’s an unhealthy person, and organizations that collect such folks are dens of unhealth (if that’s not a real word, it should be).
That day in the break room, I stopped seeing the Jacks around me as fearsome and began to see them as fearful. What a gift Dan gave me! I don’t even know his last name, but Dan, if you’re reading this column, I thank you.