In every company I've ever worked for, there was at least one sociopath in a senior management role.
Some were screamers. Some were smarmy and manipulative. Some were just miserable. Many were narcissistic. Almost all were control freaks.
One memorably awful ex-colleague was a brilliant woman who broke sales records every year. But she chewed through people like a lawn mower.
She approached meetings like flies approach their meal. For those not up on entomology, flies vomit on food before eating it. They can only consume liquids and their vomit is a tool to liquefy food. My former colleague would verbally vomit on any idea that wasn't hers. After "liquefying" the idea (and the person who suggested it), she would reconstruct it from her view, digest it, and proceed.
The end result was often impressive, but the collateral damage was ugly. It wasn't uncommon to find colleagues crying in the bathroom after meeting with her.
At one agency I worked for, I had to meet with an SVP who controlled a large chunk of business for us. He insisted that we sit on the balcony off of his office on a blazing summer day. Of course he sat in the shade, while I sat directly in the sun. It felt like an interrogation session at Guantanamo. I squinted through the entire meeting while envisioning the burns developing on my bald head.
The only thing I recall from the conversation is his consistent reference to himself in the third person. He knew exactly what he was doing - it was a pure power play and I was too green and insecure to ask that we move the meeting inside.
Perhaps my worst experience was when a longtime, hardworking, and high-performing colleague got promoted to president of an operating unit, and suddenly transformed into a tyrannical despot. He demanded unflinching loyalty, would not tolerate dissenting opinions, and surrounded himself with mediocre talent that would not challenge him. Needless to say, things went frighteningly downhill until senior management finally stepped in.
I know I am not unique in encountering these difficult execs. Everyone reading this has had their own private hell with an abusive colleague or boss.
When I was younger, the existence of these nut cases would drive me crazy. I couldn't fathom how such awful people could keep their job while consistently perpetrating atrocities on subordinates and other colleagues. How could they stay in power? I simply thought the world was unjust and management was blind. I vowed that if I were ever in a position of power, I would never allow such bad behavior.
As I got older, I began to understand why these tyrants were tolerated. It wasn't hard to figure out: They produced.
Companies will put up with a lot of bad behavior if the bottom-line results are impressive. And many of these emotionally challenged individuals, such as narcissists and workaholics, actually deliver outstanding short-term results.
There are undoubtedly studies that show that disruptive personalities should be counseled out of an organization no matter how much revenue they produce. But it's hard for management to take the short-term hit to achieve a long-term gain.
In the end, most of these people self-destruct personally or professionally, but some do maintain senior roles for years. I suppose it's our job to remind management of what they know already - everything, including the bottom line, is ultimately hurt by toxic leadership.
Don Spetner is EVP, corporate affairs at executive recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International.