Falling from grace

What is it that causes the mighty to fall? Why do so many of the ultra successful perish as a result of their own misjudgment? We take a look at some of the sufferers of this phenomenon of success

You will not be surprised to hear that Sigmund Freud had a theory about this. In an essay entitled Some Character Types Met with in Psychoanalytic Work, he described the phenomena of people who were ‘wrecked by success’.

Freud argued that some people become troubled when they become successful, because they fear that they have hurt others in the process. Their super ego steps in and they manage unconsciously to contrive their own downfall in an effort to atone for this. Another theory suggests that some powerful people are the authors of their own destruction simply because they behave stupidly.

Although Bill Clinton clung on to power after the Monica Lewinsky affair, he managed to do a fine job of ruining his own reputation. Firstly, he was unfaithful (still a vote loser in the US); secondly, he was extremely irresponsible sexually (in the White House of all places); thirdly, he lied about it all; and fourthly, he looked an absolute fool as he floundered in the aftermath of the Starr report.

If the most powerful – and, by definition, the most successful – man in the world can behave like this, ensuring that whenever his presidency is referred to the first thing to come to mind will be his cigar-related frolics in the Oval Office, what hope do the rest of us have?

The political world is littered with individuals whose own actions have caused their demise. But is engaging in peculiar extra-curricular sexual activities and allowing yourself to be caught a kind of atonement?

Surely, such behavior leaves the individual feeling even guiltier – as they have wrecked not only their careers, but also possibly their home lives and marriages. Maybe most of these incidents can be put down to lust heightened by risk.

In the business world, another wrecker of his own success was Robert Maxwell. It was only after the media tycoon mysteriously fell from his yacht and drowned that the full extent of his swindling and misappropriation was revealed.

This was a man who, without needing to flout the law, could easily have been judged successful by anyone’s definition. Unfortunately, he wanted to become the most successful businessman, by his own admission, and was prepared to live by his own system of morality.

Maxwell’s downfall certainly does not fit Freud’s theory. It was not his conscience, but lack of conscience combined with his megalomania that ensured he would be remembered as a crook rather than one of the world’s greatest businessmen and a confidante of world leaders.

So how can mere mortals learn from the mistakes of the super successful? Certainly, there is an element of luck involved. How many world figures have retained a spotless image simply because they have never been found out? Most of them, cynics might say.

Fortunately for some, the morality of sexuality no longer plays a particularly large part in the business world. An affair will not damage a chief executive as much as politician. However, with financial dealings, there is often fine line between the brave but foolhardy and the illegal.

To avoid manufacturing your own disgrace, there are two courses of action. You can lead a blameless life, be nice to everyone, behave strictly by the rule book and hope to thrive simply by virtue of your talents. Or you can play dirty and pray that you never get found out.

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