The following is a guest post by Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who is the managing principal of Boswell Group LLC. He advises CEOs, investors and politicians on the dynamics of leadership, corporate culture and governance. The opinions expressed are his own.
About the only thing that’s clear in the story of Mark Hurd’s downfall last week as CEO of HP is how much we don’t know. Statements issued by HP, by Hurd, and by Hurd’s accuser reveal remarkably little about what was unquestionably a bad week for everyone involved.
Yet there are some meaningful clues if we read between the lines.
A highly successful CEO who took the helm at HP following the disastrous rein of Carly Fiorina, Hurd was well on his way to establishing himself as one of America’s best and brightest business leaders. Given his accomplishments at HP over the course of his tenure, I still think he may qualify. Notwithstanding the denials of a sexual relationship between Hurd and Jodie Fisher, the consultant and occasional actress who accompanied Hurd on “high-level customer and executive summit events,” we don’t know much about what actually happened between them.
Why would Hurd, a married man in a high profile job, whose every move was scrutinized under the electron microscope that comes with CEO territory, risk his reputation, not to mention his career, by spending so much time with Fisher? We’ll probably never know the entire story. But as an advisor to CEOs around the world, I see that the one thing they all grapple with is the isolation and loneliness that are inherent in the role. Because of the nature of power dynamics in all organizations, CEOs often have no one in whom they can confide inside their companies, and they naturally need – and seek – confidants on the outside.
Most of these relationships are healthy, adaptable and, in my view, necessary for CEOs to deal with the stresses of the job. But the boundaries of these relationships can occasionally get murky, especially with a CEO whose intimate personal relationships aren’t providing the kind of emotional sustenance they need, or who are drawn to the excitement of being with someone who might fill a certain void, either in the imagination or in reality.