The downfall of Eliot Spitzer certainly generated a lot of joking on Wall Street, Twitter, and elsewhere yesterday. I plead guilty to a private email with a "client #9" joke myself.
But mostly I feel pained by this whole story. I've met Eliot a few times and although I wouldn't call him warm, he did strike me as earnest and committed to public service. I know his wife Silda much better and I feel so much for her and their lovely daughters.
This story is a tragedy of Shakespearian proportions. How does a man with so much going for him do something so stupid and self destructive? Why do people self destruct and what can we learn from it?
I am no psychologist, not even the armchair kind. I don't know what deep dark issues lead to self destructive behavior. But I've seen enough of it in the 20+ years of investing and sitting on boards that I know a few things.
Most of the people that I've seen self destruct over the years have a drive that is almost overwhelming. They have a desire to succeed that takes them far. But they also have huge blind spots. They usually have someone or a group of people that protect them from the blind spots. But as they start to achieve their goals and rise beyond the people that helped them get where they are, they distance themselves. And then they are at the top - but all by themselves, and they get caught up in their greatness and then the downfall comes.
I suppose we could see it coming with Spitzer. The arrogance and the fits of expletive-producing rage seemed to be on display more and more. Could those close to him have helped him? Could the downfall be avoided or was it inevitable?
What can we all learn from this?
Well, first and foremost, there are no messiahs. Nobody is perfect and when we put people on pedestals, they mostly fall and let us down. That's one reason that Barack Obama concerns me. I want him to be better than the rest. But is he? Is that even a reasonable expectation?
In the more mundane world of startups and startup investing, we have to be careful with the people we hire and back. I've backed a few founders with messianic tendencies. It's a problem. On one hand, they bring incredible drive and charisma to the startup equation. They can hire and raise money like no others. But they don't build great teams around them and many times they self destruct and their companies suffer
I think, but I am not sure, that self destructive tendencies can be managed. I have become a big fan of coaching and counseling over the years. We all have our demons and blind spots. The first step in dodging them is to identify them, stare them down and become self aware. I know a few really good people who coach founders and CEOs and if you are looking for someone to help you or someone you've backed or love, send me an email and I'll hook you up.
Watching a man like Eliot self destruct is too painful, and I hope something good can come of it.