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The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man

Exploring the twisted personalities calling the shots in a culture where mean is celebrated

This piece is the prologue to Mean Men: The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man (2017), written by Mark Lipton, and published by Voussoir. 

Mark Lipton – with rich experience as an adviser to major corporations, start-ups, government agencies, and not-for-profits – integrates years of psychological research to uncover what drives men in powerful positions to do dastardly things in order to fulfill their “visions”. Mean Men: The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man reveals the sinister truths about a psychological disorder that governs many of our boardrooms. It also challenges the prevailing order of things with an alternative and more effective humanistic approach to leadership.

Nobody likes being fired. But when Zynga laid off over five hundred employees in the spring of 2013, it’s a good bet that some of those let go by the social game-maker were happy to move on.

Zynga’s CEO, Mark Pincus, was not a fun guy to work for.

Pincus became a billionaire during the minibubble for overhyped social media companies in 2010 and 2011. But by 2013, he was fighting to keep his company afloat. And for those who knew him well, there was a poetic justice to his fall.

Mark Pincus was mean.

Pincus, a serial entrepreneur with a Harvard MBA, led Zynga to financial success in the early years with social media game apps like FarmVille that leveraged Facebook’s social network to grow an ever-expanding subscriber base. While Wall Street sung the praises of Zynga’s unique business model, both Pincus and Zynga were raked over the coals by the trade press. Innovative, yes — but Pincus and Zynga were using these first-generation social gaming apps alongside predatory lead generation tactics to manipulate their users into unknowingly signing up for subscriptions. Pincus exposed his growing estrangement from ethics in his 2009 speech at the Y Combinator Startup School in Berkeley where he admitted doing “every horrible thing in the book to just get revenue right away.”

Pincus made no apologies for his behavior. Taking a cocky stance in interviews, he noted proudly the multiple times his belligerent attitude got him fired from previous jobs. Internal reports from Zynga’s current and former employees painted a picture of an ethically bankrupt organization where the unofficial motto was “Do Evil” (the inverse of Google’s “Don’t Be Evil”), and the basic MO was to straight-out steal other companies’ game ideas and focus on lead generation analytics. On the outside, there seemed to be no limit to Zynga’s growing power to not only steal more effectively from competitors and manipulate its users, but also leverage the law to its advantage. They had cash, and cash talked.

Meanwhile, inside the company, Zynga had established its reputation as a meat grinder for employees. Their mission? Make a profit. Even before the mass layoffs, a steady stream of high-profile talent was leaving. One former employee called it the “worst possible work environment and culture imaginable . . . CEO says stuff like, ‘When you come to the conversation understanding that I’m always right you’ll have a better outcome.’”

Zynga’s downward spiral at the hands of an unethical, arrogant, and abusive leader shows why these particular men are a real and growing problem: these guys don’t just make life miserable for those around them — they damage or destroy entire companies, nonprofits, sports teams, music bands, movie studios . . . the list goes on. More than that, these “leaders” have become twisted icons for success in contemporary American society. Happiness is no longer a goal in and of itself. Ethics mean nothing compared to the win. Power, at any cost, at all costs, is what makes the nation tick.

Which is the culture that brought Mark Pincus back to Zynga. In early April 2015, he announced his return to the CEO role. That’s right, the man the analysts blamed for the deep slide in virtually every measurement of the company’s success was back in the saddle. Why? He was still so loaded with shares of Zynga he had weight to swing around. And he had a board that allowed back a former CEO who had proved himself ineffective. But the rest of the world took notice: the day after Pincus’s announcement, Zynga’s stock tanked more than 10 percent. He didn’t last long. By March 2016, Pincus handed over the reins to board member Frank Gibeau, but only after laying off more than a thousand employees and putting the company’s tony headquarters on the market. By the time Pincus left the second time around, Zynga’s stock had fallen 85 percent since its peak in 2012. Why does corporate America refuse to learn its lesson? Why do we tolerate, even celebrate, these “bad boys” even after they have proved toxic to both company culture and long-term success.

Because America loves a winner, especially the guy who’s forged his own path. The tech entrepreneur. The Hollywood mogul. The rags-to-riches politician. The driven athlete. In 2016, a self-proclaimed winner and real estate mogul won the US presidency and was named Time’s Person of the Year. Pass any newsstand and you’ll see their faces — mostly male, white — on magazine covers. Social media eats them up; they’re the darlings (and demons) of Twitter. But there is another side to many of these talented individuals, a side too many of us like to ignore. These “leaders” are often just out for themselves. They step on others to get ahead. They are deceptive and ruthless. They have explosive tempers and abusive personalities. In a word, they are mean.

In fact, a disproportionate number of them share characteristics of a dark personality disorder that compels people to behave badly even as it drives them to create and excel. Pincus is but one example; the behavior seems rampant in entrepreneurial spheres where individual talent and ambition reign. The same men who flourish in challenging circumstances may also be mean: they are abusive to employees or colleagues, unprincipled in their pursuit of success, and devoid of empathy; they’re pathological liars, unable to feel remorse, and incapable of taking responsibility when they fail; and they’re arrogant and prone to see others strictly as tools for their own advancement.

Does this constellation of traits sound familiar? Mean men are everywhere, and too often the full extent of their behavior is hidden from view. What’s more troubling is that even when they’re outed, we too often fail to hold them accountable. They are instead rewarded in an America enthralled with competition, risk-taking, efficiency, and monetary success. Pincus gets a second try at the brass ring, and Trump gets 306 electoral votes. In the face of their abusive behavior, their subordinates, suppliers, and entourages are cowed, while board members, investors, voters, and even the media look the other way. And in doing so we simply create more mean men, teaching them in every instance that mean is not only tolerated, it’s celebrated. Before we reach the point of no return, we must uncouple “mean” from our definition of American success — before these men don’t simply populate entrepreneurial firms and our government but become the new American heroes for a generation of fledging leaders.

This book goes beyond the now-familiar stories about famous mean men, such as Apple visionary Steve Jobs, to expose the bad behavior of mean men in nearly every entrepreneurial sector of American society: Silicon Valley, Wall Street, Hollywood, professional sports, and even religion. In writing this book, I dove into recent groundbreaking social science research as well as interviews, court documents, and media accounts to reveal a veiled world of fear, bullying, cheating, and worse. I drew on my four decades of experience as an organizational consultant. And I have tapped my professional network of psychiatrists and consultants for their stories of men who were in charge and mean. Yet this is not just a book about a problem; it is meant to serve as a call to action, to move us toward a nation where good guys — you know, guys capable of empathy — really do finish first.

And yes, I did say “guys” intentionally. All but one of the people profiled in this book are men. In the beginning, that was a decision born out of research. Nearly all the studies that have been done on entrepreneurs and personality-disordered executives focus on males. Yet along the way I discovered something even more intriguing — and controversial — behind the skewed results. More on that later.

Though I am a researcher, this isn’t an academic issue — it’s a national phenomenon. I want to paint a clear picture of the psychology shaping modern America so that all of us can work to take our country down a different path. So let us begin. Let us take a deep dive into what and who a “mean man” is and look at the path of destruction he leaves in his wake. After all, each one of us is caught up in the churn.

Mean Men: The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man is available for purchase on Amazon.

Mark Lipton is professor of management at The New School’s Milano Graduate School. His research and consulting over the past forty years has focused on helping organizational leaders from all sectors manage change and create impact in their respective markets.

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