Sometimes the attitudes engendered by success can turn that very success into failure.
In the 1970s and ‘80s Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker were the king and queen in the world of televangelism. Taking advantage of newly emerging satellite technology, they launched the PTL Satellite Television Network (PTL stood for: “Praise the Lord” or “People that Love”) in an abandoned furniture store in Charlotte, N.C. The cornerstone of the PTL Network was The PTL Show hosted by Jim and Tammy Faye. The show co-opted the format of the Tonight Show, with guests, music and entertainment all based on a Christian theme. Of course, the objective of the show was to solicit donations from viewers to support the Bakker’s Heritage Village Church and Missionary Fellowship, Inc.
Viewership of The PTL Show and subsequent donations grew rapidly. The increasing flow of funds into PTL allowed Jim and Tammy Faye to move their headquarters from the old furniture store to ultimately a 2500 acre combination theme-park, religious shrine and resort called Heritage USA in Fort Mill, S.C. (People were encouraged to buy time-share units on the property so they could be “that much closer to Jesus.”) At its pinnacle, PTL was collecting more than $5 million a month in donations. It has been estimated that, before their downfall, Jim and Tammy Faye collected almost $200 million from sincere, but gullible viewers. And there was a downfall.
Jim and Tammy Faye lived the lifestyle they felt befitted a king and queen. (This was about the time that PTL came to stand for – “Pass the Loot.”) It turned out that Jim and Tammy Faye were skimming so much money off the top of incoming donations it put the skimming efforts of Las Vegas mobsters to shame. In one reported incident Tammy Faye chartered a private jet to take her to New York for a power-shopping excursion. She bought so much “stuff” on the trip that a second private jet was chartered simply to haul all her loot back home.
But Tammy Faye wasn’t alone; Jim had his own excesses as king of PTL. He siphoned off millions in bonuses and lived a life of conspicuous consumption – with lavish church-paid homes, fancy cars, ostentatious jewelry and trips to exotic resorts – that made even the most perk-grabbing corporate CEO seem like a piker. But between the alleged rape of a 20-year old female church worker (with $300,000 in church funds paid to buy her silence) and charges of financial hanky-panky, poor Jimmy was forced to resign from PTL and was subsequently convicted of fraud and sentenced to 45 years in prison. The sentence was later reduced to 8 years. He was released after serving 5 years. Tammy Faye suffered her own bitter comeuppance, dying of cancer in 2007.
Making Sense of BFM
What makes this sad story relevant is that Jim Bakker’s defense to the charges against him was “but for me” the church would not have had the money to support its Christian works. He argued it was irrelevant that he and Tammy Faye had skimmed off a million dollars a month of the five million PTL was collecting, because, in his demented logic, the church still received four million dollars it would not have had, “but for me” and my efforts.
This “but for me” attitude used to justify taking excess rewards for the success of an organization may seem like convoluted logic – and it is – but unfortunately it is not uncommon. This is called the “but for me” syndrome and it can infect any successful leader at any level of an organization. The “BFM disorder often leads to the ultimate failure and downfall, of both the leader and the organization.
Success and adulation carry the spoors that can infect any leader with the “but for me” affliction. Once infected, the leader comes to believe they are entitled to the spoils of success, because without them there would have been no success. The real lesson to learn here is not that this “but for me” attitude can lead to criminal activity and to abusive excesses in the form of obscene corporate pay-packages and bonuses for the heads of large corporations. The real problem is that the “but for me” syndrome can infect the attitude and style of any leader – at any level. This leads to a loss of respect, credibility and effectiveness of the leader; even if the manifestation of the syndrome is something as simple as taking credit for the work of others.
A few years ago, while hosting a raucous card game at a golf-getaway for a few executives of a company I was leading, one of them – the head of marketing – showed obvious symptoms of the “but for me” syndrome. The atmosphere of the game was one of good-natured teasing and mocking, but when this guy was teased his response was, “Gee, I bring in $50 million in sales and I get no respect.” It may seem like a small thing, but what this guy was intimating was that — “but for me” — the company would not have such great sales. He was totally dismissive of the efforts of everyone else in the company and the marketing department. He truly believed that full credit should singlehandedly be his.
The sad part was that this guy – like most others – had no idea he had become infected with the “but for me” syndrome. Despite his ignorance, he eventually paid the price for this attitude because others in the company did recognize the “but for me” syndrome in him; he ended up losing the respect and support of those in the marketing department and the sales force and was forced out of the company.
This example is cited only to illustrate that to be successful in the long term, leaders at any level must be cognizant of, and be inoculated against, the “but for me” syndrome. The way to do this is to consciously and consistently adopt a “but for them” attitude toward success. This way of thinking and acting allows the leader to accept the accolades and benefits of success, but on the condition that it is understood and acknowledged that “but for them” (the followers) success would not have been achieved.
I know one successful entrepreneur who led a company from start-up to national prominence. When people would shower him with compliments on the success of his company, his response would be, “Thank you, but I did not make the company successful.” What he could take credit for was creating the opportunity for others to be successful. As he would say, “It is true that “but for me” the company would not have started, but it is also true that “but for them” (those who joined the company and put forth their talent and effort) the company would not have been successful.”
What is important to understand is that the “but for them” attitude not only coalesces the support and commitment of the followers to work to achieve success for the leader, it also is critical to maintaining continued success. When followers see a “but for them” attitude in leaders, they take pride and ownership in the effort to achieve success, because they know they will be recognized for their contributions and share in the success attained.
The “but for them” attitude is the most powerful and effective antidote a leader can take to become immune to the “but for me” syndrome. The “but for them” way of thinking is engendered when the leader consistently operates on the basis of respect for the talent and value of the employee. This is accomplished by engaging the followers in the entire process of achieving the objective sought. Workers are empowered and encouraged to use their talent to “make a difference.” Communication between the leader and follower is a two-way street; ideas, thoughts and suggestions are allowed to flow both ways. Credit due is credit recognized. And most important, the rewards received for any success achieved by the organization are shared by all. It does not mean that the rewards are equal, but they are equitable. The leader does not benefit from and bask in the light of success unless “all of them” do as well.
Following these approaches to leadership engages the followers in the desire to see success achieved and motivates them to work for that success, because they know they will share in that success. The followers will respect, work hard and be committed to the success of the leader, because they know the leader believes that “but for them,” success would not be possible.
And the Moral of the Story …
Unfortunately, there is too much of a “but for me” attitude among leaders when it comes to taking credit for success and not enough of those who believe that “but for them,” success would not be achieved. Falling prey to the “but for me” syndrome of success offers a number of side-effects, none of which are positive.
Succumbing to the affliction of “but for me” opens the door to the rationalization of abuse and excess; and that can never be a good thing. Just ask Jim and Tammy Faye. Even worse than that, the “but for me” attitude breaks down and eventually destroys the relationship of trust and respect between a leader and the followers; two critical cornerstones if there is to be any chance for a leader to be effective and successful.
There is one more reason for a leader to believe and adopt a genuine “but for them” attitude when it comes to success – It is true!