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Icarus Complex: Flying the Corporate Jet Too Close to the Sun

Updated: Sep 11, 2022

Residents of C-suites and boardrooms who exhibit the “Icarus complex” often initially soar but ultimately plummet from lofty heights and take their companies with them. Here’s how organizations can identify them and prevent disaster.

The media and Hollywood have romanticized the notion of personable and charismatic but ruthless executives running large organizations as in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “Wall Street,” and “Boiler Room.” The congenial outward appearance often masks emotional coldness; exploitation; unethical and manipulative behavior; and grandiose self-importance that wreak havoc on management staff and employees. Such polish, charm and even-keel decisiveness often are mistaken as leadership qualities when they can just be the outward-facing appearance of darker personality traits.

Corporate executives harboring an Icarus complex with other dark tendencies often make decisions in isolation without input from others. Managers and other subordinates quickly realize that the Icarian exec doesn’t value their counsel. They become disengaged as the work environment becomes toxic.

Such a closed-loop approach can have costly corporate implications, says Don Hambrick, Professor of Management at Penn State. “… [N]arcissism in the executive suite can be expected to have effects on substantive organizational outcomes, potentially including strategic grandiosity and submissive top management teams,” he says.

These often are self-destructive personalities because they ignore their own limitations and other boundaries. They’re flames that burn twice as bright as others but only half as long.

Narcissists and behavior rationalizations

If a situation deteriorates, narcissists will likely try to explain how everything is working exactly as intended. In fact, they often rationalize their own questionable behavior if the means serve the ends. Many leaders use these types of classic rationalizations to pass off their corporate behaviors and actions: “slippery slope” (options backdating: “everyone’s doing it”), “king’s pass” (public achievements and philanthropy should overshadow the ethical errors in judgment), and “Hamm’s excuse” (patent infringement and revenue mismanagement: “it wasn’t my fault”.)

In an interview with Fraud Magazine, David Cotton, CFE, CPA, chairman of Cotton & Company, tells how some in the C-suite succumb to the power of position. “[It’s a ] given that pretty much everyone wants more money,” Cotton says. “And executives with ‘chief’ in their job titles are almost always in a position to override or circumvent internal accounting and fraud controls. So, pretty much every senior executive inherently already has two legs of the "Fraud Triangle” (see illustration below).

Three sides of the fraud triangle.

Some narcissistic CEOs might never have read Greek tragedies or Melville, or perhaps they failed to learn the lesson from the narratives. Others may have been willfully blind to events in their organizations. However, David Cotton believes there’s another reason: “Sociopaths and psychopaths do not need two of the three legs of the Fraud Triangle…they just need one: opportunity.”

Relating the fate of Icarus in 21st-century parlance, such individuals as Bernie Madoff, Jeff Skilling, Bernard Ebbers, Kenneth Lay, Elizabeth Holmes, and others might have soared skyward initially, but eventually, they all flew their company jets too close to the sun.


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