Difficult Leaders: From Groupon to Stone Temple Pilots

Originally published on PsychologyToday.com.

Groupon’s board of directors recently fired their founder and CEO Andrew Mason. The day before, the rock band Stone Temple Pilots ousted their founder, lead singer, and principle songwriter Scott Weiland. Weiland’s history of drug abuse, arrests, fights, and unreliability suggests that, like Groupon’s board, STP deemed that their leader could no longer effectively perform his role.


Scott Weiland. Time to update the resume

Among rock bands, problematic lead singers are known to suffer from Lead Singer Disease (or LSD), a condition that develops when the leader of a band decides that he or she is more important than the rest of its members. The lead singer begins exercising greater control, acting like a jerk/diva, taking credit for the group’s work, and expecting greater relative compensation.

The psychological term for LSD is narcissism, an inflated sense of self and the constant need to have that inflated self-view reinforced. Narcissists tend to have a sense of entitlement, a desire to be the center of attention, a sense of superiority relative to others, and self-absorption. Many lead singers fit this description to a T.

recent study suggests that one of the problems of having a narcissist at the helm of the organization is that narcissists do not respond to negative feedback by trying harder or changing what they are doing. Unlike most people, who take negative feedback as an opportunity to reflect on what they could be doing better, narcissist CEOs appear to behave as if everything they do is a success. Using data from 152 CEOs of computer hardware and software firms, professors Arijit Chatterjee of the ESSEC Business School in Singapore and Donald Hambrick of Penn State University found that whereas less narcissistic CEOs responded to objective performance by spending more after a good year than after a poor year, more narcissistic CEOs spent the same regardless of objective performance.

For bands, as for companies, this tendency means that it can be difficult if not impossible to criticize the person at the top. Take Steven Tyler, lead singer of Aerosmith. His definition of LSD? “Bone-gnawing, spleen-curdling jealousy of the lead singer in a rock band on the part of other members of the band, erupting in violent blaspheming and tantrums by such members whenever the lead singer’s image appears on the cover of popular magazines.”

As difficult as some leaders can be, they are often good for their organizations. A forthcoming study by four professors at IMD business school, Penn State, and Erlangen-Nuremberg University found that narcissist actually perform better than other kinds of people in their role as CEOs. “We have uncovered the bright side of narcissism,” said IMD Professor Albrecht Enders. “It can serve as a catalyst for risk-taking and innovation.” Sometimes difficult CEOs need to be tolerated for the sake of the enterprise.

Thus a band, like any company, is left with two options. The first is to tolerate the afflicted leader. As Stanford professor Bob Sutton outlined in his book The No Asshole Rule, a team dealing with an important but difficult member can adopt a positive outlook. This is what Guns N’ Roses original drummer Steven Adler did, admitting in his book My Appetite for Destruction that he felt pretty lucky to have a talent like Axl singing in his band. Another tactic is to develop emotional detachment. Though many musicians end up using drugs or alcohol to do this, others detach by developing hobbies or side projects. Another strategy is to focus on small wins, like George Harrison getting a song or two on each Beatles album or Keith Richards making little digs at Mick Jagger in his memoir, Life. Finally, Sutton argues that you can limit your exposure to the offending team member, for example by not socializing with them beyond work-related interaction and creating a buffer of positive relationships, which is why many musicians travel with an entourage.

But when LSD is accompanied by unreliable performance, some bands make a bold move: they fire their singer. This is what Van Halen, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, and, recently, Stone Temple Pilots have done. What was particularly ballsy in these cases is that the ousted singers were also founding members and lead visionaries. Scott Weiland couldn’t believe this was even possible. “Not sure how I can be “terminated” from a band that I founded, fronted and co-wrote many of its biggest hits,” he observed in an official statement.


Andrew Mason. “As CEO, I am accountable”

But what Stone Temple Pilots were in fact doing was taking a page out of entrepreneurship 101. In the world of startups, founders usually get the boot since the skills it takes to conceive, garner resources for, and launch a young company are different from those required to manage and adapt a growing company. When the founder’s performance as CEO declines, it’s time to move on. Which is what happened at Groupon.But was replacing their leaders a good move for Stone Temple Pilots? Probably not. Bands rarely recover from the departure, whether voluntary or involuntary, of their primary creative leader and front person. Pink Floyd had a good run with their post-Waters Momentary Lapse of Reason, but they had to hire professional songwriters to help them out and the result, though commercially successful, was no Dark Side of the Moon. Without a creative leader, they petered out. Van Halen and Black Sabbath both ended up inviting back their original singers, who returned sober and humbled. Their experience suggests that, in rock n’ roll, terminations work best when they end up being interventions.