psychology the ceo magazine
Steven Mundahl

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Anthony Weiner and General David Petraeus all share something in common. They were all intelligent leaders who indulged in self-destructive, risky behavior. As I began writing a book on authentic leadership, I found myself drawn to research the reasons behind such actions. Together with my wife, a psychotherapist and business coach, we discovered that Americans leaders have NOT lost their collective willpower or hit an all-time ethics low.

We did find that leaders need to be more knowledgeable about their genetics and the science of the brain as well as healing past negative traumas. We can view the leadership vehicle as a high-powered race car that leaders need to master.

1st The Engine:  Genetics: Risk-Taking Runs in our Leadership Veins

The powerful “risk-taking” engine under the hood can literally backfire. One married leader who was referred for help in a high-risk affair said, “Risk-taking runs in my blood. I have a big capacity for it. I know my board could fire me. I could lose the very company I started!” The risk-taking speedometer runs up to 200+ mph for some leaders. (Think racing at Daytona).

My Neurotransmitter Made Me Do It! All of us get a dopamine rush with new challenges. This is our own evolutionary inner “APP” which rewards us for finding new territories/inventions and sex partners to ensure survival of the species.   Leaders are often HIGH sensation seekers chasing intense, novel and complex sensations. Tests have shown high pleasure seekers to have a hyperactive dopamine neurotransmitter in the brain’s reward and pleasure center. This kind of dopamine-wired leader is getting more bang for his dopamine buck. The anticipation of this intense reward, “the honey” overwhelms the concern for the stinging bees. It is easy to miscalculate how quickly small repeated risks mount up.  You get away with it a few times and-- Bam! You’re “outed”.

Men have a Powerful Testosterone Additive in the Gas: Men have a "fight or flight" response to stress increasing their testosterone which leads to impulsive behavior. This reduces the effects of the calming oxytocin. The enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) needed for self-regulation is found to be low in high sensation seekers. Conversely, MAO is found to be higher in women.   Psychologist Shelley E. Taylor says women "tend and befriend" during stress. The hormone oxytocin released during stress supercharges their estrogen for a calming effect.

Advice:  Take a Risk Behavior test. It is short and simple. (I have one on my website.) If you score “high”, you may have an overactive dopamine reward system or low MAO. You may need extra help to fuel up your willpower self!

2nd The Car Navigation System : Your Brain:

The Brain’s Hedonic Adaptation describes the pleasure and excitement of something new wearing off.  If your relationship seems a bit stale don’t turn to an affair: you are experiencing a normal leveling off after about two years’ time. (Remember only 25% of affairs succeed longterm).

Advice:  Get an “intimacy tune-up” with a counselor. Learn new skills in communicating your needs and creating excitement.  Don’t feel trapped or settle for mediocrity: Boredom and a poor sex life lead to extreme vulnerability for affairs.

Stress Lowers Brain Willpower:  With stress, your brain does an “amygdala hijack” You’ll react impulsively without your wise prefrontal cortex to help you.  Your car might as well be out in the desert with no satellite system.

Advice: Get a good stress reduction routine. APPs which help to monitor stress are springing up all over.  Breathing (imagine 6 counts in and out), mindfulness meditation and routine fitness reduces stress.

3rd The Car Body: The Dents from Trauma:

None of us escaped some family dysfunction. It left us with emotional triggers or even compulsive addictions (Sandusky) which can lead to risky behavior.

Advice:  Know thyself. Heal thyself.  If you have repeat emotional triggers, get help from a psychotherapist to desensitize them and heal any negative beliefs. They’re often linked to an earlier traumatic event in your life.

In summary, we wrote our comprehensive book for self-mastery so that leaders will be equipped to take their race car down the leadership road—to enjoy the power yet knowing when to use the speed control to keep it on the higher road—while listening to Michael Jackson’s, “Gonna make a difference, Gonna make it right. I’m starting with the man in the mirror”.

About the Authors

Steven Mundahl is CEO of Goodwill Industries in Springfield, Ma. He teaches leadership in the graduate program at Baypath College. Steven Mundahl and Sharon Massoth have written a new book called The Alchemy of Authentic Leadership (2013), which offers tools and strategies to help leaders avoid scandal, be more effective, and heal themselves and their companies. Steve has also written several other books: “Living the Goodwill Burn,” “100 Years of Goodwill,” “Driven to Succeed,” “There is Power in Belief,” and others.

Sharon Massoth is a psychotherapist and teacher of “Intuition as Daily Practice for Success” at the New York Open Center and other educational sites. She empowers leaders to live authentic lives.

More information is available at


Jennifer Corob's picture
It is so important to understand where self-destructive behaviors come from, and how to treat them and prevent them in the future. Thank you for sharing this knowledge so that leaders can use their power for good!
Aimée Smith's picture
Being aware of how chemicals in the brain can influence behavior is interesting, but we should also be paying attention to what's going on in a person's environment that could influence their behavior. We should be noticing the warning signs of impending destructive behavior before a catastrophe occurs.

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