The rock star B-school professor at the center of Stanford’s leadership storm

September 18, 2015, 4:00 PM UTC
Stanford University Graduate School of Business at Knight Management Center
Stanford University in California Graduate School of Business at Knight Management Center education CA
Photograph by Bill Bachmann—UIG via Getty Images

(Poets&Quants) — Deborah Gruenfeld knows a lot about power. As one of the leading social psychologists at an elite business school, she’s been deeply immersed in the psychology of power and how to smartly use it for nearly a quarter of a century. But in the past week the rock star professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business has unwittingly found herself powerless in a scandal that has attracted explosive media attention all over the world.

Gruenfeld, 54, left her husband of 13 years and began a romantic relationship with the man who effectively was her boss, the school’s dean, Garth Saloner. It didn’t help matters that her husband, Jim Phills, 55, was also on the faculty of the business school and has aggressively gone after the school, the university, his wife, and her lover in two separate lawsuits.

After gathering force month after month out of view, the storm finally broke earlier this week. Since last spring, the accusations that would lead to the resignation of the dean of the world’s No. 1 business school had been piling up page by page in two courthouses, unseen by all but the players, their lawyers, and a few California state court judges. The seeds of Saloner’s fall lay scattered throughout a lawsuit by Phills who alleges Saloner railroaded him out of the business school while sleeping with his wife, and in the divorce case between the two professors.

Sprinkled through the two cases are bits of email, text, and Facebook conversations between the leader of Stanford’s business school and his subordinate, and from them emerges a sexually charged tale of star-crossed love, of a pair of academics more than a half century old behaving like giddy teenagers—and, if the lawsuit and divorce-court claims are to be believed, plotting like Soviet apparatchiks to banish the woman’s husband from the graduate school and trounce him in the divorce.

Gruenfeld, who is a board member of the women’s leadership group, has parlayed her social psychology research on power dynamics into a lucrative career for herself and for the school. Indeed, the lawsuit provides a rare glimpse into the gold-standard pay and platinum-standard perks that come with being a professor at an elite business school.

Deborah H Gruenfeld headshot Deborah Gruenfeld.Courtesy of Stanford

In the divorce case between the two Stanford professors, their annual incomes are listed for the past several years. While the numbers are not broken down too specifically, their combined income for each of the three years leading up to their separation in 2012 suggests they were very well compensated, hauling in $511,000 to $593,000 annually. Gruenfeld’s individual income after the separation is documented in a divorce filing, and appears to have taken a big leap: on her own, she made $487,000 in 2012; $462,000 in 2013; and $504,000 last year. (Phills, too, has made hay from his B-school career. After he went on leave from Stanford in 2012 to work at Apple University, the tech giant’s internal training facility, Phills made $769,000 that year, and the figure would rise fast, to $1.2 million in 2013, then $1.7 million last year.)

Gruenfeld’s rock star status was solidified more recently when she landed a $1.1 million advance from Crown Business for what will be her first big non-fiction work, tentatively titled Acting With Power. In a market where advances for business books more typically range between $50,000 and $100,000, Gruenfeld’s big payday was a surprise to many in the publishing industry, especially since it occurred after Little Brown paid what industry insiders say was a $1 million advance for a similar book by Amy Cuddy, the Harvard Business School professor who boasts the second-most-viewed TED talk in history.

“A $1 million advance would be in the 99th percentile for non-fiction books,” says Adrian Zackheim, the veteran president and publisher of non-fiction at Penguin Group USA. “But there is a lot of exuberance in the air and this book was very skillfully sold.” Gruenfeld’s book is expected to be published in the spring of 2017.

Gruenfeld’s narrative reveals a whip smart, aspiring professional who has successfully made a novel transition to the upper reaches of business school academia from, of all places, journalism, public relations, and social psychology. After earning a B.A. in pyschology from Cornell University in 1983, she decided to try her hand at journalism and earned a master’s degree in the field from NYU in 1985. Her interest in communications was short-lived, though an early incident became a path to her eventual career as an academic.

She traces her interest in the topic of power to the 1980s, when as a twenty-something young professional she worked in public relations and found herself at a meeting with an influential entertainment executive. The man, she relates in a video, had a mini-refrigerator at the edge of his desk. During a 9 a.m. meeting, the executive would open the refrigerator door and extract a bottle of vodka. Throughout their session, he would swig vodka straight out of the bottle and munch a raw onion. “Nobody ever said anything to him about it,” observes Gruenfeld. “We didn’t react while it was happening. We didn’t talk about it afterwards. He didn’t even offer to share anything with us. It seemed perfectly appropriate for him to behave that way in a meeting with us. It would never have occurred to us to do that in a meeting to him.”

To Gruenfeld, the executive’s behavior reinforced his authority in the room. She ultimately decided to get an advanced degree in social psychology at the University of Illinois. After graduating with a PhD 1993, she joined Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management as an assistant professor in organizational behavior. Phills, then an assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale University’s School of Management, met Gruenfeld during her Kellogg years, and they married in 1999, the same year she won academic tenure.

The now-estranged couple started at Stanford together in 2000, when Gruenfeld was pregnant with their first child, and the business school had rolled out a golden welcome mat: $1 million in university and business school loans to build a 3,000-square-foot, four-bedroom, three-bathroom home on a half-acre of the campus. Completed in 2005, the home is now valued by real estate website Zillow at $3.9 million.

In the 15 years she has spent at Stanford, Gruenfeld’s career has flourished. Two years after arriving at the school she was named a fellow of the Stanford-linked Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, putting her in the company of 22 Nobel laureates and 44 winners of MacArthur “Genius Grants.”

Not surprisingly, she wins high praise from her colleagues. “For the people who study the psychology of power, everyone would know her and she has produced some excellent doctoral students,” says Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford. “She was hired with tenure, and we only hire truly excellent people at that level.”

Every spring, Gruenfeld usually teaches three sections of a course called Acting With Power. “This class is designed specifically for students who have trouble ‘playing’ authoritative roles: those who find it difficult to act with power, status, and authority,” according to the syllabus. “It will also be useful for students who find it difficult to share power and authority, which involves accepting and deferring to the power and authority of others.”

Gruenfeld’s research has an ironic twist to it, given the drama that now swirls around her. She has argued that power is disinhibiting: by reducing concern for the social consequences of one’s actions, power strengthens the link between personal desires and the acts that satisfy them.

Critics of Gruenfeld’s lover, Garth Saloner, accuse him of using his power as dean to create a work environment “ruled by personal agendas, favoritism, and fear,” in the words of 46 current and former business school staffers and faculty who urged the university not to reappoint him to a second five-year term.

In any case, Gruenfeld has built an influential and rewarding brand from her research and teaching. She has also used her expertise to help, a group founded by started by Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg to offer women “inspiration and support.” In a LeanIn video produced in conjunction with Stanford, Gruenfeld presents key elements of “Acting With Power.”

In the talk, she focuses on body language, and the need to understand when you’ll have impact and influence by “playing high” for dominance, and when you need to “play low” to show you know your place. “It’s the balance between playing high and playing low that I think makes most managers effective,” Gruenfeld says in the video.

When playing high, “You need to be able to show up authoritative,” Gruenfeld says. “Being authoritative means showing up and letting people know that you’re in charge. You’re going to be closing yourself off a little bit to other people, you’re privileging your knowledge and experience over and above the knowledge and experience of other people. You’re becoming more directive and more concerned with controlling other people’s behavior than with taking direction from others.”

Practically speaking, showing up “authoritative” means behaving like a jerk, Gruenfeld’s talk suggests. And women need to give themselves “permission” to deploy the “playing high” tactics when the job requires it.

“When walking you assume others will move out of your path, taking up maximum space and allowing your body and your gestures to flow into the space of other people,” she says. Other ways to assert dominance include “keeping your head perfectly still while talking,” speaking in complete sentences, and holding eye contact “a little longer than normal,” she says. “You stare someone down when you’re addressing them. You don’t let them out from under your gaze. They know you’re serious.

“But when they’re addressing you,” Gruenfeld says, pulling her phone from a back pocket for theatrical effect and checking the screen, “you’re free to look around, you’ve got other things on your mind, other people you need to talk to… You don’t check other people’s eyes for any reaction to what you said, and you have no visible reaction to what other people say either. You could interrupt before you know what you’re going to say.”

Of course, the high and mighty are not immune to the trials, fears, and doubts of life—or to the outcomes when relationships fall apart. Gruenfeld and Phills, the couple who once blogged together on their program for healthy family living, have been tied up for two-and-a-half years in a divorce chock full of deeply personal revelations, from Phills’ discovery of his wife’s affair, to her love-struck conversations with the dean. But one document in particular, introduced by Phills in the lawsuit, is perhaps most revealing about Gruenfeld, who turns out to be a living, breathing example of the gender-role conflicts at the center of her research and teaching.

A little more than a year before her separation from Phills, she wrote to her life coach about her fear of losing herself within her marriage. “If I’m not careful, if I don’t stick to the plans that I make for myself, I will disappear,” she writes. “Once I start worrying about what Jim wants it is all over for me. I can’t think straight…. I am paralyzed, not wanting to make a wrong move for fear of setting him off or disappointing him…. I can’t even tell if he is treating me fairly or not. His work demands, his need for exercise, to see his friends, to take fun trips, to go out at night, to watch TV, all take precedence… I don’t take care of myself or feel good about myself. Before long there is nothing left of me. I have no voice, no presence in my own life.”

Gruenfeld writes that she has gone to great lengths in her life to keep from disappearing, saved from that fate largely by her work. “I pursued a highly absorbing academic career and devoted myself to it totally. The career gave me permission to claim my voice, to be seen and heard, to disagree and assert my truth. It has been a lifeline for me.”

After she married Phills, though, she started to vanish, she writes. She played low. “I worried that anything I did that did not serve his interests directly would make him angry, jealous, hateful, bored, whatever. I started giving myself away. I backed away from work, fearing that my continued successes would intimidate him and he would be resentful. I took over raising the kids, entirely, putting their interests, friends, schedules, growth and development, ahead of mine.”

Gruenfeld has weathered far more serious troubles than a divorce and sex scandal, however. In 2005, her youngest of two daughters was diagnosed with cancer. With this crisis, too, she struggled to balance her role as a mother with her high-profile job. “I considered going on leave, and tried to get comfortable with the idea that my career might actually be over,” she writes on The dean at the time, Robert Joss, offered to lighten her workload.

“During the 2 1/2 years that my daughter was in treatment, I was on the front lines of her care, accompanying her to the hospital for countless scheduled procedures, administering a rigorous regimen of medications at home that had to be taken at certain times under certain conditions, many of which she hated, watching for side effects, and on occasion rushing her to the emergency room with late night fevers and other complications.

“It was brutal, stressful, scary, and at times overwhelming. In the beginning, I went to my office at Stanford just to close the door and cry.” Her daughter, she writes, fully recovered.

But now, as Gruenfeld confronts another crisis, Phills is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to doggedly pursue the case against her paramour and her employer, and bringing to light intimate and often embarrassing details about the romance and herself. Why? Clearly, he is a fighter of sorts. When Phills was a champion wrestler in the unlimited heavyweight class at Harvard College in the early 1980s, he once explained how at 215 pounds he could triumph over much larger and heavier adversaries. “There’s art in taking a person down,” he told The Harvard Crimson. “Style and skill are the keys to beating the bigger opponents.”

A friend claims that Phills is not interested in winning for the sake of it. Nor is he intent on seeking revenge over losing his wife and his job. “He is doing this out of principle,” the friend tells Poets&Quants. “He says he does not want his children to live in a world where this behavior is tolerated.”

Whatever the motivation for taking down Saloner and Stanford, the controversy has tossed Gruenfeld into an unwanted spotlight and, no doubt, changed the power dynamics among the faculty at the business school.

More from Poets&Quants:

Stanford Confidential: Sex, Lies & Loathing At The World’s No. 1 Business School

Stanford B-School Staffers Condemn Their Dean

Meet The Incoming MBAs at Harvard Business School

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