Why Bernie Sanders Suffers from “CEO Disease”

Bernie Sanders Holds Campaign Rally At Virginia Fairground
MANASSAS, VA - SEPTEMBER 14: Thousands of people gather to hear Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) during a campaign rally at the Prince William County Fairground September 14, 2015 in Manassas, Virginia. Sanders addressed 12,000 students at Christian Liberty University earlier in the day. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Photograph by Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images

There is a particular practice of power that I like to call “CEO disease.”

It happens when an executive, after many years of striving, finally makes it into the corner office—and then immediately jettisons all the great leadership skills that got him or her there. The pure intoxication of power somehow trumps (yes, that was on purpose) all the teamwork, the collaboration, the thoughtful decision-making. The CEO becomes a one-man (almost always a man) band of action. Finally, he thinks to himself, I don’t have to pretend to listen to anyone. And the results speak for themselves. Famous sufferers of CEO disease include former Disney CEO Michael Eisner, Enron’s Jeff Skilling, Viacom’s Sumner Redstone, and Theranos’s Elizabeth Holmes. (The syndrome is not unknown in other realms, obviously.)

So there is no small irony in the fact that Bernie Sanders appears to have fallen victim to this affliction of corporate power-grabbers—despite his socialist background.

I have long admired Sanders’ campaign for its willingness to ask the questions that need to be asked, for its underdog nature, for its ability to bring a very disparate group of people together. It is also true that he has long been a lone wolf, the kind of person who did what wasn’t popular because he believed it was right.

But his refusal to acknowledge that the Democratic primary campaign is over—when it is—is an abdication of what his campaign once stood for. Sanders lost. He lost fair and square. And viewed through a leadership lens, his behavior looks like nothing more than an outbreak of CEO disease. In this fascinating article in Politico, it becomes clear that every one of Sanders’ recent—and increasingly combative—moves has come not from the team that together built a coherent and emotional message, but from Sanders himself.

“Every time Sanders got into a knife fight, aides say, they ended up losing,” the Politico story reads. “But they could never stop Sanders when he got his back up.”

There are lots of things that Sanders can do to advance his beliefs and his agenda. He can negotiate with Clinton to get certain priorities added to the platform. He can build a movement that will outlast him, perhaps even a new political party. And he can become a key part of the Democratic party team, should he wish to. But becoming a team of one—and not acknowledging that the fat lady has sung—is the kind of destructive disease that rarely ends with a cure.
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