Even CEOs Get the Blues
What's worse than not achieving your goals? Achieving them. Being the big man on top can leave no more room for joy, and open the door to depression.
By Hara Estroff Marano published March 2, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
He was the youngest-ever CEO of a Fortune 500 company and he wasn't even gunning for the job, so the last thing Philip J. Burguieres, 35, expected was the empty feeling inside that dogged his first few months at the helm of Houston-based Cameron Iron Works.
Nearly two decades of success after success building billion-dollar companies in the oil-services sector, and getting rich doing so, could not keep bleakness from roaring back. The next time, in 1991, at 48, he collapsed before learning he had a disorder called depression. The third time, in 1996, he could name what hit him but was "one hundred percent convinced that the world would be better off without me."
The search for a magic cure (he eventually came to understand that "there isn't one; overcoming depression takes time") took him to a Midwest mental health facility for three months at $1,000 a day. The morning he left Houston—"the worst day of my life"—he got an unwelcome sendoff: a front-page story in the business section, complete with color photo, publicizing his leave of absence from Weatherford Industries. "Health reasons," the Chronicle blared.
Burguieres' experience as a top executive who not only battled depression but is comfortable talking about it is especially unusual because he is called on to help many other CEOs. As a result, it opens a window into a rarefied but closely guarded world—perhaps the last bastion of denial of human vulnerability—where any perceived weakness can carry a high price tag. Indeed, the day Burguieres embarked on recovery Weatherford's stock plummeted, losing more than 10% of its value.
Three months of hospitalization and a slew of antidepressants didn't help much. But a chance encounter did. A month after his return, out to dinner with his wife, Burguieres was spotted by an acquaintance. "I saw the story in the paper," John Sage opened. "What happened? Did you have a heart attack?"
"I'm suffering from something you're not familiar with, John. I'm suffering from clinical depression," he replied, and he still isn't sure why. He didn't know Sage all that well, and he hadn't told anyone else. But he is sure that "John Sage saved my life." A stunned Sage suggested they talk privately. The two men settled into a corner of the restaurant while their wives went home.
A star linebacker from Louisiana State turned Houston real estate entrepreneur, Sage confided he was indeed familiar with clinical depression—he was fighting his way out of one. "But John," Burguieres stammered, "you can't be depressed. You were an All-American football player. You're tough." Sage, whose severe depression followed the double whammy of business reversals and the brutal murder of his closest sibling, was equally confounded. "But Philip," he countered, "you've got all that money and that gorgeous house!"
The cultural mythology surrounding success challenges even those who seem to have it all to understand how they can find life so empty they dream only of ending it all. But corporate executives, and especially entrepreneurs, may in fact be even more vulnerable to depression than others. It's not that times are suddenly tough for CEOs, who at this cultural moment enjoy as much trust as used car salesmen.
More likely, a special combination of forces impinges on them, from within and without. The forces are particularly durable, deeply embedded in the men—and it's mostly men—and world they operate in.
The very qualities that propel them to success can arise from an extremely dark place in the psyche. The tendency to build their identity on achievement makes a downturn unbearable. The modern American corporation is structured to give CEOs wealth and power but also crushing isolation. What's more, there's something in the nature of success that makes being at the top dramatically different psychological terrain from getting there. And the American dream that wealth transmutes success into happiness always ends in bitter disappointment. "You're the same you, just in posher surroundings," says psychotherapist Terence Real, head of the Real Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and author of I Don't Want To Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression.
Make no mistake; modern CEOs are generally an outstanding breed. They're smart. They're charming. They have extraordinary coping skills. That's how they got where they are. But the orientation to action that so distinguishes them can work spectacularly against them when problems arise, preventing them from getting help or even recognizing they need it, ultimately pulling them into a depression so subterranean it resists treatment. "They're human doings, not human beings," says M. Gene Ondrusek, Ph.D., senior psychologist at the Scripps Center for Executive Health in La Jolla, CA.
The morning after their restaurant encounter, Sage called Burguieres. He was a little further ahead on the timeline of recovery and felt that might give Burguieres something to grab onto. Burguieres found him to be "the first person who knew what I was talking about." For the next year and a half, the two battled cultural myths and personal demons shoulder to shoulder; they were true blues brothers. They spoke every day by phone and met several days a week in the office Weatherford provided Burguieres, who was still board chairman. They dubbed it "the depression suite."
"We didn't think we'd ever do anything significant in our work lives again," recalls Sage. "We felt that even if we had something important to do we wouldn't be up to it. We feared we'd be sidelined all our lives. We were living our worst nightmare. At the time we didn't realize the good coming out of it; we were getting better but we didn't know it."
Sage was on a journey to find self-worth and shared what had helped him. "Everybody has to do it his own way," he says. "I did it spiritually. I realized I didn't have to prove myself. I accepted that I was a child of God, that life is not just about me. I came to see that external achievements were not the sole measure of who I was. Depression comes from beating yourself up when things don't work out, when it may just be circumstances, not mistakes we made."
And, of course, "it comes from denying pain. I learned to ignore pain—my own and others'. It destroys the ability to have empathy." After his sister's murder, pain punched him in the gut and consumed him with the desire for revenge. In the attempt to quell it he attended several spiritual retreats. He dragged Burguieres along on a few of them.
It is a measure of the esteem in which Burguieres is held that when the fog completely lifted more than two years after his Midwest sojourn, he was still an A-list force on the Houston business and social scene. He was on numerous boards. He was advising on mergers and acquisitions. He was instrumental in helping secure the National Football League's newest franchise, the Houston Texans, a $200 million business of which he is now vice chairman.
And he found himself richer than ever. For the first time he owned his full humanity.
He could recognize beauty around him, as in, say, a sunset. He could enjoy an afternoon of golf. "If I took an afternoon off 10 years ago to play golf, I didn't feel good. I really wanted to be at the office," he recalls.
Most of all, he took an interest in other people as people, and it started with John Sage. Day after day in the depression suite, they forged a bond of empathy out of shared psychic pain. They discovered what men who are bred for competition shun from an early age—that people connect not by parading their strengths but by confiding their fears, their disappointments, their hurts, as well as their hopes and dreams. Only afterwards did they realize it became the instrument that changed their lives. It both restored the capacity for intimacy and expanded their identity as human beings who have value beyond an earnings report.
Burguieres reconnected with his family—and he got love back. In this he was most unusual; much credit goes to his wife, who endured decades of loneliness without becoming terminally bitter. "I made the effort to change," says Burguieres. "I started paying attention to my two kids. The good news is they embraced it."
More typically, observes Frank S. Pittman III, M.D., psychiatrist to Atlanta's elite, the wife and children become alienated through inattention. The men "substitute giving their family money for their presence. And when they begin to catch on that their family would just as soon not be bothered with them, they resent giving the money and try to control things. She gets madder and madder as he gets richer and richer."
Then, when he needs a human connection, she isn't there. "If he doesn't have his marriage to go back to—not the trophy wife but someone who knows him as just a human being—he's alone in the universe. More than anything else," stresses Pittman, "what pulls someone out of depression is the sense of not being alone." The evidence from the lab is clear: intimate bonds constitute our natural state; in their absence neither brain nor body functions normally. In all mammals, isolation begets depression.
With the help of a top Houston psychiatrist ("CEOs know all the tricks," says Burguieres; "they go at 6:30 in the morning and they pay in cash") Burguieres became aware he had feelings, not all of them wonderful, and was able to identify and address them instead of burying them with work. "There are two kinds of managers," he says, "those who are successful because they're aggressive and goal-oriented, and those who are successful because they fear being unsuccessful. I was successful through fear of being unsuccessful. I never took a vacation. There was guilt associated with pleasure. I didn't want to be like my father, who had lost his job when I was a child, stayed home and struggled to fill his days."
But motivation coming from a negative source also relentlessly generates anxiety and stress. and turns people into compulsive perfectionists. They often feel drained, rarely get a sense of satisfaction from doing well. And in the long run they are at risk of burning out, as Burguieres did that morning in 1991 when he collapsed in his office.
"I was a classic workaholic," he says. "I had a mistress. I'd lie to my wife. I'd sneak off on Sunday afternoon and tell her I was going to run errands, and I'd go to the office for two hours. I'd come back, and she'd ask where I'd been, and I'd say, 'Well, I stopped by the grocery store and I had a bite to eat.' But the mistress I was running to was my job."
It is a common belief that the upper, and still highly masculine, echelons of corporations constitute an emotionally arid moonscape. "The CEO's position is very isolating, very focused on performance, and it's a very tough, aggressive world," says Real. "That supposedly makes it a very unemotional world. But in fact there are tons of emotions running around. They just don't get dealt with." Instead they go unrecognized, and belittled, as if our entire thought apparatus weren't embedded in and contingent upon emotional states.
Eventually, the anxiety and the guilt Burguieres so strenuously concealed with work exploded in depression. Unaddressed feelings will do that. "I suffered from guilt about everything," he recalls. And the anxiety began declaring itself in a way that couldn't be missed—in panic attacks.
John Sage was the first person he opened up to about his depression, but not the last. Burguieres now spends much time reaching out to ailing CEOs: "It's part of my cure," he insists. "Depression is a narcissistic disorder; it makes you turn inward. The only way out of it is by paying attention to others."
He never set out to be a poster child for depression in high places. But he discovered that his very presence as a "player" had the power to defy the stigma of depression and to refute cultural stereotypes of just who gets mentally ill. When, in 1999, a friend asked him to share his experience with a local chapter of the World Presidents Club, a nervous Burguieres agreed. He titled his talk "Depression: The Secret Killer" and his peers turned out in droves. They gave him a standing ovation.
And their trust. "My phone started ringing off the hook," he reports. Distressed CEOs, or their worried wives, besieged him for help. The call from the wife is common; depression is rarely recognized by driven men. But the sullenness, withdrawal and irritability are hard on those around them.
Since his 1999 speech he devotes at least a day a week to meeting with suffering CEOs. He knows they need someone they can relate to. He tells them his story, what he did. He hands each one "a personal directory" of helpful information he gathered the hard way. But what Burguieres gives them most is hope, hope that, like him, they can get through it.
And so it happens that he finds himself in a most paradoxical position. Open as he is about his own experience, determined as he is to erase the stigma of depression, he now runs "a secret network" of CEOs with depression. Most feel safe "coming out" only to one of their own, afraid the stigma will strip them of their standing in the corporate world—and the approval of their board of directors.
Burguieres repays the debt of gratitude to his blues brother John Sage by serving as chairman and chief fundraiser for Bridges To Life, the pioneering organization Sage began in 1998 to bring prisoners together with crime victims so they can confront the consequences of their actions and begin to repair their lives. Sage hasn't seen an antidepressant in five years.
Nor is Burguieres' interest in mental health limited to the wealthy. The day I visited his offices he was arranging a trip to Austin to urge state legislators to fund mental health services for the indigent in Houston's Harris County.
He had recently returned from Prague, where he was invited to address the World Presidents Organization. There he talked about his own experience with depression and once again was besieged by distressed executives. "You would be shocked at some of the CEOs who are right now running big companies who are suicidally depressed," he reports.
As a result of his work with CEOs in the U.S. and abroad, Burguieres is "one hundred percent convinced that estimates of the prevalence of mental disorders are biased on the low side." From his exclusive vantage point, he contends that "at some point in their career fully 25% of top-level executives go through a severe suicidal depression."
Some CEOs who were once blindsided by depression and now are alert to its signs think Burguieres' number actually understates things. One top executive, "your standard overachiever" who excelled in athletics, the Army and corporate leadership and now runs his own venture capital firm, contends that being crowned king is itself the problem.
"You discover that the real fun was getting there. Once you're there you're a VIP, a talking head, but you're not impacting anything. Not only is achieving the goal a letdown. You don't feel good about yourself as a Master of the Universe. You treat people differently. You believe in your own bullshit. You think you're hot stuff."
A two-million-miles-a-year man, he went into a tailspin the day his wife said she was leaving. "It put me over the edge. At 45 or so, most highly successful men look over their lives and see there are no mountains left. They have no real friends. They've eroded their relationship with family. They're isolated. And they enter a state of depression. There's no exception. Depression is rampant among those who have achieved their goals—and even worse among those who have not."