The Price of Success
Successful corporate executives may be more vulnerable to depression than the general population. The very factors that helped them reach the top might end up dragging them down.
By Hara Estroff Marano published May 1, 2003 - last reviewed on February 11, 2019
Talk about black humor. It was a private joke between them. In a glass monolith jabbing at the Houston skyline the two men knocked around a cluster of offices wondering what the hell to do with their lives. Once the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company, Philip J. Burguières had just spent five years building Weatherford Industries into a major contender in energy services. But in 1996, at 53, he abruptly resigned as CEO to embark on a three-month stay at a mental hospital in the Midwest. Burguières was "100 percent convinced that the world would be better off without me." John Sage, a real estate entrepreneur stunned by business reversals and the brutal murder of his closest sibling, was, at 48, holding the bleakness back with antidepressants, psychotherapy and spiritual readings. They dubbed the office the depression suite
Burguières would drag himself out of bed in the morning and drive across town to the space that Weatherford was happy to furnish its ex-CEO; after all, he was still chairman of the board. Once there, he would shut himself in his office with The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and read every word of every story, trying to dislodge the destructive thoughts that played over and over in his head, hoping his secretary wouldn't notice. He would return phone calls and might even accept a breakfast or lunch meeting, but he wouldn't -- couldn't -- muster the energy to initiate them.
More often than not, around midmorning, Sage came by. It got him out of the house and it was a place to share the things that were helping him feel better. That might be exercise, an article or a book he was reading -- he was especially taken with The Inner Voice of Love, Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen's personal diary of his own depression -- or something that came up in his bible study group. "John had seen the abyss and was beginning to come out," recalls Burguières. "He was about six months ahead of me on the timeline of recovery. He became my mentor."
They were true blues brothers.
Neither man thought he'd ever do anything significant in his life again. "We felt that even if we had something important to do we wouldn't be up to it," recalls Sage. "We feared we'd be sidelined all our lives. We were living our worst nightmare." What they didn't realize at the time was the good that came out of just being there, together. By breathing the same air, they were pulling each other out of depression. "We were getting better but we didn't know it," says Sage.
Burguières' experience as a top corporate executive who battled depression and came out on top is especially unusual. As a result of his openness he is now sought out -- privately -- by other distressed CEOs. He finds himself in the extraordinary position of running a secret network of CEOs with depression. Most only feel safe "coming out" to one of their own, afraid the stigma will strip them of their standing in the corporate world and that they'll lose the approval of their boards of directors.
His experience opens a window into a closely guarded world where any perceived weakness can carry a high price tag. Indeed, the day Burguières commenced his recovery -- the worst day of my life," he recalls -- he got an unwelcome send-off: a front-page story in the business section of The Houston Chronicle, complete with color photo, publicizing his leave of absence from Weatherford. "Health reasons," the newspaper blared. That morning, the company's stock plummeted, losing more than 10 percent of its value.
Because Burguières feels comfortable speaking openly about his own depression, he has been called on to address stateside and international meetings of the World Presidents' Organization -- a group of 3,300 current and former CEOs. From his exclusive vantage point, he is convinced that estimates of the prevalence of mental disorders are on the low side. "At some point in their careers, fully 25 percent of top-level executives go through a severe depression. You would be shocked at the number of CEOs, now running big companies, who are suicidally depressed."
Some CEOs think Burguières actually understates the occurrence of mood disorders in corner office suites. One top executive who "met the monster and made it through" contends that being crowned king is itself the problem.
"You discover that the real fun was getting there," he says. "Once you're there you live in fear that you're going to lose it. 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." A two million-miles-a-year man, this executive went into a suicidal tailspin the day his wife announced she was leaving. At the senior management level, he says, "depression is rampant among people who have achieved their goals -- and even worse among those who have not."
Depression was the last thing Burguières expected when, at 35, he was named CEO of Houston-based Cameron Iron Works without even gunning for the job. But an empty feeling dogged him in his first few months at the top.
After nearly a decade and a half of success in building billion-dollar companies in the oil services sector -- and getting rich doing so -- he felt the distress come roaring back. In 1991, at 48, he collapsed in his office before learning he had a disorder called depression. Doctors convinced him he needed to quit his high-stress job. He went to the board of directors with a letter from his doctor saying he had "some sort of chemical imbalance in the brain that they needed six months to cure." A few months later he was back on his feet and in charge of Weatherford, which he built from a $100 million business to a $3 billion one in five years. But the depression returned -- twice as bad. This time he could name what hit him, and he quickly left for an extended stay at the $1,000-a-day Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. It didn't help much. A chance encounter did, though. One month after his return, Burguières, out to dinner with his wife, was spotted by John Sage, then a casual acquaintance, who walked over to say hello. "I saw the article in the paper," he 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 at the time and he hadn't told anyone else. But he is now sure that John Sage saved his life. A stunned Sage suggested they talk privately.
A star defensive end from Louisiana State turned Houston real estate entrepreneur, Sage confided he was indeed familiar with clinical depression -- he was fighting his way out of a big one. "But John," Burguières stammered, "you can't be depressed. You were an All-American football player. You're tough." Sage was equally confounded. "But Philip," he countered, "you've got all that money and that gorgeous house."
Successful corporate executives, and perhaps especially entrepreneurs, may be more vulnerable to depression than the general population. It's not that times have suddenly turned tough for chief executives because of corporate fraud and irregular accounting. The fact is, a combination of forces impinges on CEOs, both from within and without. These forces are particularly durable, deeply embedded in the men -- and it is mostly men -- and the world they operate in.
The very qualities that propel high-level executives to succeed can arise from an extremely dark place in the psyche. "There are two kinds of managers," says Burguières, "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 some 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."
M. Gene Ondrusek, Ph.D., senior consulting psychologist at the Scripps Center for Executive Health in La Jolla, California, points to evidence that CEOs are often "supersurvivors," people who faced circumstances growing up that galvanized them to become ultrasuccessful. Ondrusek has found that a disproportionate number of them come from dysfunctional backgrounds; the incidence of alcoholism in their family history is three times that of the general population.
But motivation coming from a negative source relentlessly generates anxiety and stress, creating compulsive perfectionism. Under such circumstances people often feel drained and rarely get a sense of satisfaction from doing well. And in the long run they risk burning out, as Burguières did that day 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 at 2 o'clock on Sunday afternoon and tell her I was going to run errands. Then 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."
The highest achievers may also be tilted toward depression because their identity and self-esteem are often perched almost exclusively -- and therefore precariously -- on achievement. What they often lack is an internal sense of worth. "We equate our value as human beings with our worldly achievements, sometimes totally," says Sage. But that only makes you as good as your last deal.
And, of course, "depression comes from denying pain," Sage adds. "I learned to ignore pain -- my own and others'. It destroys the ability to feel empathy." After the murder of his sister, pain punched him in the gut and consumed him with the desire for revenge. Attending spiritual retreats and learning the fine art of contemplation were his attempts to quell it.
Those for whom achievement becomes all-encompassing are adept at denying pain, and indeed all negative emotions. They commonly believe their success hinges on their ability to distance themselves from their emotions.
Contrary to expectations, landing at the top doesn't automatically bestow a healthy sense of self. By some psychological sleight, it can actually make winners feel like losers. "Your reference group just changes," says Terence Real, author of I Don't Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression. "You can feel like a failure because you're now measuring yourself against the CEO of a company even bigger than yours." And there is almost always somebody younger, swifter, bolder nipping at your heels.
"The American dream -- that wealth transmutes success into happiness -- always ends in bitter disappointment," Real says. "You're the same you, just in posher surroundings."
It is a common belief that the upper, and still highly male, echelons of corporations constitute an emotionally arid moonscape. But the reality, says Real, is that "there are tons of emotions that just don't get dealt with." Instead they go unrecognized and belittled, although a person's thought apparatus is embedded in and contingent upon emotional states.
Feelings of depression are warning signs that you're not being rewarded in terms of self-esteem, and that you need to find a better way of sustaining self-esteem, says psychologist Steven Berglas, Ph.D., an executive coach who teaches entrepreneurial psychology at the University of Southern California business school. "But successful males usually don't respond to early signals of pain adaptively. They push the business paradigm to the point of exhaustion in an attempt to mollify the pain. The underlying vulnerability is only exacerbated."
The anxiety and guilt Burguières so strenuously concealed with work eventually exploded, like a grenade. "I suffered from guilt about everything," he recalls.
Indeed it's striking how worn out executives get, says Jon Allen, Ph.D., a psychologist at the Menninger Clinic. "By the time they get into care, they're in bad shape."
For Burguières, the path out of depression came from an interest in other people. It started at Menninger's, with four or five peers hospitalized in the Professionals in Crisis program. One of them was Jenna, a Midwesterner in her 30s. "She had a gift for insight, and she got to know me perhaps better than I got to know her." She told Burguières that he was going to make it and that when he did he had an obligation to help others. "She said, 'I want you to remember that, because I'm not going to make it.'" At the time, her words didn't mean anything to him because he didn't expect to be around either. But a year later, she committed suicide by running the car in her garage.
Jenna's story came up often in the depression suite, where Burguières and Sage discovered that people connect not by parading their strengths and competing with one another but by confiding their weaknesses. Only afterward did they realize that confiding in others would be instrumental in changing their lives.
Burguières also reconnected with his wife and his two children, then in their late teens -- and he got love back. In this he was most unusual -- and lucky. His wife, Cheryl, endured decades of loneliness without becoming terminally bitter.
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 a human being -- he's alone in the universe," says Pittman. More than anything else, he stresses, "what pulls someone out of depression is the sense of not being alone." The evidence from the laboratories is clear: Intimate bonds constitute our natural state; in their absence neither the brain nor the body functions normally. In all mammals, isolation leads to depression.
"I didn't get to know my kids as young children," says Burguières. "I was meeting with the oil minister of Russia, the oil minister of China. I was in Beijing, in Moscow, in Singapore. You're not aware you're sacrificing your personal life; it's just the way it is. I made the effort to change my life. I started paying attention to my kids in their late teens. The good news is, they embraced it."
With the help of a top Houston psychiatrist, Burguières became aware he had feelings, not all of them wonderful. Over time, he learned to identify and address them instead of burying them with work. "CEOs know all the tricks," says Burguières, "they go [to mental health professionals] at 6:30 in the morning and they pay in cash."
When the fog completely lifted more than two years after his Midwest sojourn, Burguières was still an A-list force on the Houston business and social scene. A friend asked him to help bring football back to Houston.
At that point, Burguières could actually recognize beauty around him, as in, say, a sunset. He could enjoy a game of golf. "If I took an afternoon off to play golf ten years ago, I didn't feel good. I really wanted to be at the office," he recalls.
In 1999, another friend asked him to share his experience with a local chapter of the World Presidents' Organization. A nervous Burguières agreed because Jenna's words had lodged in his heart. His peers turned out in droves, and they gave him a standing ovation.
Almost immediately, his phone started ringing off the hook. Emotionally distressed CEOs -- or sometimes, their worried wives -- besieged him for help. Calls from the wives are common because depression is rarely recognized by driven men. The symptoms of sullenness, withdrawal and irritability are hard for others to ignore.
Since his 1999 speech, Burguières has devoted at least one day a week to meeting with suffering CEOs. He tells them his story and hands each one "a personal directory" of helpful information he gathered the hard way. But what Burguières gives them most is hope that, like him, they can get through it.
Today, Burguières is vice chairman of the Houston Texans, the newest franchise in the National Football League. Sage runs Bridges to Life, a prison ministry he founded in 1998 to bring criminals face-to-face with victims so they can see the consequences of their actions. Burguières' interest in mental health isn't limited to the wealthy. He devotes a third of his time to improving mental health services in his community; a recent trip to Austin found him lobbying state legislators to fund mental health services for the indigent and homeless in Houston's Harris County. Burguières also serves as chief fund-raiser for Bridges to Life.
But his heart is in helping CEOs. Because many of them are in so much pain. Because he understands them well. And because he believes that's what Jenna meant for him to do.