Nick Binkley, a guitar-playing, song-writing (he has produced several music CDs) graduate in political science from Colorado College, with a master’s degree in international studies from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, made a career in finance when he figured out he could not support himself doing music fulltime. Binkley joined Security Pacific Bank in California as an assistant vice president in 1977 and rose through the ranks, moving to the bank holding company’s financial services systems division in 1983 and eventually becoming vice chairman of Security Pacific Corporation responsible for all the nonbanking subsidiaries, which included venture capital and personal finance (e.g., personal lines of credit). When Bank of America purchased Security Pacific in the early 1990s, Binkley became vice chairman and a member of Bank of America’s board of directors with an extensive portfolio of businesses within the bank.
In his senior positions, first at Security Pacific and then at Bank of America, Binkley had all the perquisites of power. He recounted flying with the Security Pacific CEO in a private jet for a lunch in Japan and then flying back after the lunch. He had access to positions on nonprofit boards, tickets for the opera and symphony when he wanted them, and helicopters, private planes, and limousines to take him around. When Bank of America acquired Security Pacific, Binkley got a golden parachute to protect him in the event that he lost his job. Although encouraged by Bank of America’s CEO at the time, Richard Rosenberg, to stay at the bank, Binkley figured that as a senior outsider, he did not necessarily have the most secure future, so he decided, as his parachute was expiring, to “pull the cord,” leaving with some colleagues from the venture capital operation to form Forrest, Binkley and Brown, a venture capital and private equity firm that was backed by the Sid and Lee Bass interests of Fort Worth, Texas.
As Binkley described it, one day he was vice chair of one of the largest banks in the world, and the next day he was not. The transition was, to put it mildly, difficult. He notes that occupying a senior-level corporate position in a large organization requires an enormous amount of energy to get through the day. To be a public figure and perform at
a high level requires an intensity that produces, in his words, “a caffeinated high.” When you leave such a position and that level of activity ceases, it is almost, as Binkley put it, “like a car going from ninety miles an hour to a dead stop.” When the adrenaline rush ceases, there is a visceral, physiological reaction. In addition to the change in activity
and intensity level, there is also the change from being the center of a universe of people fawning over you and heeding your every request to a more “normal” and less in-the-limelight existence. As a high-level executive in a large corporation, Binkley observed, you are surrounded by “players”–that is, by people of equally high status. And when you no longer have that job, you lose these associations because most of the people are only interested in your companionship when you hold status and power. This feeling of no longer being a player or a member of the elite is a loss felt intensely by many who have been successful at the power-and-money game.
Nick Binkley described a withdrawal that had physiological as well as psychological components–he was literally ill and had difficulty sleeping. He could not imagine that withdrawal from hard drugs could have been any more difficult. The loss of power, even though voluntary, put stress on his marriage which, in the end, not only endured but became stronger. Today Binkley is a member of the outside financial advisory board of the San Francisco Zen Center; he also serves on corporate boards and is winding down the venture capital firm after some 17 years. He was attracted to the Zen Center’s Buddhist meditation and spiritual practices when he sought help in coping with the “power withdrawal symptoms.” In the center of frenetic energy and attention, it is difficult not to lose one’s identity and values.
While I was visiting the London Business School in 2005, Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, came to give a talk and promote his newest book. As Welch lapped up the adulation of the LBS students, I thought to myself, “Why is he doing this at this stage in his life?” One can reasonably conjecture, not just for Welch but for many other people who have left positions of great power and status and continue to serve on multiple boards and maintain an intense pace, that, accustomed as they were during their work life to days filled with frenetic activity, once out of the job they seek to re-create the same peripatetic life, the same adrenaline high, and if possible, the same level of adulation they once received routinely.
People have a heightened risk of death in the period immediately after they lose their job–and not just because of greater financial stress or the absence of medical insurance. As Michael Marmot, a British researcher on the effects of social standing on health, has written, one reason there is a connection between not working and health is because being out of work “represents loss of a social role and all the things that go with it.”
Power is addictive, in both a psychological and physical sense. The rush and excitement from being involved in important discussions with senior figures and the ego boost from having people at your beck and call are tough to lose, even if you voluntarily choose to retire or leave and even if you have more money than you could ever spend. In a power- and celebrity-obsessed culture, to be “out of power” is to be out of the limelight, away from the action, and almost invisible. It is a tough transition to make. And because it is, some executives seek to avoid switching to a less powerful role–Sandy Weill of Citigroup and Hank Greenberg of AIG worked long past normal retirement age and finally were forced out by boards of directors of these large public companies when they refused to anoint successors. Bill Paley of CBS asked his biographer Sally Bedell Smith why he had to die as he maintained control of the media company into his eighties. These examples and numerous others illustrate yet another price of power–the addictive quality that makes it tough to leave powerful positions. But everyone eventually has to step down, and the druglike nature of power makes leaving a powerful position a truly wrenching experience for some.
Excerpted with permission of the publisher Harper Collins from Power: Why Some People Have It–And Others Don’t by Jeffrey Pfeffer. Copyright (c) 2010 by Jeffrey Pfeffer.