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Two and a Half Business Lessons from Charlie Sheen's Meltdown

Actor and all around bad boy Charlie Sheen has been a walking PR disaster for some time. So when the star of Two and a Half Men, a top-rated money-maker sitcom for CBS (disclosure: CBS Interactive owns BNET) called in to a radio show and let loose a frothing rant, the network, along with Warner Brothers, pulled the plug on the rest of the show's season.

And then Sheen really got going, allegedly sending text messages to various media outlets and writing an absurdly grandiose open letter. Aside from the obvious self-destruction of thumbing his nose at the man who created the hit series, in this last barrage, Sheen actually makes some classic business mistakes that, in a slightly different context, could have been the material of MBA case studies.

No matter how arrogant, no one is invincible
One problem with being at the top of the heap, whether as an actor or a business, is that it's easy to think it a natural right. The minute you assume you've permanently seized the high ground, you're usually about to get toppled. Consider the early 2000s alone:

  • The Rigas family took billions in off-the-book loans from Adelphia, the cable company it founded. Three members of the Riga family were arrested and the company sued the entire family for $1 billion for breach of fiduciary duties.
  • Enron became the poster child for bad corporate governance and fantasy finances.
  • Worldcom overstated cash flow by billions and gave founder Bernie Ebbers $400 million in off-the-book loans.
Not everyone gets caught, but a great many do, and the result isn't pretty when you see a former tycoon broken, sitting in an orange jumpsuit in a medium security prison.

No one owes you the time of day
This is the half lesson, because it falls out of executive arrogance. The more full of themselves people are, the more they expect others to see them the same way. Of course, no one who doesn't depend on them for a paycheck cares.

Sheen was able to help make Two and a Half Men a hit, but he wasn't the only reason. The show producers needed certain things in return, like someone ready to work and help keep schedules for a multi-million dollar production. Oh, and not making the show, producers, and network a laughing stock. There are no "steps of justice" to right a wrong, because no one owed Sheen a role on a television show. And no one owes profits to companies or comfortable positions to executives.

No one owns their customers
In that open letter, Sheen lets slip why he thinks that no one in the industry can assail him:

I urge all my beautiful and loyal fans who embraced this show for almost a decade to walk with me side-by-side as we march up the steps of justice to right this unconscionable wrong. Remember these are my people ... not yours...we will continue on together...
And that's the biggest business mistake of all. Sheen was wrong. The audiences are not his, nor do they belong to CBS. You never own your customers. In fact, the opposite is true: Your customers own you.

There's a reason that marketers talk about whether companies have "permission" to extend their brands. The permission comes from customers, who will ignore what they find unacceptable. The public decides whether to do business with you, not the other way around. Consumers can make a product and just as quickly dash it.

Just ask anyone in the fashion industry. Or the folks who came out with New Coke. And when customers decide to take your brand away by ignoring it and rendering it unimportant, they can take your business as well.

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Image: CBS