White Lies and a CEO's Downfall

Last Updated Mar 8, 2010 9:00 AM EST

Time to add yet another CEO to the "what was he thinking?" hall of fame. According to the Wall Street Journal, Arbitron Inc. President and Chief Executive Michael Skarzynski resigned recently because he lied during congressional testimony. This was in a hearing on Arbitron's controversial "personal people meter" audience-measurement device, which some say discriminates against minority-owned radio stations. In the context of a question by Rep. Edolphus Towns (D., N.Y.), Skarzynski apparently said that he had "attended a working group in Maryland that dealt with training listeners to use the devices."

Oops! Turns out he didn't make it to the working group. Why, you might wonder, did he say he went, when in fact he hadn't been there? We can only speculate, but lying to Congress sure sounds like a great way to hit the self-destruct button, and to do so over something that was probably inconsequential to his testimony seems even more difficult to fathom.

Was it a "white lie" -- a throwaway comment that he added to somehow burnish his credibility and make him sound more knowledgeable about Arbitron's controversial technology? Perhaps. Everyone, and I mean everyone, gets anxious when testifying before a Congressional committee, and anxiety makes some people do stupid things. But making stuff up is a bad idea generally, and even worse when it's a federal offense.

In cases like this, one might also wonder whether a smal lie is the tip of the iceberg and provides a clue to a larger aspect of the person's character. An Arbitron director, William Kerr -- and now Skarzynski's successor as CEO -- says that "board members made a 'fairly exhaustive effort' to uncover any other problems with the former CEO's tenure. 'We have found nothing beyond this specific question that should raise concern,' Mr. Kerr added."

I love "fairly exhaustive efforts"; they're almost as good as exhaustive efforts.

While Skarzynski's lie may indeed have been an isolated incident, prompted by situational anxiety or who knows what, it does raise questions about how a person in a leadership role manages his own anxiety, and about how that, in turn, affects his judgment. Skarzynski was sitting on a very hot seat. For Arbiton's sake, let's hope his successor has a better grip.

  • Kerry Sulkowicz

    Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, advises CEOs, boards, and investors on psychological aspects of leadership in complex organizations. He helps companies with CEO succession, boardroom and senior team dynamics, human capital due diligence for investors, high-stakes hiring assessments, and the psychology of negotiation strategy. Kerry also advises large family-owned enterprises in the US and abroad. He is the founder and managing principal of the Boswell Group LLC, a consulting firm based in New York, and he has written columns on the psychology of business for BusinessWeek and Fast Company magazine. He is on the Faculty of the Psychoanalytic Institute at NYU Medical Center and is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.