In a culture that embraces entrepreneurs who pass off their sociopathic and narcissistic tendencies as visionary genius, the recent string of public meltdowns by prominent CEOs provide both a correction to this troubling trend and a spectacle for onlookers everywhere. It’s hard to look away when Elon Musk waxes narcissistic with a blunt in his hand as his stock tanks, or when Deciem CEO Brandon Truaxe commandeers the company Instagram to accuse his colleagues — along with George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and popular London restaurant Dishoom — of “major criminal activity.”
Truaxe is a computer programmer who in 2013 founded Deciem, a group of brands that includes the popular skin-care line the Ordinary. He began behaving erratically in January, making odd announcements on the company’s Instagram account and eventually firing his co-CEO Nicola Kilner. The suit documents filed by Estée Lauder, which owns a minority share in Deciem, assert that on May 9, Truaxe was detained by British authorities and taken to psychiatric hospital for several days, and later stayed in a psychiatric facility in Canada for three days.
Truaxe’s widely publicized self-immolation via social media presents only the latest in a steady series of business-leader breakdowns, temper tantrums, and spontaneous combustions over the past year. Yet the unnerving details of his story offer up a particularly damning case study in what happens when our current swoon over pathological levels of bravado meets the stark reality of a demanding and highly scrutinized job.
On Tuesday, Truaxe posted a video to the company’s Instagram account announcing that Deciem would stop all operations. The New York Times reported that Truaxe also sent emails to his staff in which he insulted specific employees and threatened to release employees’ private messages on social media. Deciem’s former CFO Stephen Kaplan told the Times that Truaxe’s “demeanor had changed following a December vacation in Mongolia.”
Even though Truaxe’s downward spiral feels more like a plot lifted straight from Silicon Valley or Billions than a real business story, competitors with a stake in Deciem’s downfall aren’t the only ones tuning in for the rapidly unfolding details of his demise. Sites that cover beauty news (including the Cut) have been documenting Truaxe’s bizarre behavior since January, and this week’s events have been followed obsessively everywhere from Reddit to the Times, which felt that its reporting on the inner workings of the company was deserving of a push notification. On Twitter, fans of the Ordinary’s dirt-cheap serums joked about rushing to the stores before it was too late.
The reaction — breathless and a little queasy — felt similar to the rubbernecking that surrounded Kanye West’s meeting with Donald Trump on Thursday. Upon witnessing West’s rants or Truaxe’s posts, it’s hard to avoid the sense that something had gone terribly wrong, yet there’s no responsible way to speculate about the mental health of a public figure, and not much to do about it but watch with guilty fascination.
But despite the success of his fashion brand Yeezy, West is still more of an entertainment figure than a businessman, and his brand of meltdown feels familiar, like Britney Spears shaving her head or O.J. pointing a gun at his own head. The CEO meltdown is a newer phenomenon that’s evolved out of the use of social media as both a corporate marketing tool and a rapid-release delivery system for gossip. These days, even those with no previous interest in tech start-ups or business at large take time out to ogle the spectacular flameouts of notoriously brash business leaders.
If we seem to take more satisfaction — however perverse — in a CEO’s downward spiral than we do in their elevation to tech superstar, it’s no wonder. We’re repeatedly treated to modern high capitalist fantasies in which those unhindered by humility or shame or self-reflection seem to rise to glory with stunning rapidity, whereas those who resist their grandiose urges in favor of steady, principled forward progress seem to slog away in slow motion, remaining underpaid and invisible.
As long as we’re still seduced by the indelible image of a black turtleneck–clad Steve Jobs dropping pseudo philosophical branding beat poetry for a crowd of fawning tech bros, it’s all too easy to forget that so many of the swaggering monsters we’ve enabled to fill Jobs’s New Balance sneakers have much more in common with Gavin Belson, the delusional narcissistic CEO from HBO’s Silicon Valley (not to mention with thieves, predators, and serial killers) than they do with honorable, hardworking leaders. Just look at Elizabeth Holmes, in a Jobsian turtleneck, graciously acknowledging Glamour’s Women of the Year award the same month that The Wall Street Journal published an exposé that took down her company.
But the business world rarely acknowledges that their emperors are buck naked, even when, like Truaxe, they’re literally asking for help. Meanwhile, we’re all meant to imitate these conquistadors in our own careers, remaining consistently blustery and fearless in the face of criticism or risk, no matter how unnatural or psychologically wrong it feels. Like Alexa, we are instructed to speak the same calm confident words in the same unflappable tone without fail, no matter how the world crumbles around us.
It’s sad and disturbing, but also galling. In a world where glorified heirs like Kylie Jenner and disordered Little Lord Fauntleroys like Donald Trump merely need to mouth the myth of self-created wealth for it to be repeated, unquestioned, by a sea of glossy rags and propagandist mouthpieces, it’s impossible not to find the peacocking of entrepreneurs unsavory. The same showy mating dances that send VCs into paroxysms of world-conquering fantasy eventually match the bizarre displays of emotional instability that become their CEO’s undoing. Behavior that would shock us in another context is celebrated because it creates wealth.
Meanwhile, mortals without massive inheritances at the ready are tacitly blamed for their inability to accumulate funds while making less than a living wage at thankless jobs in which they’re simultaneously groped and demeaned for their bad attitudes, as allegedly occurred to those unfortunate enough to work for Miki Agrawal, CEO of Thinx (or “She-e-o” as she called it).
Today, Truaxe was removed from his post at Deciem, offering us a moment to reflect on the risks inherent to viewing those with unstable personalities as our natural leaders and overlords. Perhaps swaggering leaders who take so naturally to self-mythologizing, yet have so little experience playing nicely with others, shouldn’t be trusted to take the helm of multibillion-dollar conglomerates. Maybe one day we’ll let go of our reigning fantasies about the devil-may-care recklessness of villains and heroes, world leaders and cowboys, robber barons and captains of industry, and refocus our interest on principled, hard-working individuals who understand themselves and respect others, and teach their employees and co-workers and business colleagues to do the same.
Heather Havrilesky is a columnist for The Cut and the author of What If This Were Enough? (Doubleday, Oct 2), a new collection of essays about the poisonous messages of modern, global culture, how they make us sick, and what we can do about it.