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Bad Behavior that Transcends Tax Brackets

Bad Behavior that Transcends Tax Brackets

I loved the new "Spiderman" movie that opened this past June, and I am equally as excited for the new "Bourne Legacy" flick that will close out my summer. However, it was another film that I saw mid-summer, “The Queen of Versailles”, that will stick in my memory for a long, long time, as the frequently unlikeable real-life stars act out in ways that are a little too familiar for comfort.

The documentary chronicles the true larger-than-life lifestyles of David Siegel, the billionaire Founder and CEO of Westgate Properties, once the largest time share company in the world, his wife Jackie, and their 11 children from their very blended family. At first, second and even third blush, the Siegels and the Riegels have little in common beyond rhyming surnames. With eight children still living at home, Jackie decides that her “starter mansion” of only 26,000 square feet (and 17 bathrooms, if I remember correctly) will no longer suffice. She proposes to David that they build a 90,000 square foot home modeled after the Palace of Versailles, and he agrees. Why? Well, as he put it in the movie, “because I can.”

This house, worth an estimated $100 million, starts construction with plans for an indoor roller rink, a grand ballroom, and a full-scale baseball field in the back yard. On a walking tour of the framed house, Jackie’s friend asks, “Is this the master bedroom?” to which Jackie replies, laughing, “No, that’s my closet.” It’s a literal and figurative embarrassment of riches on a scale so over-the-top that the audience, including myself, couldn’t stop gasping, giggling, and tsk-tsking.

If The Fathers (as in “The Ethics of”) had been around to watch this film, I am convinced that they would have been shaking their heads and whispering to each other, “Who is rich? One who is happy with what one has” in between bites of buttered popcorn. And they might have felt quite justified during the second half of the movie when the financial crisis of 2008 crushes David’s business, halts the construction plans, and sends the entire family scrambling to cut back and learn to make do with what they have.

Their orientation to real life is eye-opening and head-shaking at the same time. When their family is forced to fly commercial for the first time, their son wonders what all of these other people are doing on their plane. When Jackie rents a car from Hertz, she asks the manager, “What’s the name of my driver?” And no matter how much money they are losing, Jackie refuses to give up her compulsive shopping – even though it’s now at Wal-Mart rather than at Prada.

David and Jackie, as portrayed in the documentary, were by all accounts materialistic, entitled, and disconnected from reality. It would be easy to dislike them. Instead, I connected to how human they were, struggling with habits and attitudes that I recognized immediately from my work with organizations and individual clients, as well as from my own life. As different as a multi-million dollar family (now down from billions) living on a private island with a limo driver and a household staff is from my life (at least as of this writing), too much of their mishegas was familiar mishegas. I invite you to see whether you, too, are working or living in champagne denial, even on a beer budget. Here are three common challenges that know no tax bracket:

  1. You can’t delegate accountability. When Jackie had to start laying off most of her 19-person household staff, she admitted that she never would have had so many children if she didn’t think she could outsource the raising of them. While each of us can and should delegate responsibilities (tasks or projects) to other people in our homes or offices, we can never outsource the accountability that comes with them. We own that, no matter who is doing the actual work. The buck stops with us – whether or not we want it to.
  2. Your behavior speaks volumes. Even when David told Jackie that she would have to cut back her expenses, she refused to give up her limousine and driver. (One comical scene shows her limo parked across four spots in the McDonald’s parking lot while Jackie runs in for some take-out.) The message that this sends is that Jackie’s own need to keep up appearances is more important than her family’s need for long-term security and stability. How do your actions speak louder than words, and perhaps even run counter to the values you really want to embody? Do tell your staff that you’re here for them, but your office door is rarely open? Do you ask your kids for their ideas and opinions, but ultimately make most decisions yourself? Do you support causes that are important to you in words, but not in actions or financial contributions?
  3. Know how you show up in relationships. Richard, David’s older son from his first marriage, works for his father’s company and admits disappointment that their relationship is little more than business. No father-son bonding other than in the board room. David, when asked whether he draws support from his marriage during tough times, says no because Jackie “is like having another child” rather than a wife. He finds himself scolding her immature behavior rather than connecting with her as an equal partner. No matter what title we hold in our personal and professional relationships (parent, child, spouse, supervisor, direct report, colleague, etc.), we need to examine how we’re actually showing up separate from the title. I have been parented by my children on occasion – but I would never let that become the default. I have been coached by my coaching clients – yet I am keenly aware of what my role is. Make sure that you are bringing who you are and who you want to be to each of your relationships.

None of us – rich, poor or in the middle – can afford to ignore the impact of our actions. The cost is simply too high.

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