The Martha Stewart Recipe for Failure

Martha Stewart is an American legend. Born Martha Kostyra to a working-class Polish family in New Jersey, her sensational career was launched when she quit her job as a stockbroker in the mid 1970s to start a catering business in Connecticut. Over the next 10 years, with the help of her then-husband’s publishing connections, she became famous as the result of a series of upscale cookbooks she wrote. She positioned herself as an expert in elegant home entertaining, and it took.

With the launching of her magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and a merchandising deal with Kmart, she became a household name. She appeared regularly on television, was featured in countless articles, and became the butt of a hundred comedy bits. Some of her achievement is due to good timing. Promoting herself as an entertainment guru came at a “tipping point” for the baby boomer market — people who were, in the late 70s and early 80s, just entering their affluent years.

But a great deal of her success must be attributed to hard work and good judgment. It seems outrageous that someone who had risen so high could be so quickly and thoroughly floored. And for what? Getting a little tip on a stock that was due to fall? And trying to cover up for the creeps who were trying to prosecute her? Most of the people I know think Martha was railroaded. And I think so too.

The story of what happened — how the government so aggressively attacked her . . . first on such a flimsy insider-trading violation (which hurt virtually no one while dozens, if not hundreds, of corporate Internet crooks stole billions from ordinary investors and got off scot-free) and then on such a convenient obstruction-of-justice violation . . . and then that she was finally convicted by a jury of “little guys” — should scare the hell out of you.

But putting aside the question of “What kind of country is this turning into, anyway?”, let’s ask: How did this happen in the first place? Was this a conspiracy carried out by people who don’t like successful women? Or was it caused, at least in part, by something Martha Stewart did? Every tragic hero has an Achilles heel. And most successful people have — along with great strengths — at least one great weakness.

For Martha Stewart, if you believe the popular press, it was the way she treated people — her partners and, perhaps more importantly, her subordinates. I have no personal experience with Martha Stewart, so I’m going to assume that 90% of the bad things that have been said about her are false. Still, there have been so many stories about her mistreatment of the “little” people that you have to wonder. Why would someone who has achieved so much — fame, fortune, and the admiration of millions — feel the need to treat anyone poorly?

There’s only one answer: pride. That’s what John Whitney, author of “Power Plays”, attributes her downfall to. “Hubris is her fatal flaw,” he said. “You’re seeing the destruction of an icon . . . the destruction of a human being.” I know a handful of people who do the same thing. They don’t mistreat me. Nor are they rude or ill-tempered with others they consider their equals.

But their contempt for everyone who is not at their level is obvious. And they seem to feel they have the right to say and do pretty much whatever they want to these people and get away with it. What happens when you speak rudely to a new employee? Or chastise a bellhop? Or speak condescendingly to a waiter?

First, you show yourself to be psychologically weak and insecure to those who witness your behavior. Second, you create a mortal enemy — sometimes for life. Every time you mistreat a subordinate, you stock your world with one more person who wishes you evil. And if something should one day happen that puts your life and/or fortune in jeopardy, what do you think all those people will do? Will they rally around you to support you? Or will they turn on you the way just about everyone who knew Martha Stewart turned on her?

When you have power, fame, and fortune, people tend to flatter you. If you listen too much to this flattery, you may one day wake up believing it. If you internalize that arrogance by letting it seep into your daily behavior — and you end up treating those who have less as less –you shouldn’t be surprised when, one day, a world full of animosity suddenly springs up and wrestles you to the ground.