Celebrities, CEOs and the Icarus Paradox

By Frederick Mordi


There once lived a very skilled Greek craftsman named Daedalus, who built the famous labyrinth for King Minos of Crete to imprison the Minotaur, a monster that is half-man and half-bull.

According to Greek mythology, Daedalus, who had a son named Icarus, later fell out of favour with the king when it was discovered that he helped Theseus, a Greek hero, to find his way out of the maze after slaying the Minotaur. The enraged king imprisoned Daedalus and his son, Icarus in the same maze, as punishment. To escape from the maze, Daedalus made two pairs of wings from feathers for himself and his son, using wax. Warning Icarus not to fly too close to the sun, they escaped from the prison.

But Icarus, who was apparently thrilled with his new-found ability to fly like a bird, disobeyed his father. He started to soar higher and higher until he came too close to the sun. By then it was too late to turn back. The wax melted and he hurtled down from the sky and drowned in the Aegean Sea.

Icarus 2

There are a galaxy of stars that have tumbled down from the enviable heights they once occupied, like Icarus. They range from celebrities that cheated their way to fame using performance-enhancing drugs; to once-powerful CEOs whose financial peccadilloes led to their disgrace.

Even simple careless remarks and offensive tweets are enough to ruin the reputation of talented people. Hot temper, indiscipline, past sexual indiscretions, excessive pride, alcoholism and drug use, are the other factors.

For instance, many people can easily connect with the ongoing case of popular American actor and comedian Bill Cosby, who has been accused of sexual misdemeanours with several women in the past. This has cast aspersions on the once squeaky clean image of the 78-year old American. Already, Spelman College in the US, has reportedly returned the balance of the $20million that the Cosbys donated to the college in 1998.

Comedian, author and education advocate Bill Cosby, is interviewed before the start of Spelman College's 2006 commencement ceremonies in Atlanta Sunday, May 14, 2006. Cosby is the keynote speaker. (AP Photo / W.A. Harewood )

Danny Miller calls this apparent fall from grace to grass, particularly after one had enjoyed a relative period of fame, the Icarus Paradox. Many talented people today seem to suffer from the Icarus Paradox. They rise quickly from obscurity to stardom and then tumble down after some time: moving from heroes to zeroes.

Here are three classic examples.

Lance Armstrong

epa03369565 (FILE) Photo dated 22 July 2004 shows US Postal team rider Lance Armstrong from the US jubilates as he crosses the finish line to win the 17th stage of the Tour de France cycling race, Thursday 22 July 2004 in Le Grand-Bornand, watched by German Jan Ullrich (L) of T-Mobile Team. Lance Armstrong said on 23 August 2012 that he would no longer contest doping charges filed by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), putting him at risk of losing his record seven Tour de France titles. Armstrong called the process against him unfair and weighted against him and said he would instead devote himself to his family and cancer foundation.  EPA/JASPER JUINEN

Until recently, Lance Armstrong was synonymous with cycling. He won seven consecutive Tour de France titles and was an international super star. But after the United States’ Anti-Doping Agency caught him doping in 2012, Armstrong was not only stripped of all his titles, he was also banned from cycling for life.



The case of Maradona is similar to that of Armstrong. The gifted Argentine striker was during his prime, one of the best footballers in the world. But Maradona soiled his name in 1994, when he failed a doping test after the match between Argentina and Nigeria at the USA World Cup, and was banned from playing football for life.

Tiger Woods


Tiger Woods’ case is quite pathetic. Woods was before his fall, reputed to be one of the most renowned golfers of all time. In 2009, he was involved in a sex scandal that tarnished his image, cost him millions of dollars in lost endorsements from sponsors, and caused his once promising career to crash like a pack of cards. He has never fully recovered his reputation.

Companies and CEOs

Icarus Paradox does not only apply to celebrities. It also applies to political figures, corporate executives, and even companies. For instance, the famous Enron scandal that became public in 2001, led to the liquidation of the Enron Corporation, a popular American energy giant, and the dissolution of Arthur Andersen, then one of the top five audit and accountancy firms in the world. To put the scale of the scandal into proper context, 85,000 employees of Arthur Andersen lost their jobs, even though only a small fraction of its employees were directly involved.

As Miller noted in his book by the same name: The Icarus Paradox, some businesses often cause their own downfall, ironically, through their own successes by becoming too complacent, while others fail to adapt to the dynamics of their business environments. The collapse of Merrill Lynch, Citibank and Lehman Brothers in the aftermath of the 2008 global financial meltdown, came as a rude shock to many. The crisis also shook the Nigerian banking industry.

For instance, Mallam Sanusi Lamido, the immediate past governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN), and now Emir of Kano, initiated sweeping reforms that led to the sack of eight bank CEOs, and the acquisition of some troubled banks by the other banks, in 2009, citing malfeasance in the industry. There also used to be four big banks in Nigeria. Only three of them (First Bank, Union Bank and UBA) are still standing, while one of them—Afribank—has been acquired by a smaller bank.

Apart from celebrities and companies, CEOs are also affected by the Icarus Paradox. Research has shown that the more a CEO is praised, the higher his judgement of his own abilities becomes. Research also shows that the higher some people climb up on the corporate ladder, the more susceptible they become to flattery and the more egoistic they get. At this point, they feel they know it all and refuse to take advice even if their strategy is not achieving results. This has led to the downfall of many once powerful CEOs.

So, as you rise in your career, remember not to fly too close to the sun!


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2 responses to “Celebrities, CEOs and the Icarus Paradox”

  1. Chinna graves says :

    Ha! Very Enlightening. If Im am so blessed to reach a level as the people you have mentioned in this article I will try to remember these wise notes. Interesting Read.

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