By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – THERE ARE CERTAIN DISEASES OF the executive mind that presage collapse and total ruin. I have always been interested in these, as I watch for signs of them in myself. Stress, excessive privilege and power, lack of social control, operating pressures from above and below--all can combine to destroy the effectiveness of senior management. I need to keep this job for quite a while longer. I don't want to go crazy the way so many of my peers and bosses have over the years. It may be inevitable, but I want to hold it off until I'm too powerful and wealthy for it to make any difference.

A tiny itch that will not go away no matter how assiduously it is scratched ... a little ache at the back of the eye that persists no matter how much Advil one ingests ... a bit of trouble waking in the morning, when previously one leaped out of bed like a springbok ... the disorders start small. But after years of close observation, I have come to believe that the first unmistakable symptom of full-blown executive dysfunction appears at the moment when the ego of an aggrieved party, confronted with something discordant with its view of itself, erupts in a single cry of pain:

"Do you know who I am?"

The question is always uttered at the extremity of outrage, carrying an implicit threat that when the other person becomes aware of the speaker's identity, he will be sorry and possibly in serious jeopardy.

"DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?" Yes, that's more like it.

I first heard it in the mid-1980s at the front desk of a hotel. It was a plush establishment that catered to people in love with themselves. I was waiting to check in. I was content to wait for things back then, aware that there were others in the world who had needs requiring fulfillment. It did not occur to me at that time that my needs, ipso facto, superseded theirs.

There was a crowd at the desk as an enraged, hairless, red-domed little fellow, at the outer edge of lost composure, leaned over the marble surface and virtually spat into the face of the person attempting to check him in, "DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?"

It was evident that the answer to that question was no. I turned to my corporate companion, in line behind me. "Do you know who he is?" I asked.

"Not at all," he replied.

Evidently the room that had been offered the nabob was a junior suite with a view of the golf course, not the ocean. After his explosion, the fellow got what he wanted. But I was struck by an indisputable fact: If you have to ask, you're not who you think you are.

Bill Clinton doesn't have to ask. Nor does Jack Welch, at least in the places where he stays, I bet. Or Bill Gates or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Saddam Hussein. It's only we, the legends in our own minds, who suffer. We whose executive status rests not simply on the work that we have done but also on the faux respect that is paid to our function.

Without that function, we're nobody. Just like you. And that hurts. Most of us who are still sane can take it. When it hurts so badly that we must cry out "DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?" that means we're headed down the long slope that ends in executive dementia.

Last week I was at the American Airlines terminal at J.F.K., picking up a friend. It's a dirty, confused place that has been under construction for what seems like decades. There appeared to be no monitors in the terminal, and when, after walking about a mile, I finally found one, it had only departures on it, not arrivals. I went to a desk to ask somebody and found a gaggle of folks in animated conversation. They were annoyed, but they gave me the information I needed. I walked and walked and eventually found the meeting place.

No chairs were set up for people who were waiting. I tried to glom a seat from the restaurant nearby but was admonished. There were a bunch of us waiting on our feet, like cows and horses in a field. "You could provide chairs for people," I said to the American Airlines person, who was seated. She did not reply.

And I could feel it, welling up inside me like a giant bolus of swamp gas--the desire to raise my arms to the heavens and my voice into a screech whose lyric was all too well known to me: "DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?" I would yell. And the world would fall before my feet, and the chairs would magically appear, and there would be some understanding, at last, of my power, my dignity, my might.

I didn't say it, though I came close. I can feel it now, however, bubbling beneath the surface every time I am treated not as a corporate player but as a person.

I don't want to be a person! I want to be ... me!

And you do know who that is, don't you?

STANLEY BING's latest book, Sun Tzu Was a Sissy: Conquer Your Enemies, Promote Your Friends, and Wage the REAL Art of War (HarperBusiness), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at