How not to worship your boss

Kids Company, a leading UK charity for disadvantaged children, collapsed a year ago amid allegations of gross financial mismanagement.

Camila Batmanghelidjh, its flamboyant founder and chief executive, had been elevated to such heights that she was left unchallenged for many years, not only by her staff, donors and board of trustees, but also by the government and media.

From the charity’s launch in 1996, government ministers approved payments to it totaling £42m (see pdf) in the form of grants. Ms Batmanghelidjh’s charisma, charm and fame led to her being so idealised that she avoided normal levels of scrutiny applied to most organizations.

A House of Commons select committee concluded that Ms Batmanghelidjh’s personality “appeared to captivate some of the most senior political figures in the land”, and high-level political patronage may have deterred whistleblowers from coming forward.

Kids Company provides an extreme example of the dynamics and potential consequences of “idealisation”, but these are in play at most organisations to a greater or lesser extent, and not just at the top — individual subordinates can also be put on a pedestal.

It may be difficult to spot potentially dangerous hero worship because it can often be disguised as the everyday respect and admiration we endow on apparently outstanding leaders.

Such adoration is a mutual relationship with distortion on both sides, where a person’s need for admiration is fuelled by the need of admirers to see their leader as exceptional. Such admirers often have dependent personalities whose craving for emotional security blurs their perceptions of a leader’s limits and capabilities.

Manfred Kets de Vries, psychoanalyst and professor at Insead Business School, says: “It’s a totally reinforcing dance in which, because of a general feeling of helplessness, you idealise the leader and say quickly what the leader likes and wants to hear, and that reinforces the leader’s narcissism and vice versa. Unfortunately, the moment the leader accepts this, he is surrounded by liars.”

Heaping such admiration and trust on people in power helps sustain a fantasy that those who look after us are all-knowing, or believing that being close to great people helps us feel better about ourselves. For many, it is a way to compensate for a difficult relationship with early authority figures, usually a parent.

Children normally imagine their parents as benevolent, all-knowing figures, and this helps cushion them against overwhelming fears of life’s dangers. With maturity, however, individuals learn to accept their parents’ flaws, and thereby to tolerate a world of uncertainties and disappointments and to rely on their own opinions rather than always accepting those of authority.

Glorifying a leader can leave him or her free to act irresponsibly, unethically or to the organization’s detriment. It also means subordinates are unlikely to question decisions or assert their own talents and insights, which can in turn damage a company’s innovative potential and development.

Devaluation is the inevitable downside to idealisation — the higher the person is put on a pedestal, the greater the crash, as Ms Batmanghelidjh discovered. Rather than being seen as merely flawed, her fall from grace was total, and much of the work she and her staff had accomplished was forgotten.

All leaders have a degree of narcissism and therefore are at risk of encouraging this dynamic, but those on the extreme end of the continuum are more likely to be seduced by its allure. The more narcissistic the leader, the greater his or her need to attain admiration and the security he or she craves.

Kerry Sulkowicz, psychoanalyst and managing principal of New York’s Boswell Group, a consultancy specialising in work relationships, says: “The danger is believing in one’s infallibility once one reaches the top. Sometimes leaders do things deliberately, or more likely unconsciously, that promote idealisation.

“They act as if they have all the answers or don’t show any vulnerability, and for those people who are susceptible to this it can lead to an idealisation of them.”

New chief executives can feel pressure to be perfect from the start, and experienced ones can believe they have seen and done it all before, says Mr Sulkowicz.

The danger is when they start to act the part. Another risk factor is when the distance between a CEO and his or her staff becomes too great and as a consequence feedback diminishes.

Mr Sulkowicz believes prevention is better than cure in this regard. “Leaders who are getting nothing but positive feedback from their organisations should actually worry about that — they should be alert to the likelihood that nothing but praise is a sign of idealisation and they should really look for criticism because otherwise they’re likely to believe it themselves and are being set up for a fall.

“It should raise a red flag when the exclusive praise comes from the directors, because the board’s role is in evaluating the performance of the CEO, and if the board can’t see through the idealisation then that’s really dangerous.”

One business consultant in New York describes his compulsion to maintain an aura of perfection. “Idealisation is intoxicating — it makes you feel special, it’s a milder version of falling in love,” he says.

He explains how he relied on admiration from his clients to compensate for the lack of love and security from his parents. By making himself invaluable to his clients he convinced them of his omniscience.

“I would position myself with a magic wand able to transform any performance issue. The more they needed me, the more I could trust they would take care of my needs, financial and emotional.

“The price was compromising the clear, honest counsel needed to be an effective consultant.”

Mr Sulkowicz believes that the prevalence of celebrity culture adds to the problem because business leaders can fall prey to its allure — they may then start believing in their own mythology.

“When a CEO starts to be treated as a Kim Kardashian figure, famous for being famous, it detracts from their credibility and authority as leader.”

Getty Executives can equally idealise a subordinate. A senior executive in a private financial institution who came to me for psychotherapy revealed that his need to be seen as perfect in order to attain his CEO’s admiration defended him against fears of rejection he had suffered since childhood.

His compulsion to appear perfect left him dependent on his chief for reassurance and security, while the CEO in turn grew dependent on his impeccable performance. Although it appeared to be a smooth-running company, the cost of sustaining a perfect image left them both risk-averse.

“I came to realize that what I created in order to feel safe was actually limiting my ability to move forward with my career,” he says.

Leaders Make the Company Culture

Regulators are right to focus on culture as a key culprit in the misbehavior of banks (“As Regulators Focus on Culture, Wall Street Struggles to Define It,” page one, Feb. 2), and efforts to survey and quantify corporate culture are important. But the reason culture is hard to define isn’t simply that it is a nebulous concept that is hard to capture objectively. The culture of an organization is analogous to the personality of an individual, in that it is defined by a set of normative, recognizable behaviors and traits that are durable and that characterize both what it is like to “live” inside that organization as an employee, as well as what it is like to interact with it from the outside, as customers, vendors, partners and shareholders.

Where the analogy to personality doesn’t hold is that organizations are greater than the sum of their parts. Unlike an individual’s personality, which is largely formed by young adulthood and resides solely in the mind of the person, the culture of a company emanates primarily from the personality of the founder or chief executive, but over time becomes embedded in other key individuals, and in practices and policies of the business. Nevertheless, the CEO wields the greatest leverage to create, sustain and change the culture. This can be a force for good or bad, as employees inevitably model the behavior they see at the top. The more regulators understand this, the less they will struggle to define culture and the more they will know where to look to address it when a company goes astray.

The City on the Couch

Psychoanalyst Mary Bradbury investigates why a growing number of big businesses in the financial sector are taking more care of their employees’ mental health.

Contributors include Graham Thornicroft, Professor of Community Psychiatry at King’s College London; Professor David Tuckett of University College London; Ian Gatt QC of Herbert Smith Freehills; and Sacha Romanovitch of Grant Thornton.

Mind tricks at work

There are many ways of dealing with extreme stress at work: chatting around the water cooler with colleagues or sharing the odd drink after hours often does the trick.

The mind, however, also has its own unconscious methods of shutting out aspects of work that can otherwise lead to intolerable anxiety. This helps distance oneself from overwhelmingly bad feelings, such as jealousy, insecurity and anger. However, these coping methods can create more problems than they solve because to varying degrees they all depend on a distortion of reality.

These defence mechanisms might take an optimistic form, with someone rationalising that a situation is not as bad as it actually is. At the other end of the continuum are more destructive responses, such as denying the existence of a problem. Another common coping method is blaming others for problems rather than admitting to responsibility that could leave one feeling guilty or bad about oneself.

Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, a New York business consultancy, says these are unconscious choices, determined by an individual’s psychology and the nature of the stress: “A problem with these defences is that ultimately they break down. They can’t last for ever and the longer they persist, the worse the consequences may be for the individual — because time is passing them by and opportunities for change may be lost.”

An example comes from a founding chief executive who is charismatic and effective in attracting business, but is unable to deal with the stress of making critical decisions about his staff. As a result he has a bloated team of high-paid people who do very little. He is in denial, not of the dire straits that his company is in, but of his role in its impending collapse. He does not see that his inability to make tough personnel decisions and ultimately hand over control to a new CEO is crippling the company. Instead, he projects the problems on to his antagonised board of directors and rids himself of responsibility.

His inability to hear any negative feedback is indicative of another defence mechanism, known as “splitting”, where people and the news they bring become factors that either make him feel good or bad about himself. While the “bad” are rejected, the “good” are rewarded with loyalty.

People such as this CEO cannot tolerate the tension and confusion arising from complexity. The danger is that they trash differing opinions and ignore essential information.

His team in turn employ coping methods for dealing with their conflicting feelings towards the CEO — of dependency and admiration on the one hand, and anger and contempt on the other. The healthy ones know this is a dying business and prepare to leave, while others rationalise why they should stay — “he does bring in business after all” — and the less aware deny that a problem exists.

Avoiding stress by distorting reality through such psychological defensive measures can also play a detrimental part in financial decision making. David Tuckett, a psychoanalyst and professor at University College London, and author of Minding the Markets: an Emotional Finance View Of Financial Instability, describes how this can lead to a failure to take in crucial information about a particular investment.

According to Prof Tuckett, people can become dismissive of inconvenient evidence because somewhere in their minds, beyond immediate awareness, they feel uncomfortable about the decision they are making but cannot bear to explore further.

He explains: “They try not to take in the information because the information is not just information, it creates feeling. It creates anxiety, it creates a sense of risk of loss, or guilt in case they get it wrong, so they try to get rid of it. The more they get rid of it, the more [it] potentially creates a bigger loss in future.”

These defence mechanisms originate in childhood and are often the only protection a child may have against the onslaught of perceived threats, such as being rejected or treated unfairly. People carry these unconscious strategies into their working lives, and even though they may be immature reactions to adult problems, they help people maintain a fantasy that life is predictable, benevolent and free from horrible feelings.

This was the case for one man in marketing and sales who came from a reserved, repressed family where strong emotions were never discussed, and self-confidence not encouraged. This left him dissociated from powerful feelings that he could not deal with, such as rivalry and resentment.

Although in many ways he became an ideal employee, never challenging authority or becoming a threat to colleagues, he missed out on his own career advancement and the satisfaction and sense of triumph that comes from such progression.

He reflects on his career: “I lived my working life in a state of numbness, drifting through it in a trancelike state, going through the motions and not really reacting to people. Because you’re shutting out your own feelings, you’re more cut off from colleagues and managers, and certainly you can’t read people as well.

“There’s a large amount of regret. Not so much that I didn’t climb the greasy pole enough, but that I ruled myself out from jobs and experiences that could have fulfilled my potential. But to be ambitious was to put me in line for disappointment and rivalry, feelings I couldn’t cope with.”

Certain situations, however, are so stressful as to break through any psychological defences, leaving the person overwhelmed with anxiety and unable to make sense of, or manage, the onslaught of confusing events. A sense of worthlessness and loss of confidence prevail, and confirm the worst fears one has of oneself.

This was the case for a woman in banking who found herself confused and unable to think rationally when faced with repeated accusations and threats from a bullying boss. She says: “The most difficult bit was that I could never get it right. I focused on trying to please him and his requests just to protect myself from the explosions and confrontations. This erased any spark and energy I had. I started to doubt my­self, which eventually affected my per­f­ormance, my self-esteem and health.”

With guidance, she was able to reconnect with her better qualities and positive attitude. “Looking back, I am astounded to reflect on my situation and how badly I was affected,” she says. “It seems like a bad dream, I’m sure I will carry a scar for all my life, but it is good. It will remind me to protect myself better in future.”

The writer is a psychotherapist and this article is based partly on her clinical experience. To contribute to her forthcoming piece on the effects of business travel on workers and their families, please contact businesslife@ft.com

By Naomi Shragai

Analysis: Why New Leaders Disappoint

It’s inadvisable to promote employees based solely on past performance. And when you do bump them up, you mustn’t desert them at the helm.

In what way could the firing and hiring of Della, an animal shelter manager paid a fairly modest salary, hold important lessons for high-level corporate executives and their boards?

On Leadership

Dov Charney is not planning to fade into the California sunset. The controversial founder of Los Angeles-based American Apparel, whose board announced last week that it was stripping Charney of his chairman’s title and intended to fire him as CEO “for cause,” said in a regulatory filing late Friday that he is working with an investment firm to boost his stake in the company as he fights the board’s move to oust him. He also said he planned to continue talking with shareholders about potential changes to the clothing brand’s board and management. In a filing earlier in the week, he had said he would contest his termination “vigorously.”

Since the board’s announcement, several accounts have chronicled his ouster with more detail than tends to publicly air when a CEO is fired. Charney’s termination letter has even been published online, in which the board cites his failure to stop an employee from creating “false, defamatory and impersonating blog posts” about former employees, as well as misuse of corporate assets. (His lawyer has called the accusations “baseless.”)

But while Charney’s example may stand out for its lurid details and the public nature of the fight, governance experts and psychologists who work with executive transitions say what’s not unusual is for founders to push back – albeit rarely with much success. “Founders have much more emotional attachment,” says Charles Elson, director of the Charles L. Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware. “For an average CEO, it’s a job and money. For a founder, the company is an extension of self. It becomes much more personal.”

A year ago, for instance, Men’s Wearhouse founder George Zimmer was unceremoniously ousted as executive chairman of the company he founded 40 years before. After being shown the door, Zimmer, famously known for his “you’re going to like the way you look” ads that made him the public face of the brand, issued a statement that left open the possibility he would try to take the company private. In it, he said he was “greatly concerned” about the future of the company. (Zimmer later decided against making a move, and Men’s Wearhouse has since acquired Jos.A. Bank in a heated takeover battle.)

Other founders retire or step aside from executive roles with less pushback initially, but then attempt to re-exert their influence later when the company stumbles. Earlier this month, for example, Lululemon founder Chip Wilson voted against two of the company’s directors, saying in a statement that he is “concerned that the board is not aligned with the core values of product and innovation on which Lululemon was founded.” Wilson had already resigned as chairman following a verbal gaffe he made in the aftermath of the company’s sheer yoga pants recall, but still owns 27 percent of the company’s shares. Though the company fired back with its own response, Wilson is reportedly in talks with bankers about his options to shake up the board.

And back in 2012, Best Buy co-founder Richard Schulze, who had not been CEO since 2002, stepped down as chairman following a probe into why he hadn’t alerted the retailer’s board sooner to an alleged inappropriate relationship between the then-CEO and a female employee. Within months, Schulze began trying to buy out the company and take it private. The talks ended early last year with no deal; Schulze was given the honorary title “chairman emeritus” as well as the right to name two directors to the board until January 2016.

Of course, itcan be good for a company when founders return to influence, whether through their own moves or at the urging of the board.

Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist and psychologist who advises CEOs and boards, says that “as emotional and irrational as creative entrepreneurs can get under circumstances of transition – and as blind as they can be to some of the consequences of their behavior – some of their core criticisms about the direction of the company are often spot on. They’re often absolutely right about what the company needs, or what is currently wrong with it.” Few would argue, for instance, that the return of Steve Jobs to Apple wasn’t good for the tech behemoth.

Some founders say they are motivated by wanting to improve the company rather than by personal pride. In his statement from last year, Zimmer said the board was trying “to portray me as an obstinate former CEO, determined to regain absolute control…for my own personal benefit and ego. Nothing could be further from the truth.” And Chip Wilson’s spokesman, Greg Lowman, characterizes the Lululemon founder as having “the long-term focus of the company in his heart and his actions reflect that.”

Yet for all founders, says Sulkowicz, their identities are still closely tied to the companies they’ve started. So the question is not if they have a personal attachment, but how much. “The best ones are often the ones who are most wrapped up in it,” he says. “Their identity and the identity of the company is almost inseparable. It’s wonderful when it works. But it’s also a source of great vulnerability.”

That’s particularly the case for leaders in creative industries, such as retail or fashion, who tend to have more emotional and less corporate personality types that match their creative endeavors, according to Sulkowicz. “Without them, these companies would not exist,” he says – but the much less welcome side of that personality can be narcissism. Many founders “have an unconscious desire to prove that they are needed forever and that the company can’t survive without them.”

That fusion of professional and personal identity is what can make it particularly painful for founders when they become sidelined, end up fighting with the board, or get stripped of their authority. Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a professor at the Yale School of Management who has studied CEO retirements, classifies such leaders as monarch CEOs. “Their business is defined around them and their life is defined around the business,” he says.

At American Apparel, for instance, Charney’s overtly sexual persona has always been part of the company’s racy image. Charney, who has been trailed by allegations of sexual harassment for years, has appeared in several of the company’s suggestive ads, including one where he and two women – wearing clothes – look to be holding a meeting on a mattress. The caption? “In bed with the boss.” His personal style mirrors the 1970s- and 1980s-inspired hipster aesthetic American Apparel sells in its stores. As he told the Financial Times: “I am a deep part of the brand.”

And like most founders, he appears to have lived and breathed the company he founded. When a new distribution center began running inefficiently, Charney has said he had a shower built and literally moved in to the facility to try to fix the problems. A source close to the situation said Charney worked 24/7 and had little life outside the company. (When reached via phone, Charney said he was not able to speak for this article.)

The single-minded focus that helps many founders succeed is the same attribute that can also come back to haunt and hurtthem. “The kind of people who start businesses are highly motivated risk-takers,” says Michael Freeman, an executive coach and clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco. They tend to be “somewhere on the scale between assertive and aggressive,” he says, and have a dominant personality. “The worst thing that can happen to somebody like that would be public humiliation.”

Still, it isn’t just founders who face the public shame of getting pushed out who have a hard time letting go, says Paul Winum, a psychologist and senior partner with RHR International‘s board and CEO services practice. “You worked 70 hours a week for years and years to build a business for years, and you feel like this is yours – both in terms of having a big financial ownership and a tremendous psychological ownership.”

When the change happens abruptly, as it did for Charney, the experience can be particularly jarring, Winum says. It takes a long time for any CEO, even a non-founder, to prepare for the idea of succession and for losing the power that goes with a leadership position. “When suddenly someone is being forced to separate from their baby,” he says, “that’s when the resistance – and the fight – can be vigorous.”

By Jena McGregor

Life With a Narcissistic Manager

Narcissism has received a bad business press over the years. The self-obsessed chief executive with a volatile temper who both charms and intimidates staff, takes all the credit for success while shifting the blame for failure on to others, has been a recurring character in corporate dramas.

Compelling, charismatic, colourful, such people can initially draw people under their spell until difficulties and discord arise, when their deeper, darker personality begins to emerge.

Such individuals tend to be at the extreme end of narcissism, which is best understood as a personality trait along a wide continuum, rather than a pathological state. These people have an insatiable appetite for control, status and praise, which explains why many strive for and gain the top jobs.

But it is also true that such people bring qualities that are essential to the growth and success of a business. These include ambition, optimism, visionary thinking, a willingness to take risks and an ability to convince others to follow their lead. Their intelligence, aspiration and drive can be a huge asset that needs to be accompanied by a capacity for self-reflection, some ability to manage their selfish needs and a knowledge of when to seek advice.

If a person is at the extreme end of the narcissistic spectrum, however, and particularly if market circumstances become unfavourable, his or her thinking can become so irrational as to cause immeasurable damage.

Mark Stein, professor of leadership and management at Leicester university in the UK, has studied the benefits and drawbacks of narcissism to companies. He cites Dick Fuld, who was head of Lehman Brothers at the time of its collapse, as an example — someone whose character at first brought success but then allowed catastrophe to strike.

“Lehman had been a fraught and highly fractured place to work, and when Fuld was appointed, he set about — in a somewhat militaristic and brutal manner — stamping out the dissent and pulling people together,” Prof Stein says.

Approaching the financial crisis, Mr Fuld’s narcissistic traits “became entrenched in a persecutory view of the world according to which the organisation’s problems were entirely attributable to others”, he adds.

“Finally, the only way out was for Lehman to be sold off, but Fuld’s overinflated view of the worth of the company prevented him from doing this. The catastrophic collapse of Lehman, that levered us into the global credit crisis, resulted from this.”

New chief executives may find themselves in a bind as the commendable narcissistic traits — such as self-confidence, fierce ambition, a grand vision and compelling personality — that enabled them to reach the pinnacle suddenly have the potential to become a liability. Can they put their selfish impulses aside and put the company’s interests first?

Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, a New York business consultancy, thinks this is a tall order and says: “In my experience, the narcissism — healthy or otherwise — that drives some executives to achieve positions of leadership remains on display once they reach the top. Try as they might to suppress these traits, it doesn’t work.”

One example of this was a chief executive who was highly ingratiating, paid false compliments and charmed people with his good looks, smooth delivery and an ability to make everyone feel they had a special relationship with him. He was extremely religious and often began senior team meetings with a prayer.

When he became CEO, the share price of the company soared, in part because initially he changed and developed the business, but also because he worked his charm on Wall Street analysts. Eventually, though, his colleagues began to see his disingenuous and manipulative side. By that time, however, the company’s performance had begun to dip, he had sold most of his shares and then proceeded with a planned retirement from the company while leaving his successor to inherit a mess.

Prof Stein explains how this comes about. “One of the biggest problems with narcissistic managers is their extreme feelings of omnipotence and their deluded thinking that they can shift the market and know the future. As a consequence, and in the face of clear and stark warnings from others, they may take on extreme and unnecessary risks that endanger the future of the organisation.”

The constant craving for affirmation and drive for perfection is best understood as a psychological defence. Behind this veneer is a person struggling to protect himself against deep feelings of inadequacy, insecurity and vulnerability.

The need for affirmation may be driven by an unconscious attempt to repair earlier traumatic experiences where he may have been neglected or hurt badly in some way. Children often internalise these experiences, so instead of feeling angry at their parents, they see the fault in themselves. Criticism, and indeed any unpleasant feelings, become intolerable.

It is difficult to change such leaders. Those with enough capacity to listen and learn can be helped by a good coach or a trusted colleague. But for those with deeper emotional damage, the process can be lengthy and difficult even with professional help.

This was the case for one successful entrepreneur who sought help because of personal relationship problems. His early childhood was marked by neglect. When he was six his father left, leaving him with a depressed mother.

He survived his own feelings of loss by escaping into his vivid imagination. There he created exciting stories that provided an alternative to the grim atmosphere at home. People became immensely attracted to him and his tales, and thereby began his subsequent business career of convincing people with his visionary thinking.

Yet beneath this success was a man who was insecure and unable to sustain intimate relationships. In-depth therapy helped him make the links between his extreme need for affirmation at work and his childhood.

He came to understand that the attention his success had brought helped distance him from a sad childhood and attain the praise he desperately missed from his father. Once he understood this, he was able to work more collaboratively with his staff and learn to tolerate his own experiences and feelings.

Research by Donald Hambrick, professor of management at Penn State University, has found that companies led by more narcissistic CEOs have more extreme fluctuations in terms of results.

“Narcissistic CEOs, who tend to pursue dynamic and grandiose strategies, also tend to generate more extreme performance — more big wins and big losses — than their less narcissistic counterparts,” he says.

“They do not generate systematically better or worse performance. In particular, they engage in substantial strategic change and considerable acquisition behaviour.”

Prof Hambrick also believes that narcissistic leaders are more beneficial in dynamic industries, citing entertainment, high tech and cosmetics as sectors that are more suited to such characters.

Perhaps the most useful conclusion to draw is that narcissism needs to be both understood and managed. We tend to condemn narcissism in others while failing to see it in ourselves. The writer Gore Vidal put it succinctly when he defined a narcissist as “someone who is better looking than you are”.

How to accommodate a narcissist
Try this

  • Find out what their agenda is and go along with it — if you cannot, you may need to leave
  • Appreciate that narcissistic leaders can be brilliant and inspiring too
  • Realise that it is all about their success, not your achievement
  • Begin feedback with praise — they only hear what they want to hear
  • They will blame you if things goes wrong, so keep everything on record

Don’t try this

  • Do not expect acknowledgment or thanks — nor any empathy or interest in you
  • Do not take any criticism they direct your way personally
  • Do not ignore them — give them the attention they demand
  • Do not confront them, it could make them paranoid and vindictive
  • That said, if their behaviour becomes abusive, do not tolerate it

The writer is a psychotherapist and this article is based partly on her clinical experience.

By Naomi Shragai

The Manager’s Fear of Delegating

A young chief executive who founded a thriving company appears to be at the peak of his success. But instead of enjoying his achievement, he is stress­ed and overwhelmed with responsibility. His problem is a failure to delegate work.

“The company is a triangle and I feel at the bottom of it, holding everything up,” is how he expresses his dilemma. Although he envies managers who are able to delegate, he feels unable to, believing that the company is an extension of himself and his personality.

He adds: “I make these emotional connections and I believe that what I do is about the relationships I make with people. I never wanted to delegate for fear of losing my clients.”

Although most executives would agree that delegating is crucial to a business’s success, many still micromanage in such a way that they continue to control most aspects of the work.

For many, the skill of delegating can be learnt. But when an executive fails to do so even if it is essential to the growth and functioning of the business, the problem may be more deep-rooted. Beliefs that I have come across in my psychotherapy practice, such as “this business is all about me”; “no one can do it as well as me”; or “people are likely to let me down”, are all justifications that sabotage delegation.

One consequence of these beliefs is that staff being managed can feel undermined or undervalued, and may soon lose interest in their jobs. The harm to the company can be twofold, according to Jeannie Hodder, a business coach who works at London Business School. First, micromanaged staff cease thinking for themselves, and without imaginative input the company is deprived of innovative ideas and can stagnate. Second, overly hands-on executives can be left feeling overburdened and stressed, and without time to devise strategy.

Conversely, executives to whom delegation comes more easily say it has been crucial to their business’s success. “Empowering people is the absolute key to it,” says Charles Wace, founder and chief executive of Twofour Group, the UK independent television production company behind such programmes as Educating Essex, Happy Families and Alex Polizzi — The Fixer. His approach has been to work with clever people and enthuse them: “If you manage to employ people who are brighter and more talented than you, then you’re doing very well. It makes good sense to hire brilliant people and give them their head, rather than hire mediocre people and make yourself look good.”

Matthew Stone, a business coach who heads The Stone Partnership, has extensive experience of the problem of delegation. “Such executives have negative assumptions about what their staff can do, and the result is that people tend to replicate these low expectations,” he says. “The manager may hold a rigid belief that his or her approach is the only one. This attitude does not allow people to develop their own ways of working, which in turn leads to staff trying to second- guess what the manager wants rather than developing their own process.”

One CEO told me that when he finally forced himself to delegate, he suffered withdrawal symptoms. For him the “kick” from being the one to, in effect, “pull the deal off” was almost addictive. “When you delegate there is a loss of excitement of meeting the target, and suddenly you have to share it,” he says.

He admits that he prefers to retain work where there is praise to be had. “It’s very important for me to get praise and recognition. One of the reasons I’ve been more successful is my insecurity combined with drive. I bel­ieve insecurity makes people driven.”

In my experience as a psychotherapist, some men who crave recognition may have had absent fathers or ones that ignored them. As a result they may tend to withhold praise from others in the way that their fathers withheld it from them or because they want it for themselves.

There are other potential emotional wounds from delegating. By drawing back from their team and letting them get on with it, managers feel less involved and more isolated. There is also the acknowledgment that others can do the job as well, and in some cases better, which can be a bitter pill to swallow.

“Delegation can be difficult because it always involves dependency on others, and [some] people cannot bear depending on anyone, no matter how capable they might be,” says Kerry Sulkowicz, a psychoanalyst and founder of Boswell Group, a New York consultancy that specialises in advising chief executives on the psychological aspects of their work. “Dependency may make them feel weak and vulnerable, repeating some early life experience in which they were dependent on someone who failed or hurt them.”

This applies to another CEO I spoke to, who manages a financial services company. He felt guilty if he was not available to micromanage his team, constantly worrying that he was letting them down.

He was convinced it was his role to solve everyone’s problems and would not allow his staff to find their own solutions. Consequently, contrary to feeling supported, they felt he did not trust them.

Digging into his background, it became clear that the origin of this lay in his childhood, when he had the responsibility of looking after his depressed mother once his father had left the family. Because he had no adult figure he could rely on, he came to believe that no one was trustworthy. Once he understood this link to his childhood, he was better equipped to make informed choices at work.

Mr Wace believes that trusting people is not enough — you also have to take risks and let them make mistakes. He adds that a further benefit for his company is that, by allowing others to manage its day-to-day running, he is free to see the bigger picture and plan for the future.

Another CEO who successfully made the transition from micromanaging to delegating says: “I found in the end that I could get a ‘kick’ by seeing my team come together successfully and that wonderful sense of achievement when you see others doing it as well or better. You can get a warm glow from successful delegation that can balance all the losses from letting go of work.”

Warning signs: Checklist to test your reluctance to delegate

  1. Staffing
    – Your staff are not bringing you their ideas and concerns. This may indicate that they find you unapproachable and closed-minded.
    – There is a high turnover of staff.
  2. Teamwork
    – You treat everyone the same, implying that you have failed to see the unique differences in the team.
    – You take all the successes and failures of the business as your own.
  3. Trust
    – You cannot trust others to do the job as well as you, and have low expectations for your staff’s performance.
  4. Control
    – You believe it is up to you to solve all the company’s problems.
    – When the business fails to thrive, your response is to control more of the work.
  5. Mood
    – Your mood is low or you may have become depressed and/or anxious.
    – You feel overwhelmed with responsibility
  6. Home life
    – You cannot switch off from work and it disrupts your relationships at home.
  7. Support
    – You have difficulties asking for help.
    – Your dominant character trait is self-sufficiency.

The writer is a psychotherapist and this article is partly based on her clinical experience. None of the individuals named is her client.

By Naomi Shragai

Fathers Struggling to ‘Have it all’

A senior television executive is reading a bedtime story to his eight-year-old daughter. It is 10pm and he has just returned home from work. His phone rings — a work call — and he answers it, leaving the story unfinished.

His daughter shouts from her bed: “You’re a terrible father!” He returns to his daughter and tries to explain, with little success, why the call was important.

This executive works late and sees his daughter for only about two hours during the working week. Although he feels guilty about this and fears he is missing the best moments of family life, he seems unable to switch off from work.

This scene will be familiar to many men in senior positions who have taxing jobs and struggle to respond to the demands of family life.

It is common for working women to reflect, sometimes publicly, on the challenges of juggling the needs of family and work. In recent decades, the role of fathers has changed too, giving them greater involvement in family life.

But often men find it difficult to deal with the conflicting demands of work and home . As I have seen in my own psychotherapy practice, it is, for many executives, a continuing, unresolved battle. As one chief executive whose children are now adults told me: “It was often a tug of war, and work would always win. I was always better at switching off from home at work than the other way round.”

The problem can be exacerbated because men are often climbing to the peak of their careers during their children’s formative years. Instead of family life being a rewarding break from the pressures of work, too often it comes a poor second with the result that the family — and the career — suffers.

Men rarely seek help for such problems early on. They can be unwilling to confront it, and may fear that it will be regarded as a weakness and may harm their promotion prospects. Often, these problems only present themselves when the individual reaches a crisis point such as divorce, depressive breakdown or alcohol misuse.

Many men justify their long working hours as wanting to provide the best for their families. Work, however, offers psychological as well as financial rewards — it can be exciting, challenging and provide satisfaction from a job or deal well done. Family life can feel messier, mundane and even boring in comparison.

The danger is that work can become a convenient escape from the emotional demands of family life. Top executives often develop a sense of themselves through their professional achievements, not through emotional connections. In contrast, their wives may value emotional connection over all else.

For some men, work can even become an alternative family; where they can feel more successful, more in control, and turn to colleagues for connections that they are missing at home.

Kerry Sulkowicz is a psychoanalyst and founder of the Boswell Group, a New York consultancy that specialises in advising chief executives on the psychological aspects of their work. He describes men with the most extreme difficulties in this regard as being unable to put themselves in another person’s shoes. They often have little self-awareness, cannot empathise and lack emotional language, which frequently angers and distances family members.

As a reaction to a more distant wife, the executive may begin an affair. Or he may turn to alcohol or male-dominated activities that further exclude the family. Career and home life can quickly unravel.

Mr Sulkowicz explains why such men focus on their careers: “At work they don’t have to deal so much with people who are emotionally needy, or who miss them [when they are away]. They often find these problems either trivial or incomprehensible.

“The kinds of problems these men solve at work tend to be practical and tactical, and action is rewarded with compensation, professional advancement and praise . . . However, problems at home are more emotional, and listening rather than doing is often the best approach.”

When such men transfer the authoritarian stance they adopt at work to home, family members feel resentful and alienated. It is often easier to tell employees what to do than a toddler or a teenager.

Mr Sulkowicz says it is not only the man’s family that can suffer, but also his career in the long term.

“The best-kept secret here is that these bullying, arrogant men are much less effective at work than they think they are,” he says. “While they may get a lot done, they inspire fear and avoidance, and they find themselves increasingly disconnected from their colleagues and their organisations.”

Some male executives, however, have adopted strategies for meeting the demands of corporate and home life, often combining a conscious decision to prioritise the family with strict timekeeping. For Greg Hodder, chief executive of Charles Tyrwhitt, the men’s clothing company, the decision was instinctive and driven by the fact that he thoroughly enjoyed being with his children.

The time when they were young, and family life was most demanding coincided with a particularly successful period of his career. “Having something demanding but different, rather than relaxing, gave me a real break from work,” he says.

He established a rule that he would not work past 6pm or at weekends — and he stuck to it. He does not look at emails during evenings or weekends, or take work on holiday. Showing his wife his devotion to the family strengthened their marriage.

Mr Hodder believes he has been able to achieve this by being extremely organised. “People who work long hours are less able to achieve their goals . . . They are people who tend to say yes to everything and end up out of control,” he adds.

Another senior executive, who works in the media, ensures that he makes breakfast for his three children and is there for their bedtime stories. He has sought to work in organisations that are sympathetic to family life.

Mr Sulkowicz believes companies can help, with astute human resources officers playing a proactive role. Perhaps, however, executives struggling with the issue should reflect on the old aphorism: “Work, no matter how stimulating and rewarding, will never love you back.”

The writer is a psychotherapist and this article is partly based on her clinical experience. None of the individuals named are her clients

By Naomi Shragai

On Leadership

This piece is part of an On Leadership round table exploring the role of first lady.

With their armies of advisers and their entourages of consultants, it’s easy to believe most top leaders would have more than their share of confidants. Anyone will make time for them. They have access to experts on any number of topics.

But in fact, one of the most defining aspects of leadership is how inherently isolating it can be for people in power. Few colleagues will speak with them with true candor. They can’t always be completely honest with those who work for them, either. And showing they’re vulnerable might help them explore their weaknesses that need improving, but it could also potentially undermine their position of authority.

That’s why many top leaders find themselves turning to their spouses for unfiltered advice. As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who advises CEOs and boards of directors around the world, I’ve found that more of my clients turn to their wives or husbands about critical decisions in their job than one might think. And if they don’t open up to the person they share their bed with, they’ve typically found someone to whom they can confide their secrets – whether it’s a former mentor, a close friend or a trusted adviser instead. (Ahem.)

The isolation that leadership creates couldn’t be truer than in the case of the presidency, which may very well be the loneliest job in the world. For Barack Obama, having a strong, supportive relationship with his wife, Michelle, is essential. Sure, he has his inner circle, but the first lady may be the only one who doesn’t ever have to call him Mr. President. Presumably (one hopes, for the sake of their marriage) she sees him at his most unguarded, listening not only to his innermost thoughts but to his innermost fears.

Leaders need candid sounding boards – whoever they may be – for several reasons, not least of which is to counter the unavoidable, and at times painful, feelings of insulation. But it’s also important because of the emotional dangers of that isolation, which can create a self-reinforcing cycle of believing in one’s own perceptions without the ability to test them against some external voice of reality. Power makes this even worse because it inhibits the upward flow of candid feedback, and instead invites varying degrees of, well, derriere kissing.

The most perilous outcome – to which far too many leaders succumb under such hermetically sealed conditions – is what I call “pathological certainty,” that state in which one believes in the absolute rightness and infallibility of one’s ideas and decisions. George W. Bush’s complete self-confidence and his apparent disinterest in the lessons of history both may have been manifestations of this problem. While it has been said that Laura Bush was a maternal presence for the president throughout their marriage, with her rather rigid moralism tempering his habits, she apparently steered clear of being a sounding board on his work. The arrogance and hubris of some leaders, which are expressions of an underlying narcissism, can go unchecked in the absence of a confidant or spouse who is able to speak truth to power.

Not surprisingly, leaders who are emotionally unstable to begin with fare even worse. When the emperor has no clothes and he is allowed to remain naked for extended periods of time, he begins to lose touch with reality and, eventually, paranoia can take hold. From a distance, it appears that dictators such as Hugo Chavez and the late Kim Jong Il have lived in paranoid fear of the outside world. Their fears lead them to exert cruel control over their domains, and, eventually, their enemies become real rather than mainly imagined.

Could a strong and loving spouse prevent this kind of extreme downward spiral? It’s unlikely, especially since it’s rare for emotionally troubled leaders to have truly intimate relationships in the first place. By the time things get to the point of a paranoid dictatorship, it’s far too late for anyone to make much of a dent.

Of course, spouses of leaders can have blind spots too, as their love, protectiveness and closeness to the boss obscures their ability to perceive trouble and deliver much-needed feedback. Michelle Obama, for instance, apparently shares the president’s disdain for the congressional glad-handing and schmoozing that come with the territory. This has contributed to, or at least reinforced, the aloofness and seeming emotional disengagement that detracts from his effectiveness as a leader.

No matter how good or bad a sounding board a spouse might be, a leader who is married but doesn’t have a supportive spouse can face the most trouble. Not only is he lonely at work–and I use that pronoun only because most of my CEO clients are in fact male–but lonely at home, too. That makes him more likely to reach out to others who may not have his best interests at heart, and who can exert undo and often exploitative influence.

In the end, it’s the personality of the leader as well as the nature of the relationship that determines whether the confidant serves a productive sounding board role, or whether the confidant simply reinforces the leader’s distorted perceptions and maladaptive behaviors.

Kerry Sulkowicz is managing principal of the consulting firm the Boswell Group, and a clinical professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.