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.
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.
How should a CEO deal with a high performing executive who is nonetheless something of a rogue within the organization? Here 5 steps to take control of such situations.
Charles was a very smart, creative, and rather eccentric senior executive who had begun to run afoul of several members of the organization’s executive committee. He was inconsistent in responding to their requests, was at times outright rude, and seemed to view the organization only through the filter of his own department’s needs. Yet, he had built an effective group, developed important new products, and had won public acclaim for the organization. Skip, his boss and CEO, was in conflict about what to do. On one hand, his senior staff, whom he had worked with for years, seemed dead set against Charles, sometimes personally so. They did not believe he could work with them on the executive committee; and when he was particularly uncooperative or rude, they agitated for his dismissal. On the other hand, Charles had proved invaluable to the enterprise, which had grown far beyond what it had been in the “old days” when the other members of the EC were junior department heads. Should Skip promote Charles to the EC? How should he address Charles’ behavior and the implacable opposition to him from the old-timers on the EC?
This scenario (a composite of several cases observed over the past 15 years) is well known to most CEOs and senior executives. Jack Welch, in his 2000 annual report for General Electric, recognized that of the four types of managers, the “Type 4” manager who doesn’t share the values but delivers the numbers “is the toughest call of all.” Welch was insistent that managers like Charles have to be removed, and argued persuasively that doing so was foundational to building a great culture. But is it really all that clear? Stay with me while I raise questions about this conventional wisdom, and walk you through a more nuanced consideration of the issues involved in managing these maverick executives.
Whether we like it or not the creativity and innovation needed for organizational success often flow from “talented and difficult” executives (TaD). These men and women combine characteristics like temperamental, obsessive, tyrannical, and self-centered with vision and creativity. (The late Steve Jobs may be the most well-known and extreme example.) This group includes very talented business leaders who might be shy and socially awkward, or prone to emotional outbursts and inappropriate behavior. Widely viewed as misfits, their signature characteristic is difficulty working with other people, especially their peers. They are typically “narcissistic” in the general sense of the term, exhibiting difficulty empathizing with others and seeing things from another’s perspective.
One alternative to Welch’s “fire” is talent management’s “fix” approach to the TaD executive. But these policies, procedures, and programs are usually geared to the average personality type. They usually don’t work with the “talented and difficult” since in these cases personality dynamics act as barriers to absorbing corporate norms and values. And TaD executives, who have made it into the senior ranks by contributing mightily to the firm’s success, are often dismissive of soft-skills training designed for more junior executives.
We need to move beyond traditional “fix or fire” approaches to develop more individualized methods to harness the originality of the TaD executive. This starts with you, the TaD executive’s manager. Like Skip, the CEO I described above, you know that these situations defy easy answers, and you spend considerable time and energy “under the radar” on the individualized management of these executives. Your approach to the TaD’s is the critical factor in whether they are retained or let go. You are the real “thought leader” in these cases, but let me offer some advice.
As you struggle with the complex issues involved in deciding whether to keep or terminate the TaD executive, you should first assess whether you are being driven by irrational fears. On one hand you may worry that if you terminate the TaD executive the business will tank. Deep down, do you feel that your own success rides on this individual’s accomplishments and that you could be vulnerable if you let him or her go? Can you objectively evaluate the real impact of dismissing the TaD executive on the business and on your own future?
Conversely, you may be afraid to fully commit to retaining the TaD executive. You may fear going against the common wisdom that pervades your organization. Organizational culture is powerful, but not always right! In my example, the culture of the organization had been shaped by the EC’s old-timers and was in some ways hidebound, narrow-minded, and frustrating. Skip, the CEO, was a thoughtful and measured leader who intuitively sensed the groupthink of his senior executive team. But he preferred to avoid conflict, and his reluctance to rock the boat meant that he missed important opportunities to shape the organizational culture and grow as a leader.
On a deeper level, Skip’s avoidance of difficult conversations with the members of his EC grew out of his own anger and frustration with them. Sometimes the TaD’s bad behavior is symptomatic of problems in the behavior and performance of the senior executive team. The courage to address these issues can relieve some of the pressure and dysfunction in the executive team and shift the focus away from the TaD executive exclusively.
Clarifying your own thinking about the TaD executive and the entire leadership team (including yourself) is an ongoing process. Situations change, but if you commit to really engaging and trying to retain the TaD executive, consider the following:
- The relationship of mutual trust and respect between you and the TaD executive is the most important talent management resource the organization has. Never lose sight of this fact. Work to build and sustain this relationship and don’t be too put off if your star performer becomes irritable or defensive. He or she may need to test the relationship and you may need to challenge them to develop more trust.
- Show consistent interest in understanding the TaD executive’s point of view on an issue or controversy. These are people whose stock in trade is to feel misunderstood! Unbeknownst to them, they also lack a capacity to see things from others’ points of view. Look beyond self-justification by remembering how sensitive TaD executives can be to negative feedback or criticism. But don’t be too hesitant to disagree or give feedback – doing so can build credibility and trust.
- Assess the TaD executive’s level of organizational loyalty. While these executives typically appear to be out for themselves, probe for a foundational sense of commitment to the organization. An executive who primarily sees himself or herself as a “gun for hire” and who demonstrates repeated indifference or hostility to the organizational mission may be in the wrong job. But one who has a commitment to the organizational mission should be helped to connect more strongly to the enterprise. Use the organizational resources at your disposal – a senior mentor in another line of business, a leadership position on an enterprise-wide committee or task force, etc.
- Respond effectively to resistance from the TaD executive’s peers as a necessary part of this process. TaD executives send signals of aloofness, disregard, and contempt. Consequently, controversy often swirls around them. Peers may be polarized and take “all or nothing” stances, challenging you to explain why you are not demanding conformity to organizational norms (usually code for demoting or firing their TaD peer). This is expectable and requires patience, and yes, reassurance to your other executives.
- You are not forcing the TaD executive to change; you are encouraging him or her to grow. This may seem like a semantic issue, but it is important. You are trying to help the TaD executive improve as a leader. Your goal is not to take something away but to add something to their leadership toolkit. Which, by the way, will stand them in good stead whatever job they’re in.
After struggling with his maverick executive and the reactions of his leadership team, Skip finally promoted Charles to the EC, not because Charles set an admirable example but because his contribution was essential and he needed to be part of the senior executive discussion. This decision relieved some of Charles’ insecurity and may have also bought time for Charles to address issues in other spheres of his life. Charles became relatively less difficult and was able to contribute to the organization longer than most had expected.
Managing the TaD executive is not for the faint-hearted. However, the effort is worth it for both extrinsic and intrinsic reasons. If you can retain the TaD executive and better align him or her with the organizational mission, if only for a period of time, you will have contributed greatly to the organization’s aims and productivity. And you will have grown in your ability to lead a diverse, high performing team, taking your talent management skills to the next level.
Mr. Smith (not his real name) seemed like a respected, successful entrepreneur. In reality, he ran a network of sham companies whose sole purpose was to obscure the parent organization, a family business that he used to siphon more than a billion dollars from financial institutions. (I can’t share more details because the investigation is ongoing.)
I’m a specialist in the psychology of fraud who also advises legitimate business leaders on the complex drivers of human motivation and performance. Although I have no trouble distinguishing the fraudsters I investigate from the executives I advise, I can’t help noticing a few similarities.
I helped build a psychological profile of Mr. Smith to assist the fraud investigators working to recover the money that he stole. I quickly learned that he was intelligent, creative, and fiercely competitive. But then, so were Allen Stanford, the jailed ex-CEO of Stanford International Bank, and Russell Wasendorf Sr., the deposed head of Peregrine Financial Group. Both were smart, driven men who cultivated reputations as pillars of their communities.
Beneath Mr. Smith’s polished surface, darker forces were at work. Top con artists tend to share critical disturbances in formative relationships, morbid dread of humiliation, and deep feelings of insecurity and inferiority. They try to negate these internal realities by achieving power and wealth. Yet they draw on old reflexes to lie, avoid, and hide.
Some of today’s top entrepreneurs have dealt with psychological challenges. Think of Richard Branson’s dyslexia or Oprah Winfrey’s abuse as a child. Of course, Branson and Winfrey channeled emotional turmoil into productive ventures. By contrast, con artists like Mr. Smith trade in malice and betrayal.
Yet even fraudsters have businesses to run and a familiar palette of management problems to deal with. As my colleagues and I pored over the case documents, we learned about Mr. Smith’s informal management style, his bouts of irrational optimism, his tendency to reward mistakes with second chances, and his love of senseless risk taking. As we traced the org chart of his conglomerate, we found rivalry between Mr. Smith’s chief operating officer, the only nonrelative on his senior executive team, and the senior vice president, Mr. Smith’s firstborn and heir apparent.
It was a familiar family business dynamic: The COO was a seasoned executive who resented having to report to the SVP, a callow youth who owed his job mainly to his place on the Smith family tree. Had this been a legitimate company, a consultant like me might have used these data points to design an effective chain of command and a viable succession plan. In Mr. Smith’s case, they helped us bring his crimes to light.
Mr. Smith’s son and heir was ultimately decapitated in a suspicious helicopter accident. Another child took over the business but proved incompetent. Mr. Smith had been thoroughly disgraced and vilified by the time cancer carried him off. In the end, the fears that drove him proved all too real.
As part of our series on generosity in business, we’re looking at some of the financial wizards who are using their skills and assets to give back to society in the most impressive and inspiring ways.
Generosity is an emerging market. Social-good philanthropy is forging into territories once the domain of conventional charities and donor-grantee philanthropy. This month, the Co.Exist / Catchafire Generosity Series singles out an elite group who’ve pivoted from exceptional success in the financial sector to launching world-changing social giving initiatives.
But, even for these wealthy donors, being generous is more complicated than you might think.
Rather than being inspirational, giving of this magnitude can generate rip tides of envy. Could the astronomical wealth and mammoth institutional resources behind these ventures overshadow their missions? Avoiding that is the first challenge. Remember, positive impact matters more than who’s giving and how much.
As Warren Buffet puts it, “the most precious asset a person can give is time.” To Buffet, gifts of time and talents to help others “often prove far more valuable than money.” A struggling child, he suggests, “befriended and nurtured by a caring mentor, receives a gift whose value far exceeds what can be bestowed by a check.”
How can this serve as a model for emulation? To be optimally leveraged, we need to better understand generosity. Generosity is commonly defined as “liberality in spirit or act, especially in giving” and a “willingness to share with others.” Its etymology is linked with nobility, nearly every world religion vaunts its moral virtue and, as any child can tell you, it’s better to give than to receive.
But generous behavior isn’t itself an accurate indicator of true generosity. People donate time, service, knowledge, and money for lots of reasons–exhibitionism, social pressure, to be influential, in control, or feel powerful, guilt, conformity, moral posturing, selfgratification, tax advantages, even disguised hostility. While, to varying degrees, these are legitimate catalysts to giving, they have little to do with actual generosity or altruism.
Social scientists explain generosity as “prosocial behavior”–actions that benefit others learned through role models in the home or school. But the underlying psychology–how our capacity for giving develops and functions–is more complex. Why is this important to know? Because true generosity isn’t just about generous acts. It means being generous knowledgeably and thoughtfully–understanding generosity inside and out.
Taking generosity from blueprint to delivery can get deformed or derailed by any number of under-the-radar obstructions. Hard to see, looking at the members of this list (see below). They epitomize mission-aligned giving. They also present an opportunity to study, by contrast, some problematic giving types, whose generosity is mitigated by ulterior motives.
Knowing the signs of the wrong kind of generosity can help you spot them, in others or even in yourself, in advance. Important? Very. The social good sector–and generosity in particular–pivots on the human element. In a successful giving venture, psychology is a critical factor equal to any. Punt it aside, and you’re handicapped.
Here’s the short list:
- 5-Alarm: Generosity catalyzed by catastrophe. Natural disasters, 9/11, and other social trauma generate outpourings of mass-empathy. Active interest can exceed the news cycle but eventually subsides once a semblance of ‘normalcy’ has returned.
- Mother Teresa: These givers’ generosity is boundless. Their need to help others seems insatiable.
- Guilty: Its familiar face leaves the recipient feeling guilty for accepting the giver’s munificence. A sense of ingratitude is baked-in; no amount of thankfulness can fully acknowledge the sacrifice made in having given so much. The underbelly is the guilt driving the giver: his generosity is an imperative of tithing or expiation, an attempt at compensating for something forever owed. This substructure is often invisible, as many appear to give quietly, anonymously, or selflessly.
- Investment: Generosity (actually pseudo-generosity) delivered with an unspoken expectation for a return. It’s not tangible ROI like admiration or bragging rights; the giver’s generosity is an esoteric hedge. Potential returns could be an internal “get-out-jail-free card,” to feel deserving of respect or love, enhanced self worth, or delivering a model of how he hopes to be treated.
- Little Big Man: The giver dreads being “too much.” The ramifications of too muchness are presumed dire. The solution? Divestiture and redistribution. The quotient deemed dangerously over the line is reducible to safe levels with a noble bonus: giving to others.
- Pollination: Scattering small seeds of generosity to multiple recipients. Each parcel is too insignificant for sustainable positive impact but sufficient in the aggregate to create the appearance of great magnanimity (distinct from potentially useful micro-giving, a variation of strategically thoughtful micro-lending).
- Tyrant: Generosity delivered with militaristic precision and vice-grip control. All effective philanthropy requires structure and regulation. But this is stiflingly hyper-codified. The consequent, inappropriate focus is on giver, contract and performance. The recipients’ needs are eclipsed.
- Atlas: Generosity borne of a sense of over-responsibility. Usually derivative of a childhood devoted to emotionally subsidizing a weak, sick, or immature parent. A deep reservoir of resentment flows under the generosity.
- Bling: The charitable gesture is really camouflaged boastfulness. Generous acts are a contrivance for trumpeting and memorializing the giver’s resources and generosity. Strip Mall: Unrelenting and over-abundant generosity. The giver can never give enough (and may never stop) irrespective of how much the recipients need.
- Trojan Horse: Largesse with a hidden time-deferred agenda. The recipient doesn’t learn of the contingent expectations bundled into the ostensible gift until after the fact. Tony Soprano: As in, “it would be a cryin’ shame if you didn’t accept this gift.”
- Jackass: Wasteful, mind-bogglingly ludicrous pseudo-charitability (as one of many Technicolor examples, see Leona Helmsley’s bequeathing her multimillion dollar fortune to her dog).
- Carrot on a Stick: Keeps the recipient hopeful but perpetually suspended in need. The promised generosity comes tantalizingly close to fulfillment, or is sparingly apportioned over time. But is always attached to a string. (Similarly: “YoYo”: generosity serially offered and retracted).
- Madoff: Fraudulent generosity. Can involve the giving of stolen or misappropriated assets. Can also be a deceptive practice: generosity as red-herring, straw entity, or disguise for intentional malice or, purely psychologically, as a veil for hatred, envy, or rage. Hostility and sadism are parts of the human condition. Social imperatives to conceal them are embedded in language: the German word “gift” means ‘poison’ in English.
I’ve given these psychological categories cheeky names to help explain them. But the issues are serious. In each, beneath the generous act, the giver’s internal conflicts and self interests dominate. Concern for the other is subordinate and functional. That’s a fundamental perversion of accepted generosity best practices. Is there a fix? Can these archetypes be avoided?
Yes. Harnessing generosity’s full potential as an enterprise tool requires understanding both its negatives and positives. That these mental systems exist and can intrude in our daily affairs isn’t a dismal forecast for future giving. People are dazzlingly resilient and adaptable. These psychological mechanisms, and others too, start as ingenious coping responses–giving instead of receiving in a formative zero-sum environment where giving and receiving wasn’t feasible.
Generosity isn’t limited to giving. It also involves being accepting, emotionally charitable toward ourselves and others.
The capacity for empathy–a leap of imagination to understanding the experience of another based on one’s self–is a cornerstone of generosity, and a remarkable trait of our humanity. It’s present in varying degrees in nearly everyone. Being truly generous is to be humane.
THE FIVE MOST GENEROUS WALL STREETERS
The Most Generous on Wall Street is different from the other groups we have featured in the Generosity Series thus far. They are very modest about sharing their experiences with philanthropy, so much so that many prominent figures have declined their nominations to avoid the public attention this series would bring for the reason that philanthropy is a very personal matter. But here are a few who are comfortable sharing how they’re using their success in the financial markets to give back.
Come back every Monday for the next five weeks to read about a new honoree who uses their success off of Wall Street, influence in the world of finance, or post career life to make the world a better place. We’ve gathered in depth profiles that get to the heart of who these people are, their philosophies on giving, why they are generous and how they are using their time and talents (not just their bank accounts) for good.
CEO and co-founder of Abacus Portfolios.
Abacus is a B-Corp that invests in socially responsible and sustainable investment portfolios, it’s also the largest investment advisor to invest in microfinance equity funds. An active Acumen Partner, Kessel’s generosity stretches over the global and is linked to his ability to bridge the worlds of finance and spirituality.
Former CEO and Chairman of UBS AG Global Asset Management
Alexander is the first woman to head a major research department, first woman to oversee a trading floor and the first to head a large asset management company. Alexander is the former CEO and Chairman of UBS AG Global Asset Management and a dedicated leader with the Acumen Fund. She served as the Fund’s Board Chair for nine years and remains actively involved in their social impact investing efforts.
Former chairman of CCMP
Walker is the former chairman of CCMP (the successor of JPMorgan Partners) and a dedicated philanthropist whose philosophy on giving is very much tied to his practical spirituality. Known for integrating business strategies with the nonprofit world, his influence has reached renowned charitable initiatives.
Pershing Square Capital Management
Ackman is the entrepreneur behind the activist hedge fund Pershing Square Capital Management. In 2006, he amplified his philanthropic efforts by starting the Pershing Square Foundation to support innovation in economic development, education, human rights, healthcare, and arts and urban development.
Former Vice Chairman, Goldman Sach
Kaplan, the former Vice Chairman of Goldman Sachs, is now a professor of Management Practice at Harvard Business School, and a co-chair at the early stage global venture philanthropy firm, Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation.
Written by Edward R. Shapiro and A. Wesley Carr.
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.