The Corporate Shrink

A chairman's childish churlishness.

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

I’m a lawyer, and I have just joined my first corporate board. The chairman, a client of mine, runs meetings as if only his ideas matter; he seems more interested in impressing us than in using our counsel. How do I handle this? (issue 82, page 52)

This board could be headed for serious governance problems, especially if the company needs fixing. Here are some suggestions for assessing the impact of this chairman’s personality on boardroom dynamics.

Since you’ve known him as a client, ask yourself whether he’s been consistently self-involved–or whether, in different settings, he loosens up. If his behavior is consistent, your battle is tougher, as he’s unlikely to be open to criticism, debate, or alternative ideas. His narcissism might also get in the way of honestly acknowledging problems when they arise and could lead to denial rather than responsive action.

Does his behavior silence or inhibit a room full of otherwise able-minded directors? His need for control may stem from insecurity about his abilities to lead or to solve complex problems facing the company. Those feelings, of course, always have complicated roots. But they may involve overbearing parents who never allowed him to learn from experience or to be wrong. Such leaders, though brilliant in some respects, are painfully insecure deep down, and they compensate by doing to others what was done to them as children.

If you’ve known the chairman to act differently, and if your relationship with him is close enough, then you could discreetly offer observations on what it’s like to serve on his board. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, ask yourself why–it parallels the very problem that exists in the boardroom. We often put leaders on pedestals, and in so doing, we can overlook the ways in which they inadvertently undermine the group they depend on most.

One of my partners in a hedge fund is a brilliant investor, but he also has a wicked temper. When frustrated, he blows up and is impossible to be around. He can be abusive and is disrupting the partnership. Can his career be saved?

Some of your colleagues are probably wondering what can be done to end his career rather than save it. This kind of aggression is deeply etched in your partner’s personality and won’t be easily tamed by benevolent feedback, authoritarian rebukes, or anger-management courses.

People who behave this way have little tolerance for frustration and are lacking in self-awareness. They often think their outbursts and abusiveness are entirely justified. They believe the world is filled with incompetents, with only a few folks who approach their own perfectionist standards. But their rage is really hair-triggered by circumstances that evoke feelings of helplessness or shame. Little surprise that they get so mad.

While your colleague might be able to contain his explosive and inappropriate reactions a bit, the fundamental feelings are unlikely to change without addressing his underlying emotional state. The person he respects most in the office should confront him with examples of his destructive behavior and give him an ultimatum either to control his outbursts while seeking psychological help or to leave the firm before he does more damage. Although your partner is a brilliant investor, he’s probably not as invaluable as you may think.

Dr. Kerry J. Sulkowicz, a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst, and founder of The Boswell Group LLC, advises executives on leadership, management, and governance. Send him your questions about the psychology of business (