The Corporate Shrink

Advice for a recent grad with an eye on the corner office; the girlfriend of an overworked exec wonders whether to love him or leave him.

By Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on FastCompany

I’m a recent college grad, just starting at my first job. Someday I’d like to run a company – maybe this one. But I wonder, do I have what it takes? How would I know? (issue 86, page 46)

The fact that you’re even asking the question – and expressing your goal of running a company while on your first job – is a good sign. Now is the time to start testing your leadership mettle. But you’re also inquiring about the nature of leadership: Where does it come from, and how do you spot it?

Knowing whether you have what it takes to run the show at this stage in your career may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. There’s time for young leaders to learn and smooth out rough edges later, but the roots of leadership are fairly hardwired, often beginning in childhood in response to emotional adversity or personal trauma. True leadership traits are rather uncommon, and they aren’t the same as what it takes to be a good manager.

The true psychological origins of leadership are pretty murky, but I can guarantee this: Leadership isn’t something you learn by taking classes or reading books by the CEO of the Month. Not that you’d know, judging by the rich industry that has mushroomed around such quick fixes.

In my experience, corporate chiefs typically manifest the characteristics of leadership early on in their lives, usually before they reach your level. Even during adolescence, they demonstrate the capacity to motivate others, to tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty, and to think creatively in challenging situations. Did you? And when they start their first jobs, it often doesn’t take long for them to begin distinguishing themselves as leaders. What about you?

My boyfriend is a typical hard-charging, overweight, stressed-out, twice-divorced executive who works nonstop to keep the “money machine” going. He makes well into six figures. He doesn’t drive fancy cars, and his house is modest. In the last four months, he has taken off three weekend days to hang out with me. During vacations, he works. I make a good living and don’t need him to worry about making more each year. How do I help him see that health and happiness should come first?

He sounds like a real catch. And his appealing qualities are what, exactly?

Your goal of getting him to stop and smell some roses, while noble enough, sounds ill-fated – at least until he has his first heart attack. Even then, I’d say your chances are south of 50-50.

Unfortunately, your boyfriend has what sounds like an obsessional personality. These people have a hard time loosening up, taking pleasure in their lives, and being open to real intimacy. Work becomes a place to hide their anxieties as they strive for endlessly elusive control and order.

I’m not surprised that his marriages failed. You’ve probably tried talking to him about this, and I bet he has defended his behavior with all sorts of logical-sounding arguments that are no more than rationalizations for his self-depriving ways. And you’ve wound up feeling deprived, too.

In fact, you might want to ask yourself what you’re getting out of this relationship. It’s undoubtedly less than you deserve. I wasn’t kidding about the heart attack, either. People with this personality are prone to stress-related illnesses, and they often don’t seek the psychological therapy they need until a crisis forces them to do so. In the meantime, be careful that in trying to rescue this man, you don’t wind up on the short end of his third divorce.

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