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.

On Leadership

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable with four expert contributors – Wharton Professor Peter Cappelli, Space Policy Institute Professor Emeritus John Logsdon, NYU Professor Kerry Sulkowicz, and former NASA leadership program director Gail S. Williams – about the leadership challenges of shuttering NASA’s iconic space shuttle program.

As Atlantis lifted off Friday from the Kennedy Space Center, America bid farewell to its space shuttle program. It was an emotional moment for the country, and, in a less public way, represents a major loss for NASA workers. It was also something perhaps less obvious: a leadership moment for Charles Bolden, NASA’s administrator.

So far, Bolden’s handling of this inflection point in America’s space program can serve as a lesson for leaders faced with the challenge of closing beloved initiatives–a difficult process no matter how rational and justified these decisions may be. As the centerpiece of NASA for 30 years, the space shuttle brought further glory to the agency that gave us the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, not to mention steady employment for generations of employees.

In a speech delivered to the National Press Club on July 1, Bolden did what a good leader should do under such circumstances: He made an emotional connection to his people, was honest about the facts, acknowledged the loss they’ve just experienced while putting it into larger context, and painted a vision that realistically yet reassuringly connects the past with the future.

Bolden, himself a retired Marine Corps major general and a four-time shuttle flight veteran, has instant credibility with NASA’s employees. And in his speech to the National Press Club, he drew on his own career to establish that emotional connection. “I spent 14 years at NASA before leaving and then returning to head the agency. Some of the people I respect most in the world are my fellow astronauts. Some of my best friends died flying on the shuttle. I’m not about to let human spaceflight go away on my watch. I’m not going to let it flounder because we pursued a path that we couldn’t sustain.”

Early in his remarks, he addressed head-on the concern that last week’s final shuttle flight marks the end of America’s dominance of spaceflight. Naysayers, he said, “must be living on another planet.” While he didn’t dwell on the sense of loss that some NASA employees must be feeling, he did add, “We are not ending human space flight, we are recommitting ourselves to it and taking the necessary — and difficult — steps today to ensure America’s pre-eminence in human space exploration for years to come.”

In his more private leadership role inside NASA, one presumes that Bolden is attuned to the multiple layers of meaning in the shuttle’s last flight, ranging from the literal loss of jobs to the more purely emotional losses of purpose, self-esteem and organizational pride that may come with such a transition. He would do well to tolerate, and even encourage, employees to voice such feelings. No matter how exciting the new plans might be, it’s a crucial step in helping the organization transcend this loss and move on.

Not surprisingly, though, it’s those future plans that have been the primary focus of Bolden’s public speeches: “It is vital that we keep exploring. …So we keep generating new knowledge about our planet and our universe and new solutions to the challenges our planet faces on many levels,” Bolden said. And, like other charismatic leaders, he set this future within the context of NASA’s history–from its founding 50 years ago by the “young President Kennedy” to the re-articulation of its mission now by the “young President Obama”, who has challenged the agency to explore asteroids and, eventually, Mars. His evocation of youth effectively yet subliminally connects the mission of NASA to what’s modern, preparing the next generation of NASA workers, as well as Americans generally, for a new phase in the agency’s development.

None of this, of course, comes easily. We can only assume that what Bolden conveys so effectively in public gets translated with equal conviction and passion when he addresses NASA employees internally. External political pressures to reduce government spending will undoubtedly make it harder for NASA to achieve all of Bolden’s — and Obama’s — lofty goals. And the extensive investigations of two of NASA’s darkest moments, the tragic Challenger and Columbia disasters, have already revealed NASA’s ongoing struggle with internal organizational problems and their impact on decision-making. While NASA hasn’t cornered the market on dysfunctional organizational culture, the stakes are arguably higher (and higher profile); and to the extent that they persist despite being identified in both investigations, these management hurdles won’t just disappear with the end of the shuttle program.

Shuttering an icon represents not only a logistical challenge for an organization but also a profoundly emotional one for its employees. So far, Administrator Bolden seems to be handling the passing of the shuttle era masterfully; to continue to do so, he’ll need to attend to the varied feelings of loss, even while articulating a path for passionate re-engagement with the future.

Kerry J. Sulkowicz, MD, is a clinical professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine and, as managing principal of the Boswell Group LLC, advises CEOs and boards of directors on leadership and organizational culture. (Dave Cross)

Leadership Lessons from the McChrystal Meltdown

Much ink and few tears have been spilled about President Obama’s firing of Army General Stanley McChrystal, following his insubordinate remarks in Rolling Stone. Most political commentators and management experts seem to believe that, while it was a setback for the war effort in Afghanistan, Obama ultimately had no choice and did the right thing. I agree. But what to make of McChrystal’s underlying motivations? And what can we learn, beyond the obvious canard that “it’s a bad idea to trash your boss in public”?

The question “What was he thinking?” is often asked after public figures do something stupid that topples them from grace. But it’s the wrong question. What they’re thinking often has little connection to what they’re feeling, and it’s those subterranean feelings  existing outside of conscious awareness  that motivate so much of human behavior, particularly those actions that on the surface appear irrational. I suspect that if you asked McChrystal what he was thinking, after the obligatory hair-shirt explanations he might say that he thought his comments to the Rolling Stone reporter were off the record. Of course a media-savvy military leader like McChrystal knows that nothing is really “off the record” in public life  although I suspect he might have been much more careful and deliberate with a reporter from the New York Times. But that begs the question: why did he do it?

As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who advises CEOs, boards and investors, I’d like to offer a few speculations on McChrystal, at a distance. Clearly his behavior was self-destructive, as it effectively ended a proud and distinguished military career in one fell swoop. In this case, he may have let his guard down in part because of the reporter’s skill in making him feel comfortable, and in part because he was  deep down  dying to unburden himself of what was weighing on his mind. In this regard, good journalists are like good psychoanalysts.

Military officers sublimate their fundamental aggressiveness in the most socially acceptable of ways: by making a career of it. It’s no wonder then, that they tend to lean Republican, the more militaristic party, and that they are naturally critical or even contemptuous of those who are more cerebral and diplomatic. There must be an inherent tension for McChystal and others warriors working for Obama. At times of great stress  like now, with the disastrous state of the war in Afghanistan  the pressure to express themselves (rather than bottling it up as is politically necessary in the service of one’s country and of one’s own job security) is serious. McChrystal was undoubtedly expressing his true feelings about Obama and the members of his White House staff, but he may also have been expressing his unconscious need to share internal emotional tension that had become unbearable.

Presumably his feelings were already known to his close associates, but that’s preaching to the choir and does little to relieve his inner state of tension. Which leads to the tragedy of the McChrystal affair: that in the hierarchy of government, there was no place for him to safely open up about what it was like to work for a White House he did not respect. In the absence of real communication about that, the emotions have no place to go but underground  until the pressure builds and the opportunity presents itself for those feelings to explode self-destructively. What if McChrystal had had an outlet to discuss his views directly yet privately with Obama? What if some of his opinions about the White House were valid? And what if Obama could have opened McChrystal’s mind to an alternate point of view? Such an avenue, I contend, could have saved a career now in ruins and  even more importantly  led to real progress in Afghanistan

Leadership in the Gulf: What’s Needed Now

The political crisis emerging from the Deepwater Horizon disaster now threatens to eclipse the environmental calamity itself. Between the handling of the situation, our collective response to it, and the leadership challenges to come, there’s a lot here to psychoanalyze. Let’s take a look.

What are the underlying psychological forces at play? Deep down, the massive spill makes us feel profoundly helpless, and there are few human emotions as intolerable as that. While we’re not entirely helpless, of course, the magnitude of the spill  combined with the technological challenges of stanching the flow of oil and cleaning up afterward  feels overwhelming.

The environmental impact is often compared, unfavorably, to the Exxon Valdez incident. Destructive as the Valdez spill was, there was a finite amount of oil contained in the doomed vessel, as opposed to the undersea oil reserve in the Gulf, which feels bottomless. The political right has also characterized the disaster as President Obama’s Katrina. While he and his administration appear to be taking all the appropriate actions, the linkage to Katrina implies that his response was callously inadequate. Calling it a Katrina also suggests that the spill is a natural, as opposed to man-made, disaster. Deepwater Horizon was decidedly not natural, but it is precisely the sense that man has messed with Mother Nature  that we’ve poked a big hole in the Earth  that makes it feel so apocalyptic.

As the investigation into the causes of the disaster and the handling of its aftermath proceed, we will continue to see the predictable human tendency to cast blame. Pointing the finger at Obama is absurd (though not surprising), but exclusive culpability can’t be laid on BP’s hapless CEO Tony Hayward, either. Such scapegoating is natural, even emotionally satisfying at times, but no more valid than trying to pin the blame for the Great Recession on a single authority figure. Creating and then blaming a villain is ultimately a dangerous way of dealing with uncertainty, serving more to bind the anxiety that arises from helplessness rather than trying to accurately understand root causes and assign responsibility.

Only a more holistic, systemic view gets at the complexity of such problems. We need to consider multiple simultaneous causes, which could include: a lack of role clarity or proper authority among senior executives and regulatory officials; rapid chains of action and inaction before and after the blowout; broken lines of communication; cultural factors within the oil industry and in our society at large that permit dangerous policies and decisions to go unchecked; failures of leadership that reinforce maladaptive behaviors; and so on. This has been true of the financial crisis, of Katrina, and of the space shuttle disasters  not to mention the everyday problems of hospital errors, product failures, and other systemic breakdowns.

So what should leaders do in the face of such complexity, and how are ours doing? The best leaders in times of disaster are straight with us, communicating clearly and frequently about the nature of the situation and the efforts to fix it. Obama is doing that part well. But leaders also need to mirror the emotions of the day, without going overboard, and this is where Obama is falling short. His cool, cerebral approach may be reassuring to some (it works for me), but to others he feels distressingly distant and devoid of the nurturing reassurance that so many seem to need, despite the fact that there isn’t much to be reassuring about yet. Exhortations for Obama to show more emotion are futile, though, as the expression of feelings isn’t something that can be turned on and off at will. I suspect he’s one of those leaders who gets even more calm and focused during a crisis, showing even less spontaneous emotion than he might otherwise. We want our leaders to make us believe things are under control, even when they’re not, in the same way that we want our parents to make us feel everything will be all right, even when they’re not so sure.

Obama’s increasingly punitive, angry attitude towards the oil industry is also an understandable but unfortunate response to the public’s demands for heads to roll. It may make us feel better to see such demonstrations of punitive authority, but it doesn’t do much good. Punishment has its role, but it’s rarely the best way to teach a lesson about behavior or change a flawed system. Punishing a kid too much just teaches him to fear and hate his parents, and punishing the oil industry in the middle of this crisis probably complicates its ability to cooperate. There’s plenty of time for punishment after the crisis ends and all the facts are in.

Similarly, while some say that BP’s Hayward should be fired, this strikes me as a terrible idea right now. A leaderless BP, followed by the inevitable transition period before a new CEO could get up to speed and take charge, would be even worse for the bleeding Gulf of Mexico than a team led by Mr. Hayward. A bumbling leader, he apparently was as caught off guard by the disaster as the rest of us, and in the end he may not survive the withering criticism about his repeated gaffes and missteps. But for now, let him try his best to do his job.

Complex problems often require complex thinking and multifaceted solutions. They demand emotionally attuned leaders who can tolerate high degrees of ambiguity and uncertainty. We need that kind of leadership to plug the hole and clean up the mess, especially if we want to learn from the experience and prevent another Deepwater Horizon  or at least respond better next time.

The Most Common Mistake CEOs Make — and How to Fix It

As an advisor to CEOs, I’m often asked what’s the most frequent mistake they make. While there are many  after all, they’re human  I’d say the most common one is not acting quickly enough on “people problems.”

The consequences can be disastrous. Keeping bad apples too long, especially in key roles, breeds all kinds of difficulties including dysfunctional teams, poor morale, and various liability risks. Ultimately, failing to address the problem of an under-performing or misbehaving senior executive undermines the credibility and authority of the CEO, and that sort of damage is hard to repair. In an interview in the the New York Times Magazine, Alan Greenberg, the former Chairman of Bear Stearns, was asked why he didn’t fire James Cayne, his successor as CEO, who famously played bridge and golf during the week the company was going under and reportedly smoked pot in his office. Greenberg’s responses are classic rationalization: Cayne “owned about 5 percent of the company”; “it was hard to complain when things looked so rosy.” Owning 5 percent of nothing turns out not to be such a big deal, and everyone knows that things can look rosy but be rotten underneath.

It’s worth thinking about why CEOs often have so much trouble pulling the trigger. Some of the most decisive, visionary, principled business leaders I know still have trouble with this one issue. Here are a few reasons I’ve encountered, offered not as excuses but as explanations:

  1. The CEO is too far removed from the executive in question and doesn’t quite see the extent of the problem. This can be compounded by a failure of talent management, in which the CEO doesn’t get the full scoop on problem people.
  2. The CEO is too close to the executive in question. Either he or she is blinded by personal feelings of affection or loyalty, or others in the organization believe the executive is “protected” and are afraid to offer critical feedback about the CEO’s friend.
  3. The CEO is aware of the problem, and showers the executive with all kinds of resources like 360 feedback, coaching, leadership development training, reassignment to another role, reading the latest bestseller on leadership, etc., all of which turn out to be exercises in wishful thinking and a big waste of time, because most people really don’t change very much.
  4. The executive is high performing. The CEO makes the calculated decision that the benefits of keeping the person outweigh, or at least justify, the risks. This can be an exercise in self-delusion, because the benefits of the high producer are often eventually overtaken by the harm to the organization  and to the CEO’s reputation.

So what’s to be done? Perhaps most important is the need for CEOs to be more realistic about the malleability of human behavior. Our personalities are largely set by the time we’re adolescents or young adults. It’s not like you can send a problematic executive off for five years of psychoanalysis  which is what it really might take to make a dent in their behavior  and say “Come back and see me when you’re done.” My clinical background often comes in handy when assessing an executive’s capacity for change, and it allows me to tell CEOs that, in some cases, what they see is what they’re gonna get.

CEOs also need to recognize that their own emotions  their guilt about letting someone go, or their desire for financial performance at all costs, or their desire to be liked, or their fear of mustering the courage to be proactive and assertive  are major factors in this common conundrum. But what I also remind my CEO clients is that, as hard as these decisions are, people are usually tremendously relieved after they’ve made them and wish they’d acted sooner.