US President’s Father-Hunger

Cites consultant Kerry J. Sulkowicz
Featured on Financial Times

Sir, I agree with your editorial “Palace intrigue on Pennsylvania Ave” (March 11), which assigns responsibility to Barack Obama for the internal feuds at the White House. As a corporate psychoanalyst who advises chief executives and political leaders, may I offer him my advice?

The dysfunction among his senior team was not inevitable, despite the president having assembled his own version of a “team of rivals”. Such squabbles arise in a well-known phenomenon of organizational dynamics called group regression, in which a perceived leadership vacuum causes a team to retreat to less adaptive modes of functioning, turning against one another and pointing fingers internally rather than focusing on the true adversaries, namely the economy, the wars, the Republicans, the entrenched obstacles in American culture, and so on.

What can President Obama do to reverse this situation? It is not simply a matter of being tougher, nor would it be enough to just demand that his advisers stop fighting. Neither approach would address his team’s –and his country’s – underlying feeling of being “fatherless”. His own actual father-hunger probably makes it hard for him to evolve into a warmer, more benevolent paternalistic role. But if he can unlock his own emotional development and progress from being the brilliant son to the wise man with gravitas that we need, the entire world might be better for it.

Kerry Sulkowicz,
Professor of Psychiatry,
New York University School of Medicine,
New York, NY, US