Leaders on the Couch


The 1980s were the era of the corporate quick fix. Management gurus churned out bestsellers promising peak performance and unlimited profits. Chief executives attended pricey seminars in Tahiti to awaken their internal giants. Ivy League MBAs stormed boardrooms and accounting departments to offer Einsteinian strategies for fiscal excellence.

Alas, true fixes proved hard to come by. Many one-minute managers found themselves jobless after “leaner and meaner” corporate downsizing. Some awakened giants lost their beanstalks to aggressive Jacks who led hostile takeovers.

One reason for corporate America’s continued troubles, posited France-based management consultant Manfred Kets de Vries, was that, just as in private life, corporate leaders were affected by “invisible, long-standing psychological forces” that, in some cases, prompted them to adopt inflexible, defeating behaviors. And, Kets de Vries further surmised after studying corporate cultures throughout the world, in time the leaders’ dysfunctional behavioral style would permeate their organizations.

To illustrate this, Kets de Vries outlined five “neurotic organizational styles” modeled upon actual psychopathological personality styles.


* The dramatic leader. His employees may call him “tyrant-in-chief.” He’s a whirlwind of narcissistic activity. His office is filled with trophies, awards and framed photographs of famous friends. The dramatic leader believes himself a Very Important Person, so is happiest surrounded by sycophants. Unfortunately, however, he has little empathy for his personnel. Frequently, he exploits them.

He’s hyperactive, impulsive, boastful, disorganized and dangerously uninhibited. He’ll make important business decisions based on “hunches” and capriciously fire employees, cancel contracts and shelve projects. In his worst moments, he’ll take foolish risks that inevitably harm his business. He may over-diversify, amass mountains of long-term debt, engage in unwise leveraged buyouts and wage pricey but useless advertising campaigns.

Some flashy start-up companies that have increased exponentially in size, but still operate by their pants-seats, are run by charismatic dramatic leaders. Unless a dramatic leader seeks professional intervention to help him gain insight into his defeating behaviors, he’ll keep squandering corporate resources and alienating his work force.

* The paranoid leader. This leader perpetuates a reign of terror. She regards competitors and employees with deep suspicion and distrust. Her office is a bunker lined with overflowing cabinets of dossiers, personnel reports and confidential memorandums. The paranoid leader is quick to assign blame, even when she is at fault. She’s hypersensitive, controlling and always on the defensive. This is because she fears that others will ridicule, subvert or steal from her. To remain apprised of her subordinates’ and competitors’ activities, she creates elaborate “intelligence networks” and encourages co-workers to report one another’s indiscretions.


Because the paranoid leader is obsessed with defending against potential harm, she is reactive and inflexible. Eventually, her fears become institutionalized. Workers’ productivity founders as rumors of takeovers, downsizing and devastating pending financial losses circulate. Employees become insecure, suspicious and prone to scapegoating, just like their fearful leader.

“Seriously paranoid leaders would rather sink the corporate ship than risk the real or imagined humiliation they fear would occur if they had to surrender control,” says San Francisco-based psychiatrist Mark Levy.

Only if the paranoid leader is able to seek help in developing a more trusting, open perspective can she reverse her damaging course.

* The compulsive leader. He is the Felix Unger of chief executives. His meticulous office is filled with rule books, policy manuals and triplicate copies of every document he’s ever touched. The compulsive leader is the consummate micro-manager--a rigid perfectionist, preoccupied with trivial details, regulations and procedures. He is determined to control every action of his employees because, in his opinion, no one is as competent as he. However, since he is tightly focused on daily details, he loses sight of his company’s mission. This leader shares the views of former ITT President Harold Geneen, who once said, “If I had enough arms and legs and time, I would do it all myself.”


The compulsive leader’s organization is tightly hierarchical. He demands that his employees comply to his commands with puppet-like obedience. Nonetheless, they passive-aggressively rebel, for they resent his suffocating presence.

“Sometimes [compulsive leaders] literally drive themselves into serious physical illness or death,” says Levy, who suggests that such persons consider psychological treatment “to gradually learn what in their early life experience made it so important for them to always be in control.”

“Armed with this knowledge, they can make steady and significant but slow strides toward learning to let go a bit.”

* The depressed leader. This anachronistic leader’s corporation could be called “The Company That Time Forgot.” It is mired in mediocrity and drowned by layers of bureaucracy. Sales have declined and profits are marginal. Innovation is habitually steamrollered. Employees shuffle about like specters from “Night of the Living Dead.” At the depressed leader’s company, R&D; stands for “regrets and disappointment.”


The depressed leader is a passive figurehead who dwells on long-ago successes. Her office is comically outdated, filled with ‘70s furnishings, decades-old awards and baby photographs of her now-20-year-old children. This leader is apathetic, pessimistic, indecisive and forgetful. She has lost touch with her marketplace and employees. She feels overwhelmed by her job and no longer cares about her customers’ needs. In some cases, she may long for a “messiah"--perhaps a consultant, banker or buyer--to rescue her from eternal stagnation.

Depressed leaders tend to preside over established firms in mature markets. These companies’ lackluster performance and depressed share prices make them prime takeover candidates--sometimes attractive prey for dramatic leaders’ firms. In many cases, says Dr. Len Sperry, author of “Psychiatric Consultations in the Workplace,” only “fresh blood” (a new management team) can enliven such a deeply disturbed corporate culture. “It would start shifting and within three years would be very different. Even within six months, you’d see some changes.”

* The schizoid leader. This executive is a ghost. He practices “isolationist management.” His office might as well be a cave whose entrance bears a “Keep Out” sign emblazoned with skull and crossbones. Because he finds interpersonal contact painful, he’ll oftentimes appoint an assistant to field calls and attend meetings. He’s cold, unemotional, distant and prone to daydreaming reveries.

Because the schizoid leader neglects his corporation’s daily affairs, his second-tier managers are forced to problem-solve in his absence. This leads to power struggles, confusion, conflicting policies and serious infighting.


The schizoid leader must learn to form trustworthy relationships if he is to lead his company back to health. If he is unwilling or unable to do this, he must consider promoting a second-tier executive to a position of authority.

According to Sperry, cultivating productive change in any of these troubled leaders’ companies can be difficult.

“These cultures are fairly impermeable to change mainly because they reflect the personality and style of top management,” he says. “If the leader doesn’t make some internal changes, then the culture doesn’t change.”

Sometimes, Sperry adds, such corporations can evolve only through influx of new personnel, education programs and incentives.


Both Sperry and Levy recommend that troubled leaders consider consulting industrial psychiatrists who can take their corporations’ “emotional temperature” to determine whether they are indeed stricken with “executive neurosis.” If so, the leaders must relearn what Kets de Vries calls the four Hs: hope, humanity, humility and humor. They must also learn to demonstrate competence, keep their word, and allow a sense of play in their organization.

But resorting to quick fixes won’t solve anything, says Sperry, if “irrational [unconscious] forces” are at work.

“Taking the rational approach can be useful,” he says, “but in many cases it’s not sufficient, particularly if the organization’s tried rational focuses before but no changes occurred.”

The only way for corporate leaders to awaken their inner giant, it seems, may be to expose it to the glaring light of self-introspection.