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Why Leaders Need a Good Shrink, Not a Coach

Leaders Need a Shrink Not a CoachThe dirty little secret of executive coaching is that dysfunctional leaders don't need a coach. What they need is a good shrink ... and psychotherapy. The current obsession over "bad bosses" among leadership gurus and academics reminds me of America's problem with obesity. We have more diets, pills, cures, self-help books, and gym memberships than ever, but nobody's getting any thinner.

I recently pondered why 10 wealthy and powerful CEOs of prominent public companies risked everything by committing big-time corporate fraud and, ultimately, ended up in prison? The answer was two words: personality disorder:

"Delusional, narcissistic psychopaths, call them what you want, it sounds like a no-brainer to me. I mean, most of these folks maintained their innocence to the end. That implies compartmentalization so they didn't actually feel empathy for those affected by their actions. Denial is a powerful thing. Sure sounds like a behavioral disorder to me."
But not everybody sees it that way.

In Why Powerful Men Let Lust Ruin Their Careers, noted author and Stanford professor, Bob Sutton, called the problem "penis poisoning" and offered three steps for leaders to take to " ... reduce the incidence and severity of such impulsive and often destructive behavior." Sutton went on to cite two of his books, "Because penis poisoning is a particular subset of this malady, many of the lessons in those books can be applied to this challenge."

Sutton goes on to provide a list of great men who self-destructed. I cited some of the same folks - Eliot Spitzer, John Edwards, and Tiger Woods - eight months ago in Do Male Leaders Have Boundary Issues? Not to mention the Galleon insider trading scandal where top executives from IBM, AMD, and Intel were caught leaking material inside information to a woman who worked at a hedge fund. As I said there:

"-- the media calls it scandal, the lawyers call it fraud, but shrinks know it's all about narcissistic behavior and boundary issues."
Furthermore, I recently drew a parallel between the stages of human development and management development in Are You a Dysfunctional Manager? The theory being that many leaders get stuck in one stage or another, much like dysfunctional people:
"[They] look just like ordinary adults, but actually behave a lot more like children, acting out, throwing tantrums, and generally making life miserable for everyone around us."
In case you've ever wondered what percentage of managers might be dysfunctional, about one in four adult Americans "suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder," according to the National Institute of Mental Health. One reader, hurrellclarke, commented, "My initial reaction is that the 25% with a mental disorder have a much higher representation further down the hierarchy and among the unemployed." Well, based on observation, I'm not so sure the opposite isn't true.

Bottom Line: When it comes to seemingly complex issues, I always look to Occams Razor, which essentially says that the simplest solution is usually the right one. Said another way, "If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck."

At the risk of oversimplifying, men are men. For whatever reason, some lust for power. It's pretty fundamental human, perhaps even animal, behavior. I'm sure it has something to do with survival and I'm also sure any decent shrink can explain it.

So what's the solution to the problem? Psychotherapy. The rub is that leaders have to recognize the problem, want to change, and pick up the phone. And that's not likely to happen until after they get caught doing something bad. That's just the way it is.

Image CC 2.0 Flickr user HardLeers