Why Obama Needs a Shrink in the White House

Last Updated Mar 2, 2010 12:44 PM EST

It's not because he's emotionally troubled. Quite the contrary, Barack Obama appears to be emotionally sturdy and eminently rational. But while our country's CEO is surrounded by lots of people all the time, he has the most isolated, and isolating, job on the planet. And because of the power dynamics inherent in any leader's role, there are many things he can't confide in to anyone on his senior team. Working, and staying connected, in the irreducible vacuum of the White House is one of the greatest perils of the presidency.

The idea of a shrink in the White House isn't crazy. Some of the most high-performing, sophisticated CEOs around the world avail themselves of corporate psychoanalysts, advising them on complex issues ranging from the challenge of managing boards of directors to their efforts to change a maladaptive corporate culture to the effectiveness of their own evolving leadership styles.

Recent news accounts underscore the need for help. A recent front-page article in the New York Times "Gentle White House Nudges Test the Power of Persuasion," described fraying tempers among House and Senate Democrats in the White House Cabinet Room, with Obama playing the role of "marriage counselor." He tried in vain to bring people together by "listening carefully and appealing to reason." While that approach may work in some situations, it is too coldly rational -- as opposed to warmly emotional -- and therefor not nearly enough to get Obama the support he so desperately needs. The combination of Presidential isolation and the value of adding a psychological perspective to his leadership armamentarium is precisely why Obama could benefit from such a sounding board. Who would deny that he could use some help navigating the irrationality of presidential politics, developing psychological strategies to influence key legislators, and managing a brilliant but strong team of personalities in the White House? Weaker leaders, including those who are less intelligent and less psychologically minded, would be less likely to benefit from such outside counsel.

Another recent Times piece made the need even clearer: "Missing Element in Obama's Ties With G.O.P. Leaders: Good Chemistry." According to the the article, Edward Kennedy used to say that "good chemisty is essential to good politics," but Times reporter Mark Leibovich notes that Obama and and Republican leaders on Capitol Hill appear to have no personal chemistry whatsoever. His cerebral, intellectual approach is at odds with the more emotional, earthy appeals of most Republicans.

I can imagine having periodic, confidential conversations with Obama in which he develops more emotionally nuanced -- and therefore more forceful -- psychological approaches to persuading legislators in both parties. He'd also gain a greater depth of understanding of the way his leadership is perceived and experienced by his multiple constituencies. Whether you like him or not, our country needs him to succeed, and if he's as open-minded as he appears to be, he should accept all the reasonable help he can get, including from a corporate psychoanalyst.

  • Kerry Sulkowicz

    Kerry Sulkowicz, M.D., a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, advises CEOs, boards, and investors on psychological aspects of leadership in complex organizations. He helps companies with CEO succession, boardroom and senior team dynamics, human capital due diligence for investors, high-stakes hiring assessments, and the psychology of negotiation strategy. Kerry also advises large family-owned enterprises in the US and abroad. He is the founder and managing principal of the Boswell Group LLC, a consulting firm based in New York, and he has written columns on the psychology of business for BusinessWeek and Fast Company magazine. He is on the Faculty of the Psychoanalytic Institute at NYU Medical Center and is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.