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Leaders on the Couch

Some people who run companies suffer from dysfunctional behavior. They could benefit from some professional intervention.

June 08, 1998|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

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."

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