Finding the ‘Right’ Leader

Traditional psychiatry classifies people’s different troubling behaviours under ‘personality disorders’ – especially those that don’t have specific symptoms like depression, anxiety, delusions, paranoia, hallucinations and substance addictions. According to these psychiatric classifications there are eleven personality disorders. What appears to be alarming is the research finding that three of these so called personality disorders are more common in managers than in criminals! The research was carried out by Belinda Board and Katrina Fritzon of Surrey University. The three psychiatric conditions identified were:

  • Compulsive Personality Disorder (perfectionism, excessive devotion to work, rigidity, stubbornness and dictatorial tendencies)
  • Histrionic Personality Disorder (superficial charm, insincerity, egocentricity and manipulativeness)
  • Narcissistic Personality Disorder (grandiosity, lack of empathy, exploitativeness and pseudo-independence

The problem with these classifications is that they offer no explanation why these managers would have developed these ways of behaving and, they certainly do not appreciate the creativity of such responses. All the evidence points to childhood neglect being the source of what are termed personality disorders. If this is the case – and I believe it to be – it is irresponsible to use the label of ‘disorder.’ It is more accurate to see that what was in ‘disorder’ were the traumatic circumstances of these children’s lives. Surely, the more mature response is to see that when individuals (for example, managers, criminals, psychiatric patients) have endured childhood neglect they cleverly and creatively developed many ways of attempting to reduce the threats they were enduring from the most significant people in their lives – parents, grandparents and teachers. For example, for many high achievers, the pursuit of success and status is a compensation for feelings of worthlessness and despair arising from early adversity. Rather than this being a personality disorder, a psychiatric condition, it is more accurate to view it as a way of surviving in a loveless world and gaining substitute recognition through success and status. This wonderful defence is created by the child at an unconscious level and persists into adolescence and into adulthood. However, when adult, opportunities for consciousness of this strategy will emerge so that the person can find the regard for himself that he didn’t get as a child and thereby free himself of the dependence on success and status. When managers don’t come into consciousness of their defensive strategies – such as heartlessness, perfectionism, narcissism, manipulativeness, insensitivity, exploitativeness, passivity, status dependence, dedication to work, dominance, rigidity – then not only is their own mature progress stuck but their defensiveness poses considerable threat to the wellbeing of individual employees and to organisational efficiency and effectiveness.

There is a defensive illusion among heads of political, economic, social and religious organisations in our typically Western-oriented, product-oriented and success-oriented culture that once you have the ‘right’ method or system, it doesn’t matter which individual you have implementing it. Such a view stands in marked contrast to what I believe is a far wiser approach to leadership and management and is encapsulated in an old Chinese saying ‘If the wrong man uses the right means, the right means work in the wrong way.’ The recent collapse of our ‘tiger’ economy and the huge falling away of people from Catholicism bear witness to this truth. It is not a system that perpetuates neglect, it is individuals. It follows from this that everything depends on the individual and little or nothing on the system or method. It is the way the individual acts that is the true expression of his nature. However, when a person’s true nature is hidden behind unconscious defences, then the method or system is rootless, heartless and becomes part of the defensive world of the individual.

Perhaps the emphasis on method and system and the lack of stress on each person’s relatedness to his innermost needs and commitments is one of the most serious challenges facing us, most especially for those of us who occupy leadership and managerial positions. This challenge can only be effectively taken on by face-to-face training that creates the emotional and intellectual safety for participants to know their inner core and be able to identify and resolve their defensive responses that, whilst serving a protective function for themselves, pose threats to the mature progress of themselves, others and organisations. There is an urgency for this training to be taken up by leaders and managers.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Clinical Psychologist/Author, National and International Speaker. His books, The Mature Manager and Relationship, Relationship, Relationship, The Heart of a Mature Society are relevant to today’s topic.