But in fact, one of the most defining aspects of leadership is how inherently isolating it can be for people in power. Few colleagues will speak with them with true candor. They can’t always be completely honest with those who work for them, either. And showing they’re vulnerable might help them explore their weaknesses that need improving, but it could also potentially undermine their position of authority.
That’s why many top leaders find themselves turning to their spouses for unfiltered advice. As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who advises CEOs and boards of directors around the world, I’ve found that more of my clients turn to their wives or husbands about critical decisions in their job than one might think. And if they don’t open up to the person they share their bed with, they’ve typically found someone to whom they can confide their secrets — whether it’s a former mentor, a close friend or a trusted adviser instead. (Ahem.)
The isolation that leadership creates couldn’t be truer than in the case of the presidency, which may very well be the loneliest job in the world. For Barack Obama, having a strong, supportive relationship with his wife, Michelle, is essential. Sure, he has his inner circle, but the first lady may be the only one who doesn’t ever have to call him Mr. President. Presumably (one hopes, for the sake of their marriage) she sees him at his most unguarded, listening not only to his innermost thoughts but to his innermost fears.
Leaders need candid sounding boards — whoever they may be — for several reasons, not least of which is to counter the unavoidable, and at times painful, feelings of insulation. But it’s also important because of the emotional dangers of that isolation, which can create a self-reinforcing cycle of believing in one’s own perceptions without the ability to test them against some external voice of reality. Power makes this even worse because it inhibits the upward flow of candid feedback, and instead invites varying degrees of, well, derriere kissing.
The most perilous outcome — to which far too many leaders succumb under such hermetically sealed conditions — is what I call “pathological certainty,” that state in which one believes in the absolute rightness and infallibility of one’s ideas and decisions. George W. Bush’s complete self-confidence and his apparent disinterest in the lessons of history both may have been manifestations of this problem. While it has been said that Laura Bush was a maternal presence for the president throughout their marriage, with her rather rigid moralism tempering his habits, she apparently steered clear of being a sounding board on his work. The arrogance and hubris of some leaders, which are expressions of an underlying narcissism, can go unchecked in the absence of a confidant or spouse who is able to speak truth to power.