This piece is part of an On Leadership round table exploring the role of first lady.
With their armies of advisers and their entourages of consultants, it’s easy to believe most top leaders would have more than their share of confidants. Anyone will make time for them. They have access to experts on any number of topics.
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.
Not surprisingly, leaders who are emotionally unstable to begin with fare even worse. When the emperor has no clothes and he is allowed to remain naked for extended periods of time, he begins to lose touch with reality and, eventually, paranoia can take hold. From a distance, it appears that dictators such as Hugo Chavez and the late Kim Jong Il have lived in paranoid fear of the outside world. Their fears lead them to exert cruel control over their domains, and, eventually, their enemies become real rather than mainly imagined.
Could a strong and loving spouse prevent this kind of extreme downward spiral? It’s unlikely, especially since it’s rare for emotionally troubled leaders to have truly intimate relationships in the first place. By the time things get to the point of a paranoid dictatorship, it’s far too late for anyone to make much of a dent.
Of course, spouses of leaders can have blind spots too, as their love, protectiveness and closeness to the boss obscures their ability to perceive trouble and deliver much-needed feedback. Michelle Obama, for instance, apparently shares the president’s disdain for the congressional glad-handing and schmoozing that come with the territory. This has contributed to, or at least reinforced, the aloofness and seeming emotional disengagement that detracts from his effectiveness as a leader.
No matter how good or bad a sounding board a spouse might be, a leader who is married but doesn’t have a supportive spouse can face the most trouble. Not only is he lonely at work—and I use that pronoun only because most of my CEO clients are in fact male—but lonely at home, too. That makes him more likely to reach out to others who may not have his best interests at heart, and who can exert undo and often exploitative influence.
In the end, it’s the personality of the leader as well as the nature of the relationship that determines whether the confidant serves a productive sounding board role, or whether the confidant simply reinforces the leader’s distorted perceptions and maladaptive behaviors.
Kerry Sulkowicz is managing principal of the consulting firm the Boswell Group, and a clinical professor of psychiatry at NYU School of Medicine.
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