Leading From Psychological Brokenness
Healthy Leaders Can Be Eccentric
“Clinical language inherently tends to mark in the sick role or mark in the medical model, which is why I think it’s good to avoid until it becomes necessary.” —Warren Kinghorn, M.D.
“I’m a little OCD,” the event planner says as she adjusts the floral centerpiece one last time. “I’m ADD,” the entrepreneur jokes in way of apology for his overabundance of ideas and energy. Rarely though, does a leader say, “I’m depressed,” or “I’m a narcissist” to describe his or her fundamental personality.
What’s going on here?
Some psychological pathologies, like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, reinforce American cultural values of multi-tasking and busyness, says Warren Kinghorn, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry and pastoral and moral theology at Duke Divinity School in Durham, North Carolina. Others, like Major Depressive Disorder and Narcissistic Personality Disorder do not.
The High Calling talked to four experts about how psychological pathologies impact leaders and their organizations. In a series of four articles, we’ll examine the topic. First, let’s explore what we mean by psychological pathology.
When someone is diagnosed with a mental illness, the diagnosis itself implies a debilitating condition, said Kinghorn. Despite significant differences among diagnosis, “all mental illnesses arise at the interface of disposition and context,” he said. The severity of even clearly biological conditions like Alzheimer’s-type Dementia can be affected by social context. "The distress and disability that we call 'mental disorder' always arises at the interface of disposition and context," Kinghorn said. "So, in the case of any particular disorder, the question becomes: is the disorder in the context, or in the biological disposition, or both?"
Healthy Leaders Avoid Extremes
“Every one of us has tendencies that if you took those tendencies out to the extreme, they probably would be manifested in some type of mental illness.”—Dan Blazer M.D
“Any serious psychological problems that an individual has, on balance, are not going to be beneficial to a business,” said Dan Blazer M.D., vice chair of faculty at Duke University School of Medicine’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences. “There are traits that are less severe in some individuals that a clinician could identify … but the individuals actually end up being good leaders.”
The danger is that psychological traits can spiral out of control and lead to problems. For example, a leader with Bipolar II Disorder may bring a lot of creativity to an organization when the condition is well-managed. Chaos can ensue when it is not.
“It can be helpful to recognize that every one of us has tendencies that if you took those tendencies out to the extreme, they probably would be manifested in some type of mental illness,” said Blazer.
He asks questions of a patient to tease out what is pathological and what is not. How well are you functioning at home and at work? What is it like for you when you’re interacting with your neighbors and your friends? What’s it like for you at church?
“Getting that kind of information, sometimes you find that individuals who are really struggling against tendencies that maybe border on more severe psychiatric problems in fact are functioning very well. What we don’t want to do as clinicians and as a society is to pathologize them.”
Nevertheless therapy can help these leaders.
“People bring all kinds of diverse dispositions, abilities and gifts, temperaments into various kinds of interactions,” added Kinghorn. “It’s better generally when we don’t use clinical language, because clinical language inherently tends to mark in the sick role or mark in the medical model, which is why I think it’s good to avoid until it becomes necessary.”
Leaders Are More Than Labels
“We’ve too often turned what earlier generations would have just called eccentricity into a pathology... We need to be careful with labels and the ways in which we toss them around.”—L. Gregory Jones, Ph.D.
“I think we over-diagnose today. … We’ve too often turned what earlier generations would have just called eccentricity into a pathology,” said L. Gregory Jones, strategic director for the Laity Lodge Leadership Initiative and professor of theology at Duke Divinity School. “We need to be careful with labels and the ways in which we toss them around that sometimes lead to negative judgments. … We have ways we label and identify people that are counter-productive.”
Ironically, over-diagnosis has made it more difficult for the complexity of people’s gifts to be appreciated, Jones said. This is partly due to organizational concerns about having to make accommodations mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The capacity to enter into other people’s experience is a key determinant in whether or not someone with a particular tendency can succeed as a leader, Jones said. “We have to shift our conception of what a good leader is away from the kind of charismatic, telegenic person to a much richer and deeper conception that would be, in Christian terms, associated with a cruciform life and the ability to acknowledge suffering’s role in faithful living and leadership.”
Organizations tend not to ask important questions that can guide a more thoughtful evaluation of a person's potential, said Jones. “What you want is to be assessing someone’s emotional intelligence and social intelligence at the hiring point, which is one of the places where we tend not to look at it. ..We tend to look to see if somebody is charismatic and exciting and engaging. And so, we end up with a lot of buyer’s remorse because we idealize what looks like a great shop window purchase and fail to note that the person has these pathologies in problematic ways.”
All Leaders Need Rest
“Leaders can get into real difficulties when the balances for renewal are not there. They’re constantly putting out energy without getting time to rest.” —Allan Josephson, M.D.
Because true psychological pathologies are inherently problematic, the only benefit Allan Josephson, M.D., director of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry Services at The University of Louisville, Kentucky, sees in them is the opportunity they create for increased self-awareness and better insight into one’s own strengths and weaknesses. “Problems do mobilize that. All good leaders learn from their mistakes and they learn from the mistakes of others,” said Josephson.
It’s important for leaders to pay attention to their psychological and physical symptoms, Josephson said. “Leaders can get into real difficulties when the balances for renewal are not there. They’re constantly putting out energy without getting time to rest. They’re constantly out front without getting time for reflection. They’re involved in day-to-day things without having transcendent spiritual moments,” he said. They often push their organizations at an unsustainable pace and don’t leave any space for margin, because they are “trying to prove something, trying to be something, and are not at peace with themselves.”
Leaders can also get into trouble when they don’t understand how interdependent the parts of a system are. When one person is not healthy, others in the system often get overloaded with responsibilities. “A good leader has to have a systemic perspective and if they don’t, that’s a drawback,” said Josephson. “The Christian message is countercultural, because Jesus says if you lose your life for my sake, you’ll find it. ...For a Christian leader to be in this culture, he has to be willing to say no to certain things and not worry that someone else might 'get there' first.”