Should psychological testing be required for Presidential candidates? While not a new question, it is top of mind for many citizens, politicians and mental health professionals due to the seemingly irrational and unpredictable behavior of President Trump. They are worried and, in some cases, feel complicit because they saw signs of serious character deficits and personality flaws during the Presidential campaign. These early red flags are now playing out in real time and people are asking, “What could we have done to prevent this?”
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In July, a prominent psychiatric group broke ranks with a long-standing rule about openly commenting on a public figure’s mental health. This rule was first established after a group of psychiatrists responded to a 1964 survey on Sen. Barry Goldwater’s mental fitness for the office of the Presidency. The “Goldwater rule” was subsequently established in an effort to protect public figures from being professionally labeled with a mental disorder without their consent or the benefit of an examination. Since the ‘60s, the psychiatric community has largely complied and refrained from comment.
These past few months, however, have seen a reversal, with psychiatrists and other professionals calling forth their “duty to warn” and their right to free speech. The Oval Office is now not only fair game, they assert; it demands their professional perspective. No longer will trained professionals be quieted by the “Goldwater rule.”
Terms normally used in clinical settings are now part of our political discourse. Narcissistic disorders. Character deficits. Poor impulse control. Fits of rage. Lack of empathy.
As a psychologist and executive leadership coach, I’ve long seen these personality and character flaws played out in business settings. Driven CEOs rise and succeed—in the short term—by force of will. I exist to help ensure their long-term success by focusing them inward and unlocking their emotional intelligence. In twenty plus years of coaching CEOs across the nation, I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a leadership gene. Leading—whether in business, politics, or the military—can be learned. Periodically for The Citizen, I’ll use my experience to shed light on what leadership is—and offer advice for those seeking to excel at it.
Recently, I met with a top executive; let’s call him Tom. He is leading a large team in a Fortune 100 utility company. Tom’s resume is one of the most impressive I’ve seen in years. He came across to me and has been described by others as brilliant, diligent, arrogant, cold, excitable, inaccessible, and impatient—with low emotional intelligence. He describes himself as a loner, one who has never fit in, but has always delivered results. He has many years of top tier service behind him, but always as a sole contributor or subject matter expert. This is actually his first corporate job. Hundreds of people now report to him.
Terms normally used in clinical settings are now part of our political discourse. Narcissistic disorders. Character deficits. Poor impulse control. Fits of rage. Lack of empathy. As a psychologist and executive leadership coach, I’ve long seen these personality and character flaws played out in business settings.
He reached out to me because he’d gotten feedback that his team was scared of him and he wants me to help him deliver tough messages without people “taking it personally.”
“I had no idea people were so afraid of me,” Tom tells me. “I mean, I know I’m tough because I demand excellence. When people don’t perform, I get rid of them quickly. I hate it when people waste my time and I’m usually 10 steps ahead of them before they begin walking me through a plan. I don’t have the patience for people who aren’t as smart as I am. My blood boils and I blow up, but once I’m over it, I’m over it.”
After listening carefully, I point out to Tom that it sounds like “Everything is about you–I this…I that…I this…I that…” He is startled, then reflects for a moment or two and quietly says, “I didn’t realize that.”
This moment provides me with a framework for the best way to coach Tom. He is able to hear feedback and willing to self-reflect. He is serious about personal and professional growth. But it’s also apparent that Tom is still thinking like a sole contributor/subject matter expert whose team is slowing him down, with little appreciation for their needs and how to get the best out of them. While Tom does not like being feared, he has very little genuine interest in or feeling for the people he is leading.
To help Tom begin making meaningful connections with his team, it is important to first elicit emotion and then to connect that emotion to others. How better to do that than to ask him about himself? I redirect the conversation and ask about Tom’s personal history; how and where he grew up, important life events, turning points that he feels shaped who he is today. He immediately mentions that he had grown up “dirt poor” with no running water and no adult guidance. His parents were neglectful; he quite literally raised himself. His father was unmotivated, while his mother was distant, driven, and spent considerable time investing in continuing education for herself. As soon as he was able to “get out,” he did. He has little connection to his family of origin today, including his one younger sister, although he indicates that he will be covering the expenses for his sister’s children to attend college one day. He values education and hard work and, in this way, is like his mother.
As Tom describes his background, I frequently check in to ask how it felt to grow up in this manner and experience his parents as uninvolved and disinterested. The reason for my probing is twofold: 1) I want to understand what themes he is replaying—and perhaps trying to repair—in his life today and, 2) I want him to search for and find comfort with vocabulary that describes a variety of feeling states.
Driven CEOs rise and succeed—in the short term—by force of will. I exist to help ensure their long-term success by focusing them inward and unlocking their emotional intelligence. In twenty plus years of coaching CEOs across the nation, I’ve learned that there is no such thing as a leadership gene. Leading can be learned.
Tom struggles mightily with “feeling words” but is able to connect to the idea of replaying themes. He describes his impatience and frustration with his own teenage children, first by repeating multiple times that they’re simply “a pain in the ass.” With some gentle insistence that he be specific, he walks through a number of examples that speak to a common theme. Each story highlights his disappointment that, as he sees it, they don’t appreciate their good fortune in life. The opportunities they have had handed to them, he had to make happen for himself. We then work on how he could better frame and articulate his values and goals for his children. We work on specific language he can use to help them appreciate the importance of gratitude. Tom is practical and he comes to understand that saying “I’d like to tell you why this is so important to me and then let’s discuss it” accomplishes more than harsh judgment or even wrath.
We then turn back to the workplace and people’s fear of him in that setting. Just as with his children, had he ever provided his team with an overarching framework of how he views their function? Has he laid out a vision which connects and unifies the value of working together? Had he ever explained his own behavioral reactions by indicating how strongly he values excellence and preparation, and why these are so important to their mission? No. Meetings, like Tom, are disconnected from an overarching, discernable framework. Success is tied only to the outcomes he has in his mind.
At one point in the discussion, Tom says, “It’s important that my team always be a little uncomfortable. I don’t want them to get complacent.” When I ask how making people uncomfortable supported their work mission, he stopped and said, “Hmmm. Maybe it’s just an excuse for my keeping people at a distance.”
I give him several assignments in preparation for our next meeting. First, he agrees to sit down with his immediate team the following day and take a step back. He will take the time to talk about his view of their function, get their input, and begin identifying the behaviors that support their collective view. The second assignment is to have a quiet talk with an associate he highly respects who, in his words, “used to tease (him) about having no emotional intelligence.” His assignment is to ask her to describe the specific behaviors that she observes. “I never even thought to ask that,” he says.
After sitting down with his immediate team, Tom reports to me that the group tone feels “lighter, overall.” He indicates that behaving in a collaborative manner led one team member to ask, “Hey Tom, did something special just happen in your life that we don’t know about?” Trying this approach has not only given hope to his team; it has affected him as well. He indicates that he has begun to put considerable effort into ‘’calling out’’ and rewarding positive actions.
After just a few conversations, I feel encouraged that Tom will benefit from this work. In spite of the shortcomings that challenge his leadership abilities, I see his resolve to better understand what holds him back and his active commitment to learning.
Is this also a possibility for our President, who has been reported to give assignments with little coordination, has team members scared of him, regularly replaces people and is arrogant, excitable and disconnected? Does Trump also struggle with feeling words? Has he ever explained his own behavioral reactions by indicating how strongly he values excellence and preparation, and why these are so important to their mission? Does loyalty trump competence?
Is Trump an effective leader? We could continue to draw parallels between Tom and Trump, but one key and crucial difference distinguishes them from one another—an appetite for personal growth and recognizing the importance of the human factors that make or break successful leadership.
Leslie Mayer, Ph.D. is President and CEO of the Mayer Leadership Group, located in the Philadelphia area. She coaches CEOs and top executives nationwide.Header photo: Pixabay