Helping a Bipolar Leader

Harvard Business Review

I think we all know somebody like John (not his real name), a talented executive I once coached. He had extraordinary drive and charisma. The people reporting to him all agreed that he had provided outstanding leadership in the company’s last crisis; his refusal to bow to adversity and his ability to rally people behind him had been truly remarkable. 

But they also agreed he could go over the top. There were the e-mails sent at 2 AM, and it was sometimes hard to follow exactly what he was saying. He would jump suddenly from one idea to another and some of his plans seemed unrealistic, even grandiose. And whenever anyone tried to slow him down, John wouldn’t hear of it. His sense of invincibility made him feel that he could do anything. Once he had made up his mind, it was almost impossible to change it. His inability to listen coupled with his lack of judgment eventually resulted in his making a number of seriously bad decisions, plunging his unit into the red. The board had considered firing him, but decided to give him another chance and called me in to coach.

I am a psychologist as well as a coach, so I realized that John suffered from a mood disorder called bipolar dysfunction, previously known as manic depression, a condition that haunts approximately 4% of the population. People suffering from this condition report periodically experiencing an overactive mind and often seem to get by on little or no sleep. They often feel a heightening of the senses, which may trigger increased sexual activity, and are highly prone to bouts of extravagant behavior. Their moods swing wildly from this state of exuberance to the polar opposite, and they suddenly can become withdrawn and inert, shunning the company of others. When that’s the case (far from surviving on no sleep), they struggle to get out of bed.

It’s a condition often associated with highly creative people. William Blake, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Von Beethoven, Edgar Allen Poe, Vincent Van Gogh, and Ernest Hemingway all reported going through similar cycles of mania and depression. So do many of our most famous leaders, notably Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and General Patton.

As history shows, manic-depressive leaders like these are great in a crisis, refusing to bow to adversity. They rush in where others feared to tread and can inspire others to follow. The downside is that due to their extreme sense of empowerment, energy and optimism, their thinking and judgment can be flawed. Caught up in their grandiosity, they overestimate their capabilities and try to do more than they can handle. The problems are often aggravated by an inability to recognize that their behavior is dysfunctional. While “high,” they rarely have insight into their condition. They like the sense of invulnerability that comes with the “high,” and are reluctant to give that up.

When the inevitable setbacks and disasters happen, they fall into a tailspin of depression. This had just happened to John, who had gone so far as to check himself into a hospital psychiatric ward for a brief stay. Adding to his woes, his wife asked for a trial separation. Apparently John had been reckless with his personal finances and had been involved in numerous affairs.

Despite the challenges, people like John can be helped and put on a more even keel. When they’re manic, there’s little you can do, but when they are depressed they can be receptive to counseling. The key to getting them to a better place is to help them build more structure in their lives, both personal and professional. In relatively mild cases of bipolar dysfunction, this may be sufficient to stabilize the person in question. In more extreme cases, sufferers will eventually need psychotherapy and medication. But the initial step of building some structure will at least make them more amenable to considering these options.

Counseling bipolar people can be problematic for people without psychological experience because it may involve crossing a few boundaries. As I explain in in my HBR article, to help truly extreme cases I believe in creating alliances with the other important people in their lives. In John’s case, I insisted on having number of conversations with John’s wife, both alone and also with John. While unorthodox, my goal in these conversations was to help John figure out how she saw their futures and whether their futures lay together. We explored various scenarios. By getting some clarity around what future John wanted and whom he wanted in it provided him with some psychological anchors and gave him an incentive to do something about his condition.

Discussing his future, it began to dawn on John (reflecting on his strengths and weaknesses), what his best fit was in the organization. He came to realize that getting involved in too many details of the business created too many distractions. What he really seemed to be good at was cutting big deals with important clients. It became also clearer to John that he needed a work structure that allowed him to focus his energy at work and give him emotional space for his family.

At this stage, John, the board, and I agreed that his job needed to be defined in a way that allowed him to focus on the big deals, leaving the day-to-day work to others. Since John moved into this new role, his 360-degree feedback has improved steadily; while he remains volatile, he seems better able to moderate himself. It also looks like his relationship with his wife has improved. He takes medication regularly and sees a therapist. The company has benefited from its willingness to help John with his condition by retaining his talents and drive. I think many companies are too quick to punish executives for the consequences of their bad decisions. A better approach is to find ways to fix the (often quite manageable) psychological dynamic that so often lies behind those decisions.

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