The Psychology of Leadership: Personality Disorders and Failed Leadership

First let me say skills based approaches to leadership, and our focus on psychopathology or overt moral misconduct, are all essential to the life of the Church. Identifying the necessary skills for a parish priest and removing from office (either temporarily or permanently) incompetent, mentally ill or moral corrupt clergy are all perfectly appropriate and necessary. But we error if we imagine that this is a sufficient basis for selecting and fostering effective clergy and lay leadership.

Second, as I pointed in my previous post on the matter, besides the inherent limited and limiting nature of these standards, they fail to take into account the primacy of character in those who would lead the Church. While not without its own challenges, an objective, dispassionate consideration of the character of those who would hold leadership roles in the Church is by far more important than a simple consideration of their skills or the presence or absence of mental illness or moral misconduct. The presence of a short list of specific skills, the absence of psychopathology, or the lack of gross moral failings does not make someone an effective leader.

Without going into a technical discussion, Hogan and Kaiser’s emphasis on personality disorders I think offers the Church a helpful first step in the discernment of who should and shouldn’t have a leadership role in the Church. The reason I say this is because, while not “forms of mental illness,” personality disorders “they are dysfunctional interpersonal dispositions that (a) coexist with talent, ambition, and good social skills and (b) prevent people from completing the essential task of leadership: building a team.” (p. 176) To help us understand the implications of a personality based approach to evaluating an individual’s leadership potential, let’s look at Hogan and Kaiser’s contention that all of us have a bright side and a dark side to our personality.

The “bright side concerns the initial impression we make on others—it reflects our social performance when we are at our best—for example, in a job interview or on a first date.” On the hand, the dark side of our personality “reflects the impression we make on others when we let our guard down or when we are at our worst, such as when we are stressed, ill, or intoxicated.” Or, as they say in summary, the “bright side concerns the person you meet in an interview; the dark side concerns the person who actually comes to work.” (p. 171)

What is most important, however, is not simply the fact of the bright and dark sides of my personality, but how these two sides interact and relate to each other. The dark side “tendencies typically coexist with well-developed social skills that mask or compensate for them [i.e., the dark side of my personality] in the short run. Over time, however, dark side tendencies erode trust and undermine relationships.” Let’s stop and reflect on this for a second.

The argument being made is that my positive qualities, the aspects of my character that others find attractive in me, are real—but in addition to the value they have in themselves, I also use them to (again as Hogan and Kaiser put the matter “mask or compensate” for those aspects of my character that are more likely push others away or cause them to think (legitimately or not) ill of me. To use more behaviorally oriented language, the bright side of my personality is an perfectly appropriate, and even likely a healthy, adaptive mechanism that serves to minimize for me the cost of the dark side of my personality.

And so, I strive to be good person not simply because I am good, but because (for one reason or another) I wish to distance myself from my own moral and social weaknesses. When we are talking about, for example, the role of a priest in a parish this insight is critically important. No matter how talented the priest might be, no matter how brightly his light might shine, he has (as does everyone else) a dark side to his personality.

In the social context of the parish, there is a dance between the bright and dark side of the priest’s personality. Reflecting of this fact, Hogan and Kaiser draw three conclusions about how the dark side of my personality functions in a social setting. First it is important to keep in mind that it is “hard to detect” the dark side of someone’s personality, “for two reasons.” As I said above, ” they coexist with well-developed social skills.” In addition, “although flawed” they “are intended to make a positive impression on others something which “they do [at least] in the short run.”

Hogan and Kaiser illustrate with by offering the example of some the priest with a narcissistic personality will “initially seem confident and charismatic.” But as our relationship with him develops, as we experience together the typical ebb and flow, bumps and bruises and ordinary (and sometimes, extraordinary) stresses associated with parish life, “these [same] features turn into a sense of entitlement and an inability to learn from mistakes.”

I think parish priests are especially prone to this dynamics. I say that because parishes tend to be relatively unstructured. In such a context, a tendency toward “narcissism” typically makes “a strong initial impression” and will, initially at least, be accepted by the community as a good leader. But over time, and especially absent any intervention and re-direction, the priest will find himself “rejected by the group as a result of arrogance and high-handedness.” Again, without proper formation and supervision, priests are as prone to the same “forms of self-defeating behavior” as anyone else, we too will often “pursuit . . . short-term gains that carry significant long-term costs.” What is important, as the example above illustrates, is that often these self-defeating behaviors are reward by the very community that will later reject the priest and for the same personality traits that we initially considered desirable.

At the same time, while the dark side of my personality “are associated with negative consequences in the long run,” their absence is also “not necessarily desirable either.” For example, “Low levels of dutifulness suggest problems with authority; low levels of imaginativeness suggest lack of vision; low levels of boldness suggest indecisiveness; and so on.” When trying to discern the personality qualities for effective leadership, we are evaluating people on relative not absolute scale. And so “[o]ptimum performance is associated” with having a balanced personality. In other words, what we need in our leaders is virtue, or the proven ability (or at least potential) to balance the different aspects of their own personality. It is only when they are able to do this (relatively speaking) in their own life that we can reasonably hope that they can do the same thing in, and for, a community.

As a practical matter (and this is the third and final point made by Hogan and Kaiser) a personality based model of leadership requires that we change how we make the decisions about who is and isn’t fit for leadership. In the Church as in business, “formal selection tools are rarely used.” In addition, “Former subordinates—those who are best able to report on a person’s talent for leadership—are almost never consulted.” In addition, as we more and more not only send recent converts to seminary, but ordain them relatively quickly after they are received in to the Church, we find ourselves in a position very similar to what happens in the business world.

Often new executives are recruited from outside the organization, making it even more difficult to evaluate the candidate appropriately. The most common selection tool is an interview, and the dark side tendencies are designed to create favorable immediate impressions; narcissists and psychopaths excel during interviews. We speculate that many executives [and not a few priest] are hired [or ordained and assigned] for the very characteristics that ultimately lead them to fail.

So what might we want to do not only with the selection of future clergy, but also current lay leaders? I will attempt an answer to that in my next post.

As always, your comments, questions and criticisms are not only welcome, but actively sought.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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