Helping a Bipolar Leader
John is a talented executive with extraordinary drive and charisma. The people reporting to him all agreed that he 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. He sent emails at 2 a.m., 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 was considering firing him. John suffers 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 they periodically experience 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Their moods swing wildly from this state of exuberance to the polar opposite, when they suddenly become withdrawn and inert, shunning the company of others. Bipolar dysfunction is a condition often associated with highly creative people (e.g., William Blake, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Ludwig van Beethoven, as well as many famous leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and General George Patton). As history shows, manic-depressive leaders are great in a crisis, refusing to bow to adversity. They rush in where others fear 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. John is a clearly talented executive, but his behavior is self-destructive.
1. What should the board members do with regard to John's poor decisions? Should they fire him? What alternative routes are available?
2. How can John be made aware of his disruptive behaviors?
3. What role can his wife/family play to help John address his bipolarity?
4. Within the workplace, what can be done to leverage John's strengths (creativity) and minimize his disruptive behavior? What type of structure will be a best fit for John in the organization?
5. As a coach, how can you help John to rebalance his life?