cover photo Reflect Blog
Ingo Kallenbach

Leadership Development: How crazy are our top managers?

Top managers have a great deal of responsibility, because they often largely contribute to the success and / or failure of their company.

There is no question that top managers occupy key positions and are, thus, key persons that require special support.

The question is rather what kind of support is suitable and accepted by the respective people? Often many different personality types belong to this special group of people. Which characteristic features must be considered, if you want to coach all these narcissistic, manic-depressive, passive-depressive and alexithymic people (according to the analysis of the renowned INSEAD professor, psychoanalytic and executive coach Kets de Vries in the German HBR 05/2014?

Leadership development according to special personality types

Narcissism is the most frequently occurring mental disorder in top management. Characteristic features include: overconfidence, infinite striving for recognition and power, often connected with ruthless behavior towards others. Coaching of narcissists is always a balancing act between positive feedback and the associated danger of triggering even more of that behavior which one wants to avoid. However, narcissists need a trustful relationship with their coach, because if the feedback is too direct, there is the danger that the relationship will be broken up immediately.

Managers that suffer from a manic-depressive disorder often show abrupt changes in mood from moments of extreme happiness to extreme sadness. In manic phases their energy and joy often makes them seem very convincing, although their great enthusiasm can often lead to wrong decisions - depending on the extent of their disorder up to the total loss of reality. They are having a hard time judging their effect on others. In coaching this poses a special challenge because clients in manic phases often act exaggeratedly and do not show much of an interest in dealing with their problems. In depressive phases, on the other hand, they admit mistakes, but here as well they tend to make negative exaggerations, requiring a great deal of resource-oriented work. According to de Vries it can be useful to integrate persons that are familiar with the client into the coaching process. In that way the problematic behavior can be pointed out from different perspectives.



Passive-aggressive people demonstrate hidden resistance, which is why the symptoms are not immediately evident. They tend to openly agree on decisions and then boycott these afterwards. They delay work orders, act unreliable and show up late for appointments. In the end, of course, they only harm themselves and are often not aware of their uncooperative behavior towards others. They have successfully learned to suppress their real feelings. Successful coaching starts at the point of making the client become aware of his or her uncooperative behavior and demonstrating ways of appropriately showing suppressed feelings.

Another type that can be found on top-level management is the so called alexithymic person. Mangers with this impairment often are not able to reflect on their own or other people’s emotions. Alexithymic people show no emotions even in moving moments. Instead they remain rather cold, at a distance and rational. They have difficulty seeing things from other people’s point of view and inspiring or motivating others to give their best. In coaching (or therapy) it can be helpful to analyze the environmental situation and the reactions of the manager step by step, in order to build up some kind of understanding for one’s own emotions and the often disguised physical symptoms.


Surely you have also recognised some own features in one or more of the descriptions. Each one of us has narcissistic or depressive traits. It is all a matter of dimension. However, in order to be able to act responsibly, we - as a manger or an HR responsible person - should be aware of all this and have support ready at hand (either in form of suitable manger coaches or therapists). How well-prepared for this is your organization? How open is your company culture to addressing these subjects?