Last week the American Psychiatric Associations released a draft of DSM-V, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The final version is set to come out in May 2013. It has a number of proposed revisions which have been widely blogged about, including a new diagnosis of hypersexuality. In just about every post I’ve read, at some point, the author proposes Tiger Woods as the poster child for this new diagnosis.
As a blog on power and leadership, I’ve spent a fair amount of time here discussing instances in which power goes awry, in particular, why and how public figures and leaders torpedo their careers by engaging in risky sexual behavior. How can public figures like Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods, believe their sexual behavior can be kept secret from the world? It is easy to see it as a mental disorder and it very well may be. Undoubtedly we’ll even find the gene that’s responsible, but making this a medical disorder keeps us from contemplating it as a behavior on a continuum, one we’re all prone to.
To me, what’s more puzzling than the sexual behavior is the belief that it can be kept secret from the world. It is the ability to compartmentalize – setting aside emotions or thoughts that interfere with our performance, role, or task at any given moment. Anything we can’t control, and anything that might derail us from succeeding, we put it aside. Compartmentalization is the very skill that allowed these figures to excel in their field and also to indulge in their risky behavior.
The tennis coach, Nick Bollettieri describes compartmentalization as setting aside that which we cannot control – weather, conditions, your physical state on the day of the game, etc. The goal is to feel that you are in complete control, have anticipated every possible outcome, and have planned your actions for every possible scenario. For anyone who aspires to peak performance, this is the mental toughness needed to be a winner. For a leader, politician, police officer, fire fighter, anyone in a high pressure job in which a successful outcome is absolutely necessary, compartmentalization is critical.
But taken too far, we fall prey to believing we can control everything, and that just because we don’t show something, it doesn’t exist. As I wrote in my previous post:
This pressure to be perfect creates a schism between the public self and the private self. …And so a gulf begins to widen between the public role and the private self, eventually morphing into a compartmentalized existence, a split personality of sorts. Over time, even the leader starts to believe in his or her public self, believing that what;s performed on stage is the real self. Likewise, the private self, the needs, emotions, self-doubt, and desires that are kept out of the picture become so secret that it is easy to believe they don’t exist, that others can’t see them. … But our hidden selves are most dangerous; they become autonomous and push us to do things, even reckless things, in order to be gratified and indulged.
It’s not just Tiger Woods, not just Eliot Spitzer. We all do it to get by. We compartmentalize to get through jobs we don’t like, to stay in relationships that don’t fulfill us, to get through a boring lecture at school. In fact, I think compartmentalization creates a form of presenteeism – being present, but just ‘sort of.’ We go to work and leave most of ourselves at home. We sit through meetings and don’t bring in what we really think out of fear of conflict, but then miss out on the opportunity for something creative or innovative to emerge. We try to fit in, to get along with friends, bosses, spouses, but we’re bored, or feel lonely and unseen, because our real selves aren’t brought along for the ride.
Compartmentalizing parts of ourselves might make us look normal, might help us excel but it comes at a cost. As Tennessee Williams said, “If I got rid of my demons, I’d lose my angels.”
Update. A few weeks ago I posted a blog on cross-disciplinary teamwork, collaborating not just across functions and disciplines, but across conceptual frameworks and paradigms. This HBR post discusses the challenge from the political perspective – how to collaborate across partisan lines.