The disjointed thinking of DuPont’s sophisticated directors may have been a manifestation of groupthink in reaction to the wilting external criticism of a few activist investors and some very new directors, namely recently retired CEOs Ed Breen and James Gallogly. The battering in the media, confusion over cyclical versus structural issues, the ambitions of a few directors, and the inability to talk directly with the board to correct misconceptions makes for a toxic, dysfunctional environment.
The boards of some of the nation’s most venerable enterprises are especially susceptible to self-destructive behavior. Many directors at such storied firms are anxious to preserve a legacy they worry they could not have built on their own. At the same time, many are fearful of appearing as mere custodians of past grandeur if they don’t make big, bold changes. They often destroy the greatness of their cultures in the process. Management psychoanalysts like Manfred Kets de Vries and the late Abraham Zaleznik have described this dynamic as an Oedipal-like rivalry, where boards harbor resentment toward the inherited genius of the generation that preceded them, and are eager to leave their own generational imprint.