The Empowered Blog

Are You Addicted to Codependent Leadership?

7 Clues You Are.

Note:  This post was originally published on August 25, 2014 on

codependencyIf you are a sucker for great leadership movies like I am — Invictus, Coach Carter and Moneyball just to name a few, it’s easy to assume that all leaders embody the same qualities as those in the movies.

Afterall, who hasn’t idealized business leaders to be strong, confident, make tough decisions and stand their ground no matter what?

While those leaders do exist, they are a minority.  In working with leaders for 30 years, I have found that the reality is shockingly different.

Most leaders take on their roles with the greatest of positive intentions.  Yet, along the way, they get lost.  Not by conscious choice.  Rather they are derailed by an underlying dysfunctional pattern called Codependency.

Codependency is a set of beliefs and behaviors that prevent individuals from having healthy, mutually beneficial relationships.  At first glance, the term “co-dependent leader” seems like an oxymoron, yet this dysfunctional behavioral pattern is rampant within the business world.

The question is …


Why does leadership codependency go undetected?

Let’s look at the top 3 reasons why.

1.     Codependent behaviors get masked by a company’s values and practices. 

On the surface, these values and practices seem healthy – such as, teamwork, employee engagement and customer service. 

It’s not the values or practices in themselves that are the issue.  It is the thinking and beliefs driving them that determine whether the values are healthy or a cover-up for codependency.

2.     Leaders tend to focus on the tangible, at expense of the intangible, aspects within their organizations. 

The “hard” aspects of business — strategy, systems and metrics – often trump the intangible aspects.   Yet the intangibles – beliefs, emotions and values — drive the “bus.”

They drive every action, behavior and decision that impact results.  Because codependent leadership falls within the realm of the intangibles, it goes undetected.

3.     Leaders feel the pressure to maintain a strong, “have it all together” façade for credibility with employees and customers.

Doing so prevents leadership awareness about unhealthy behavioral patterns and the underlying factors driving them.  Plus codependent leaders stuff down their insecurities, fears and anxieties.  This perpetuates the codependency cycle.


7 clues you could be a codependent leader. 

At the heart of all codependent leadership is a weak sense of self developed in childhood.  That weak identity manifests in 7 classic ways at a leadership level.

1.    Low self-esteem 

Leaders with healthy self esteem feel in charge of their outcomes.  They take responsibility for the consequences of their choices and behaviors, positive or negative.

On the other hand, codependent leaders have others esteem.  Their sense of worth comes from what others think and feel about them.  It’s painful for codependent leaders to take responsibility.  As a result, they resist “owning” their leadership role, delegating and holding themselves and others accountable.

Values masking low self esteem:  Humility, selfless/servant leadership

 2.    High need for power and control

Healthy leadership power means having choices and the ability to influence one’s environment and others toward a common goal.

As a codependent leader, however, that need for control and power can go into over-drive to feel secure and safe.  Bossiness, blaming others and stifling others’ ideas are telltale signs.

The paradox is that over exertion of power stems from a leader’s sense of powerlessness with outside forces. 

Values masking over-control:  Discipline, order, rigor

3.     People-pleasing and inability to say “no” 

It’s normal for a leader to want to help peers and team members because you care about them.

However, as a codependent leader, you need others to think of you as a “nice person” because your sense of self depends on it.  You go out of your way to accommodate others’ needs and sacrifice your own to feel good about yourself.

It’s an attempt to protect yourself from painful consequences.  The thought of being rejected or abandoned by your “work tribe” is terrifying to your sense of self.

Examples of people pleasing behaviors include a high tolerance for under-performance and giving into customer demands at the cost of your own profits, values and performance needs.

Values masking people pleasing:  Customer service, employee engagement, teamwork

4.    Boundary Issues

Boundaries are critical in healthy relationships.  They are like imaginary lines between you and others.  Leaders with healthy boundaries know where responsibility and ownership end and begin for a problem, goal or outcome.

For codependent leaders, those imaginary lines are blurry — either non-existent or too rigid.  Without “external” boundaries, a leader’s identity becomes enmeshed with others — such as feeling responsible for employees’ happiness.

Without  “internal” boundaries, a leader will experience an out of control schedule, excessive negative thoughts and emotions and lack of self care.

Values masking poor boundaries:  Sense of family, customer satisfaction, trust

5.     Reactivity

A consequence of poor leadership boundaries is that you react to everyone’s thoughts and feelings.   As a codependent leader, you take responsibility for others’ emotions, yet don’t take responsibility for your own.

If a peer, employee or customer says something that upsets you, you take it as a personal attack.  You either believe them or become defensive.  Either way, you go into victim mode.

Values masking reactivity:  Agility, speed, responsiveness

 6.    Caretaking

“Caring about” others is healthy leadership.  “Caring for” is dysfunctional and disempowering.

When you engage in leadership caretaking, you are doing for your employees  what they can do for themselves.  You feel responsible to take care of their problems and save them from pain.

You put employee needs before business needs, have an exaggerated sense of responsibility for them and prevent employees from growing into empowering successful contributors of the company.

Values masking caretaking:  Concern for employees’ welfare; caring

 7.    Avoiding conflict

Self-esteem is essential for leaders to assert their thoughts, feelings and needs while welcoming others to do the same.  For such leaders, conflict is a normal part of relationships.

In contrast, codependent leaders avoid conflict at all costs, resulting in emotionally dishonest relationships with their team and peers.  Because of poor role models in life, such leaders grew up believing that conflict is bad, painful and traumatic.

The end result is status quo thinking, compromised decision making and a false sense of team work.

Values masking conflict avoidance:  Harmony, collaboration, trust

While we all have exhibited the above behaviors to some extent, for the codependent leader, these patterns are all consuming.  They don’t know how else to be.


Growth, profits and a healthy culture can be yours by addressing codependent leadership

Because codependent leadership has been so prevalent in my clients’ companies, I developed exercises for leadership teams to see for themselves the high cost of this dysfunctional pattern within their organization.

For example, I have had each leader identify one situation where they said “yes,” when “no” (or setting boundaries) would have been healthier and more profitable.  They must include hard and soft costs and then give an estimated total cost to the bottomline.

Even for a single situation for one leader, the costs went as high as millions.  Multiply that across every leader and every situation when this dysfunctional pattern has shown up and the costs to the company become staggering.

What symptoms do you identify with?   Which are prevalent within your company?   What is codependent leadership costing your company?


Denise Corcoran helps growth-seeking companies develop game-changing leadership teams and organizations that drive double and triple digit growth … by design.  Her company  —  The Empowered BusinessTM  —  is one of the few companies providing whole brain, strategic solutions for unleashing leadership and organizational potential that  conventional methods can’t achieve.  Learn how to master your Inner Game of Leadership, by downloading our free report – Wired to Win Big.  Connect with Denise at her Blog, LinkedIn, Twitter or contact her via email.



Denise Corcoran works with CEOs and executive teams seeking rapid growth yet are challenged by the “invisible barriers” that keep them stuck, overwhelmed or in crisis mode. Her company —The Empowered Business — is one of the few companies providing whole brain, strategic solutions for unleashing leadership and organizational potential. Her secret sauce is assisting CEOs and executive teams develop the “X factor” – i.e., the mindset, attitudes and game-changing thinking -- that drives double and triple digit growth … by design.


Posted by Denise Corcoran on October 17, 2014 in Accountability, Beliefs, Company Culture, Emotional Mastery, Leadership Development, Leadership Performance, Mindset, Motivation, Teams and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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