Challenge Addiction

January 6, 2023

I'm not a psychologist; I just observe people's behavior. I try to understand it. In my book, Leading the Leaders, I describe a leadership style I have identified as Type (E). These are people that are very creative, and in extreme cases, arsonists—meaning they have too many ideas, all of which they insist on implementing, often without any testing, and this can burn a company down to the ground.

The way to get a Type (E) excited and instantly engaged is to tell them there is a challenge or a problem and no one knows what to do about it. They will jump on the task right there and then. And the more difficult and impossible the challenge, the more committed they will be to overcoming it.

I asked one of my clients, a multi-billionaire, “What do you need more billions for? What will you do with more billions? You have already many, many yachts and houses and planes. What else is there?” His answer: “It’s another mountain to climb. Another challenge.”

The (E) personality style has positive aspects, not to be discarded. They are innovators. They are the people that solve problems in medicine, that create new engines. They look for challenges and, by solving them, move society forward.

There is, however, a collateral aspect to their personality style that some (E)s have: They cannot accept defeat. They need to be challenged, and they need to conquer their challenges. If they can’t conquer a challenge, which they would consider to be a defeat, their attachment to the challenge compels them to try again and again and again until they reach their own demise, until they fail themselves and lose everything they have. It is as if they are testing their own boundaries to see how far they can go. They find their boundaries when they cross them (i.e., when they fail to conquer a challenge).

Take Elon Musk. He continually brings on more and more challenging projects. He almost went belly up with Tesla. Survived. So, he moved on to the next challenge. And it’s easy to predict that he will continue to take bigger and bigger chances as he seeks the limits of what he can do. Maybe he has found his limit with Twitter. If not, he will try something else that is even riskier. Until he fails.

Like a gambler who will not let go of gambling even though he is losing, his need to win drives him to make double and triple bets, while still hoping to come out on the other side. In his relentless quest to overcome his challenge, he pushes his boundaries until he has lost everything.

The same goes for Type (E) leaders of countries. In times of conflict, they will escalate confrontation to avoid recognizing a defeat, and by doing so they often get what they dread. (See Putin and the war in Ukraine).

Some Type (E)s apply this addiction to the challenges in their personal lives. They devote more time to a problematic partner or subordinate than to those who support them. The supportive people in their lives do not challenge them. I knew of a professor, who would focus on a single student who used to challenge him, ignoring the rest of the class.

In family life, Type (E)s often marries a spouse which is a challenge. One that gives them a hard time. And they do not divorce them. Divorce is a failure, too, so they keep trying to make the marriage work unless the difficult spouse decides on the divorce, not them. In courting, the way to capture this personality style is by not yielding to their advances too easily. Let them chase you till you catch them.

Written by
Dr. Ichak Adizes