Emory Report
June 6, 2005
Volume 57, Number 32


Emory Report homepage  

June 6, 2005
Gilkey by association

by eric rangus

R ick Gilkey’s original clinical training was in child psychology. His main clients now—in addition to the Emory students he teaches—are corporate executives. On the surface, the two areas appear to be on opposite ends of a very wide spectrum. Connecting them would be difficult, if not impossible.

A deeper look though, brings them much closer together. In fact, it’s really not too big of a leap from A to B; bringing together children and CEOs is a rather easy construct (and, on a certain level, darkly humorous).

“Early family life and the quality of relationships has a lot to do with forming character as well as the stable parts of personality, integrity, consistency and even the capacity to relate and be concerned about other people,” said Gilkey, associate professor of organization and management in the Goizueta Business School and of clinical psychiatry in the School of Medicine.

“If that is part of their early existence and they are able to internalize it, people can grow up to be trustworthy, have integrity and a capacity for moral reasoning and ethical behavior,” he continued.

With areas of research that include leadership, executive power and negotiation, and personality and career development, Gilkey has an extensive private-sector client list. He has consulted with many Fortune 100 companies and major international media organizations. Not that Gilkey leaves his colleagues or Emory students behind—his University honors include an Emory Williams Award, and he has taught in all of Goizueta’s programs at one time or another.

“Sometimes a board will contact people in [my] role because they feel the CEO is not performing up to expectations,” said Gilkey, who currently concentrates his teaching in Goizueta’s Executive MBA program. “Sometimes the CEO has trouble dealing with the media, in other cases it’s [a problem] presenting the organization to Wall Street in a way that is compelling and convincing.”

There are other reasons as well, but regardless of the cause, Gilkey is more than willing to help, even though not all of his clients are necessarily willing to see him. That’s where the child psychology comes in.

“When you have a child who has been brought in by a parent, they don’t know why they are there, so sometimes they are confused or hostile,” Gilkey said. “That’s sometimes the way senior executives present. They feel as though they are doing fine, and they just want to be left alone. But clearly there is a critical mass of important players, be it a board or executive team that feels their performance is lagging in some way and they want something done.”

Still, not all of Gilkey’s work is in some sort of intervention role. Very often his presence is warmly welcomed by everyone involved in whatever company he happens to be visiting. Some of his work is in leadership development, some in executive coaching, and some in how to achieve a proper work-life balance. It’s just this type of leadership development that is keeping him on the road this summer as he travels back and forth from Atlanta to New York, where one of his current clients is located.

Gilkey first worked with executives while on the faculty at Dartmouth Medical School in the early 1980s (he previously had been a clinical psychology lecturer at the University of Michigan). Some of his patients were senior business-people, and Gilkey saw how early-life conflicts played out in the corporate arena. That led to a dual appointment in Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business. Gilkey came to Emory in 1984, first as a visiting professor, then as full-time faculty, continuing the dual appointment he began at Dartmouth.

Many Emory faculty have dual appointments, but Gilkey’s combination of medicine and business is an uncommon one. However, he believes this may change. “Success is a function of human capital, ideas and innovation, not as much of oil, lumber and physical substances like it was in the past century,” he said. “I think more joint ventures will come about that bring together medical schools—particularly in psychiatry—and areas like organizational behavior in a business school.”

Currently, Gilkey has two prime areas of research, and both are related to neurological makeup. One is strategic thinking, and one of the tools Gilkey uses neuroimaging, which utilizes MRI scanning technology to help understand how subjects—in this case, business executives—make decisions.

“What we’re beginning to see is that the people who are most adept at thinking long-term or thinking critically have the lowest level activations,” Gilkey said. In other words, the brains of the people who appear to be the best thinkers are not as strained as untrained minds. “It’s neural efficiency hypothesis,” he said. “It’s something where people can practice and become skilled. It’s like watching Tiger Woods swing a golf club. I suspect that, if you could see his neuroimages, you wouldn’t see the intense level of firings you might see in an amateur golfer.”

The other is moral reasoning, which at first doesn’t bring to mind wiring in the brain, but through Gilkey’s research with Clint Kilts, chair for research in psychiatry, there appears to be at least some neurological basis for right and wrong.

“We have found that the neural activations you get in response to moral dilemmas involve parts of the brain that are associated with early memories, personal sense of identity and the ability to assume the perspective of other people—the empathy part,” Gilkey said. “So this issue of early-life experience is critical to the formation of character; in turn, the context in which moral decisions are made seems to be psychologically supportable.”

That Gilkey would have an academic interest in moral reasoning is not surprising. In addition to his Ph.D. in clinical psychology (earned at Michigan in 1977), he holds a master of divinity degree from Harvard Theology School.

“Those three years helped with my interest in ethical decision-making,” he said. While at Harvard, Gilkey focused on ties between theology and social science.

When he wants to explain how his interests in child psychology and executive decision-making and moral choice come together, Gilkey likes to recall one of his past clients—one of those executives referred by his company’s board of directors. The board wasn’t happy about the CEO’s communication skills or his history of closely guarding information. Gilkey immediately got to the bottom of the story.

“In childhood, when dealing with family conflicts, this executive learned to be very secretive,” Gilkey said. “When he became president of a firm, he did the same thing and it got him in trouble.” After some coaching, relationships were restored and the company moved along in much better shape.

“Things do change,” Gilkey said. “People may be upset initially, but they want to produce results, and most people will come along when they have to.”