When I wrote my book The Nazi and the Psychiatrist: Hermann Göring, Douglas M. Kelley, and a Fatal Meeting of Minds at the End of WWII (PublicAffairs Books), which is about an American psychiatrist's involvement with the Nazi leaders and the consequences of his experience, I was surprised to learn how the physician’s insights into the leadership structure of the Third Reich can guide businesses today.

In 1945, U.S. Army psychiatrist Douglas McGlashan Kelley arrived in Nuremberg to study the psyches of the top 22 German officials charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity. He found that these men — including Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Albert Speer — were not mentally ill. In fact, under Adolf Hitler’s direction, they had organized themselves in a hierarchy that Kelley found strikingly like that of a modern corporate board.

It was a dysfunctional board, however, with the Nazi leaders occupying four silos under CEO Adolf Hitler: a brain group that shaped Nazi ideology, culture, and policy; a marketing group that sold Hitler’s ideas to the world; a group of enforcers who used military and police might to crush dissent and ensure results; and a team of bureaucrats expert in finance, law, and planning who attended to the details.

Each group had little contact with any other. Only Hitler oversaw and understood the activities of the different compartments, and he grew dangerously irrational as World War II went on. Kelley found out, for instance, that Hitler planned to attack the Soviet Union much earlier than his advisors recommended because the Führer feared that stomach cancer would soon kill him. A hypochondriac and hysteric, he had no stomach cancer. But Hitler proceeded as if he did, prematurely launching Operation Barbarossa against the U.S.S.R. on June 22, 1941, and none of his subordinates could stop him. The Soviets ultimately forced back Hitler’s invasion, which proved to be a turning point in the war.

Any business that fails to provide its organizational groups with information and updates from other departments faces the same potential for disaster, especially when one or a small number of executives hoard knowledge of the entire firm’s operations.

Further reading:

Kelley, Douglas M. 22 Cells in Nuremberg. McFadden Publications, 1961.

World Future Fund. “Nazi Germany, Government Structures, Ministries and Party Organizations.”