Reflections On Character And Leadership

Kets de Vries took an atypical route to the study of management and leadership.

Kets de Vries took an atypical route to the study of management and leadership. After early studies in chemical and mechanical engineering, he turned to economics, but was troubled by traditional economic theories, which assumed rational behavior in individuals. It seemed to him that the behavior of homo economicus had more to do with rationalization than rationality. Later, as he delved more and more deeply into the study of organizational behavior, he became convinced that too much attention was being paid to structures and systems and too little to the vagaries and idiosyncrasies of the human personality.

Then, at Harvard, he took a course — “Psychoanalytic Psychology: An Organizational Theory” — that unlocked the door to his life’s work. In the ensuing four decades, Kets de Vries’ research at institutions like McGill, Harvard and INSEAD has methodically probed the dynamics of individual leadership and organizational change by applying the principles of psychoanalysis to them. His resulting writings refreshingly address the inconvenient truths and dark sides of leadership and organizations that many authors eschew.

A recently published three-volume series titled “On the Couch with Manfred Kets de Vries” (Wiley, 2009) offers a wonderful introduction to the author’s work. Comprising essays originally written between 1976 and 2008 and updated and revised by the author, the trilogy explores the link between personality archetypes and leadership. The latter books in the series focus on how an individual’s personality type, whether he’s in a position of leadership or a member of a management team, determines his career development and the functioning and success of his organization. However, it is the first book, “Reflections on Character and Leadership,” that constitutes the best overview of Kets de Vries’ seminal thinking.

The tenor of the book is evident from such tantalizing chapter headings as “The Pathology of Leadership,” “The Despot’s Toolbox,” “The Organizational Fool” and “When the CEO Is a Neurotic Impostor.” Kets de Vries’ intention is not to turn executive coaches into psychoanalysts but rather to provide a fresh context for their efforts. The reader never feels as if he has wandered into the thickets of psychoanalytic nether regions or the deserts of management-speak. Kets de Vries plays the two disciplines off of each other, making them both relevant.

Make no mistake, this book is not a glorified PowerPoint presentation that can be skimmed during your average airport layover. It is pleasingly dense with facts and insight, but far, far from dry, drawing on a wealth of historical, psychoanalytic and literary examples ranging from Hitler, Freud and Alexander the Great to Gustav Mahler, Franz Kafka and Ingmar Bergman.

The overall conclusion one reaches from reading this book runs counter to the currently popular notion that everyone should be a leader. That conclusion is: Who you are is how you lead. Many traits of leadership, good and bad, are intrinsic to the individual and some of them are immutable. For that reason, many so-called leaders are toxic and many should not be leaders at all. That is not to say, however, that all leadership characteristics are immutable. Rather, the book suggests that efforts to create or transform leaders will probably not be successful in every case or even in the majority of cases and that true leaders do not emerge solely from completing workbook exercises and receiving 360-degree feedback.

Though stark, Kets de Vries’ message is ultimately encouraging. In the latter third of the book, he focuses on how leaders can be transformative by displaying personal charisma that fosters passion and conviction and by creating organizational structure that fosters creativity and ownership. These are familiar themes in leadership literature, but they take on freshness and weight when viewed from Kets de Vries’ clinical perspective.

To illustrate these forces of change, the author describes the impact of three leaders whom he considers designers of prototypical postindustrial corporations: Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, was a flamboyant and intuitive builder of a company that valued innovation and creativity above all else; Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric, was an exacting, no-nonsense transformer of a once-sclerotic company into a lean conglomerate; and Percy Barnevik, former chairman and CEO of ABB, was a soft-spoken, analytic integrator of geographically dispersed businesses into a global organization.

The book’s final chapters address what Kets de Vries sees as the greatest leadership challenge of the 21st century — globalism. He says that a new kind of global leader will be needed and that the prototype of a culturally empathetic and adaptable leader will probably emerge from Europe because of its diversity, geographic concentration and growing sense of unity.

“The best leaders are those who know how to balance action with reflection by using self-insight as a restraining force when the sirens of power are calling,” writes Kets de Vries. They are those who “retain their sanity in what seem insane places,” he continues. It is precisely these capabilities that Kets de Vries believes can be identified and nurtured with a psychoanalytic approach to leadership development.