Based in France at the international business school INSEAD, Manfred Kets de Vries is the author, co-author or editor of 20 books. He talked to Management's contributing writer Des Dearlove about why companies crave heroic leaders--and what happens when executive egos get out of control.
How would you describe your work?
Really, it is an evolution of trying to work in two main areas--management and psychoanalysis. The first serious application of the two fields was in a book I wrote with Danny Miller, entitled The Neurotic Organization. That was the first time someone tried to show in a systematic way the relationship between personality, leadership, corporate culture and strategy.
And that gave you a distinctive slant on leadership?
I became a sort of pathologist of organisations. People would ask me to look at organisations that they thought were going in the wrong direction. So I edited a book called Organizations on the Couch. I'd written some books before--Prisoners of Leadership, The Irrational Executive and another called Leaders, Fools and Imposters--they were looking at the darker side of organisations, and particularly the darker side of leadership. How do leaders derail, what goes wrong? How can you recognise the signals when things go wrong and what can you do about it?
In your experience, how many business leaders are well-adjusted individuals?
You can argue that 20 percent of the general population is relatively healthy; 20 percent is relatively sick; and the other 60 percent, which all suffer from "neurotic misery", are somewhere in the middle. That applies to most people I meet. If you are a CEO you usually have a"magnificent obsession" and that comes with a price. You are obsessed by certain things having to do with business. You may not have the greatest talent for other parts of your life that may result in negative side effects such as a high incidence of divorce.
But on the other hand I must admit I don't get the extreme pathological cases on my programmes. The people who apply are usually aware of many of their shortcomings. CEOs who are totally dysfunctional probably are not that interested to know more about themselves.
The real disease of many executives, CEOs in particular, is narcissism. And we have seen some abysmal examples recently--from Dennis Kozlowski at Tyco, to Kenneth Lay at Enron. Jean-Marie Messier at Vivendi was another example. That is narcissistic abuse and it is very costly to society.
Is narcissism always destructive?
Let me put it this way, narcissism has a very bad connotation. We think of the narcissist looking in the mirror, oblivious of others. We have to realise that you need a solid dose of narcissism to be able to function properly. I tend to make a distinction between reactive and constructive narcissism.
What's the difference?
Basically, there are people who are lucky when they are growing up. They have a background of support, fairly nice parents, they feel good in their skins and they are really pleasant people to be with. They are assertive and know what they want, but they are not totally me-oriented.
Then you have the reactive narcissists who have had a lot of trauma in their lives. Some of those reactive narcissists make a decision and say I've had a bad deal in life but I'm going to make it better for the rest of the world. But another group may suffer from the Monte Christo Complex; they want to get even. These are the people who can be exploitative, vindictive, totally self-centred, and treat other people as things rather than human beings.
They talk in abstractions about the good of mankind and the good of the organisation but have no real sense of the human factor. They treat other human beings as things. There is a lack of empathy. Here I'd like to make another caveat. I have seen people who at least superficially looked like relatively decent human beings, but not able to handle the position of the top job. …