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The Leadership Mystique: A User's Manual for the Human Enterprise

Author: Manfred Kets de Vries

Publisher: New York: Financial Times Prentice Hall, 2001

ISBN: David S. McIn

Summary:Kets de Vries makes two key arguments. One, organizations, like people, have psychological styles. Two, people are not so straightforward.

"The literature we find on leadership, though vast, isn't always helpful," writes Manfred Kets de Vries. There are books ranging from The Leadership Strategies of Attila the Hun to The Leadership Lessons of Jesus. So who is buying those books? True leaders, or true wannabes? Books on leadership—and I have looked at a statistically significant sample—tend to fall into two categories, voyeurism and self-help. I suspect that true leaders, like Mr. Hun, are not the primary market for leadership books. The true market lies in the rest of us, who are trying to get in touch with our inner leaders.

Leadership is like pornography. It's hard to define, but easy to recognize. It is both a process and a quality. The process of leadership involves activities like planning, organizing, coordinating, and controlling. The quality of leadership comprises traits like assertiveness, sociability, analytical skill, and emotional intelligence. Consider Winston Churchill, the man who put a name to Britain's finest hour, and then led his country through it. Among Churchill's qualities, the ones that might have come up in a background check, were sleeping until noon, drinking a bottle or so of hard liquor a day, and, in his youth, using opium and being kicked out of college (twice).

Warren Bennis defined leadership as, not so much the ability to do things right, but as the ability to do the right thing. Leadership is situational, and exists only in the interaction of leader, follower, and situation. Ulysses Grant's brilliance as a general did not carry over into the White House. So, before buying one more book on leadership, it's worth asking whether you can actually learn something from it. What is going to make a self-help book helpful? It would need to say something true, useful, and different.

In a famous article in the Harvard Business Review, Abraham Zaleznik asked the question "Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?" (Answer: yes.) Now, a generation later, Manfred Kets de Vries carries on the work of his mentor. Kets de Vries is a professor at INSEAD, where he leads the school's management and leadership program. He is widely recognized as one of Europe's leading management thinkers. The Leadership Mystique is his seventeenth book. And while many others write books on leadership that are true and useful, Kets de Vries brings something different to the discussion. After being educated as an economist, he then trained as a psychoanalyst.

"So, Mr. CEO," we can imagine him saying, "tell me about your mother." One of Kets de Vries's principles is that business is about organizations, and organizations are about people. You can't really understand people or organizations by observing what he calls the visible part of the iceberg. Beneath the surface of actions, strategies, and structures lie the murkier depths of irrational forces, group dynamics, and individual dramas.

Kets de Vries makes two key arguments. One, organizations, like people, have psychological styles. Two, people are not so straightforward. "There are few universals in life, but transference is one," he writes. "What transference says is that no relationship we have is a new relationship; all relationships are colored by previous relationships." And this doesn't just mean previous work relationships. Psychologists like Kets de Vries believe that the majority of one's personality is shaped by the age of three. In other words, it's all Mom's fault.

Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Pierre Cardin, Richard, Branson, Jack Welch, and Bill Clinton. All of them had an absent father (in one way or another) and a strong, supportive mother. All were forced to assume family responsibility at an early age. All grew up being competitive, able to confront authority, confident, and resilient in the face of failure. This resilience came from having a person who took a special interest in them. "The future destiny of the child is always the work of the mother," according to Napoleon. As you can by now imagine, The Leadership Mystique is not the typical book on leadership.

Kets de Vries's position is that everyone has a core drama that leads to their personality style. What makes each of us the person we are is the dominance of some inner wish. The wish to be loved, or to be understood, or noticed. The wish to be free from conflict, or to help, or to be able to hurt others. The wish to achieve or the wish to fail. When we go to work, we take this fundamental wish into a context of relationships. We project it on others, and rightly or wrongly anticipate how others will react to us, and then we react to their reactions. This basic wish, embedded in context, is what psychiatrists call the core conflictual relationship theme, and everybody's CCRT is unique.

Tolstoy's contribution to psychotherapy was his observation that all happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Just the same, there are some patterns. Organizations reflect the personalities of their leaders, and dysfunctional leaders often show one or more pathologies. Who among us doesn't know some epitome of conflict avoidance, tyrannization, micromanagement, manic behavior, inaccessibility, or game playing? In every case, Kets de Vries argues, these styles derive from the leader's inner drama.

On the larger canvas of the organization, these inner dramas develop into corporate cultures. Corporations, like their leaders, can be dramatic, like Sandy Weil's Citigroup. They can be suspicious like Hal Geneen's ITT, or detached like Czar Nikolas's Russian government; depressive like Robert Allen's AT&T, or compulsive like Henry Ford's car company. Kets de Vries explores these five dominant "constellations," each with its organization style, executive personality, culture, strategic style, and underlying guiding theme. Take Richard Branson's Virgin Group, for example, a successful company by any account. The CEO is dramatic, seeking attention and craving excitement. Nmot surprisingly, Virgin's organizational decision-making is overcentralized. Its culture supports the emotional needs of both the leader and his subordinates. Its strategy is somewhere between bold and impulsive. And its guiding theme, according to Kets de Vries, is "I want to get attention from and impress the people who count in my life." A pattern emerges.

Each of the five organizational patterns brings its strengths and its weaknesses, just as every emotion has its silver lining. The thoroughness of the compulsive style is a good quality at one point in a corporation's life, and a bad one at another. But if corporate styles are deeply rooted in history and personality, as they always are, they cannot be easy to change. I have long maintained that there are the Three Ps of culture change: Pay, Promotion, and People. In Kets de Vries's phrase, it is easier to change people than to change people.

Psychologist Richard Farson observed that, although people profess to learn from their mistakes, their behavior is shaped by their successes. This is why change is hard for people. Confronted with failure, or with a new world where the old tricks aren't working any more, most people keep doing what they have been doing, only harder. One type of failure afflicts people in their forties and fifties-the depression and panic that comes from realizing that, even though they have successful careers, some of their goals will never be met. German being the language of the consulting room, this condition is known as Torschlusspanik, or the panic due to the closing of gates. This, and the other crises of life, lead approximately 20 percent of executives to suffer from psychiatric problems, with depression and substance abuse leading the list.

The question for many once and future leaders is how to escape the Dilbert Zone of cynicism and resignation. Or, in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's terms, how can they get back into the "flow"? People are happiest, and achieve the most, when they face challenges that they can rise to. Too little challenge, and they are bored. Too much challenge, and they give up. But what gives us the strength to work with other people to achieve great things? Ultimately, the book makes three prescriptions-know thyself, control thyself, connect with others. As a psychoanalyst, of course Kets de Vries thinks self knowledge is the beginning of all change. A central part of the analyst's training is being analyzed himself. And as Harvard's Howard Gardner has written, emotional intelligence, both interpersonal and intrapersonal, is as important as analytical intelligence in predicting success in life.

The Leadership Mystique does not represent new research on Kets de Vries's part. It is a synthesis of material he has been using with executives for the past ten years. It does differ from his earlier books by having an upbeat ending. Usually Kets de Vries presents case studies on topics like "The Mussel Syndrome" and "The Rot at the Top." Compelling reading, but occasionally depressing. This time, though, he took a note from American self-help books, making the second half of the book more upbeat and more how-to. Unfortunately, I found the second half of the book a little too-too. There are forty-six self-evaluation exercises, lists and lists of things, and a little too much general management advice. The first half of the book is more fun, with the schadenfreude and the voyeurism that go with reading about famous leaders' fatal flaws. There are also any number of fun facts, like Walt Disney's preferred breakfast being Dunkin Donuts, dunked in whiskey. (Churchill, of course, omitted the donuts.)

Napoleon said that leaders are merchants of hope. They succeed when they create senses of purpose, self-determination, impact, competence, and shared values. There may be some leaders that would, in Austin Powers' words, "lose their mojo" if they understood themselves a little better. But for most of us, leadership demands emotional intelligence, which starts with knowing yourself. This is, of course, what the Oracle at Delphi and Sigmund Freud were telling us all along.


by David S. McIntosh


© David S. McIntosh, Center for Business Innovation, Cambridge MA.