A conversation with the CEO Whisperer Manfred F.R. Kets De Vries: The Balance of Power Series

I recently sat down with the “CEO Whisperer” Dutch scholar Manfred F.R Kets De Vries whose fascinating work focuses on leaders, leadership and the dynamics of individual and organisational change. 

As we both spend much of our time dealing with leadership and power, he as a professor of leadership, development and organisational change at INSEAD, and me in my consulting work and own studies on leadership we had a lot to discuss. 

Below are just a few small extracts from our conversation, this particular section focusing on how anxiety can impact the kind of leaders we gravitate towards. In our full interview, we discuss Manfred’s leadership models, personality assessments, how the pandemic has impacted leadership and how you can be a great strategist without being a great leader.

Manfred originally received his master’s degree in economics from the University of Amsterdam, before going on to attain his M.B.A and D.B.A from Harvard Business School. He’s also been a member of the Canadian Psychoanalytic Society since 1982. I was curious to know how his varied scholarly background across economics and psychoanalytic informed how he saw leadership. 

“I tried to look at everything. Now, I got interested in leadership not many years ago. Probably influenced by my mentor at the time, who wrote an article for the Harvard Business Review “Managers And Leaders, Are They Different?” that won the McKinsey award, apparently.

He has this image of this glorious leader, actually, this kind of distinction people make between transactional leaders and transformational leaders. And of course, if you really go back, you can go to the work of Max Weber about charisma and, of course, you can argue that, is charisma such a good thing? 

We discussed the dangers of a charismatic leader even if they feel like the most reassuring choice at the time.

“When you look at some of those charismatic leaders, we see, think about the charismatic leader in India, the charismatic leader in Turkey, and the charismatic leader in Hungary… I can go on.

James MacGregor Burns wrote a classical book on leadership, which won, I think, a Pulitzer Prize, or something like that, about transactional and transformational, and then, later on, he also mentioned thinkers, like Heifetz. They make these kinds of distinctions. 

Now, I mean, in a way, I can, you know, when you think about a country, which is very stable, like Switzerland, I have no idea who the President is. I don’t know the name. And maybe that’s a sign and I always argue that leadership is a team sport. I think, actually, you can be the most charismatic individual but if you’re in a leadership position, people start to use their fantasies. Some of my clinical training comes in handy that people project their fantasies onto leaders.” 

But what exactly is it that makes us project our anxieties onto leaders?

“In psychoanalysis, you talk about transference which is, to quote Jung, the Alpha and Omega of psychotherapy. Meaning, I can tell you, Steve, that you have a bounce in your head where you’re five years old. As a result, you’re totally crazy. You say that’s great, nice to hear that, fantastic, but it doesn’t help you very much. Maybe a little bit because you have some explanation but it’s not enough. But if I tell you behave so strangely, because you always had fights with your father or something like that. Or you had a competitive streak vis-a-vis an older brother or whatever it might be… I have no idea about your background, I’m just synthesising. 

And that might give you some ideas why you always get irritated or whatever it might be, that might be more helpful. So we have a tendency, which is probably also from an evolutionary psychological point of view, to idealise a person in a position of power. That’s what you like people in power, and particularly when they solve an anxiety.”

Are we more anxious now than ever before and why do we look to our leaders to solve it?

“Every century has its anxiety but we are doing badly at the moment. We still have nuclear states like North Korea and a failed state like Pakistan, we’re also running around there. Then you have concerns about the environment. We realise that we can really blow up, not just in a nuclear way, by doing horrible things to the environment. And then we have now we have lots of violence, all those terror groups… 

Plus, which I think is actually an invitation to disorder, to use that word is income inequality. And income inequality has not diminished, and then and then, of course, the pandemic at the moment. So there are lots of things to be anxious about. And when people are anxious, which is an evolutionary trait we look for, we fall into a dependency mode. We look for a leader who you can only fantasise has the power to get us through these tough times.”

This idea of leaders getting us through tough times led to an interesting discussion. Just what it is that soothes people’s anxieties? In other words, when choosing a leader, do people have firm clear, fixed ethics? Or are they in fact, influenced at the time by where either their interest rate lies, or their safety lies?

It’s a very good point. But you know, it’s very hard to generalise. In the first place, there are the opportunists who feel they would like to be close to the sources of power and the goodies, you know, they like power, they’re likely to use it. Which of course, again, evolutionary psychology it had to do, who has to do with procreation. Whoever has the resources, gets the women. That’s it that’s basically, in a way and like it or not, we are still some primitive beings. 

There might be a number of people who are totally convinced, you know… The mind is a funny thing we have a great capacity for compartmentalisation, rationalisation, why we do certain things.

But in general, we get our values from our parents, they instil certain values in us and our teachers. Now, sometimes you are not lucky, you might be lucky. Sometimes they are not exactly the best role models. So you might say this is exactly what I don’t want, I want to be very different. 

So some escape, some escapes are there to give them. For example, I’ve looked at people who took my class and you wonder given the circumstances, how they managed to get out? And usually what I see is that I get the parents might be total screwups, you know… But there was an uncle, an aunt, a teacher, who really had an interest in them. That made a difference. And that gives the person some hope and made them more resilient. 

So those are some of the what it’s, you know…. The older I get the more reluctant I am to generalise. Although, in the case of Trump is not so difficult, because he was invoking narcissistic personality disorder. I mean, it’s a classic, if you take the Handbook of psychiatrists, it was all there.

This idea that the start our start in life will impact how we perceive and handle power later in life is something I discuss in-depth in my book: How Successful Leaders do Business With Their World

Listen to all of the Balance of Power Series:

The Balance of Power: Episode One

Battles, Balance and the Fasted Kid in Florida: Episode Two

Readings from ‘How Successful Leaders to Business with their world?” : Episode Three

Are you interested in learning more about power or are perhaps interested in leadership training? You can contact me, or learn more about my consulting services & speaking engagements.

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