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  1. The Business Interview
25 October 2021

“Three per cent of people in the financial sector are psychopaths.” Manfred Kets de Vries on CEOs

The prolific author discusses overwork and why some companies rot from the top.

By Will Dunn

Anyone who tried and failed to write a book during lockdown should look away now: Manfred Kets de Vries has written seven since the pandemic began.

 “It’s my antidepressant,” he said of writing. “I get up very early in the morning, I write for a few hours, and I feel so much better.” At 79, he is the author of more than 50 books on the psychology of businesses and the people who lead them. He trained first as an economist, then as a psychoanalyst, and has for decades been one of the leading thinkers on the psychology of organisations.

While working at McKinsey, he realised that company structures were typically looked at using models and reports, but that to really change a company it was necessary to “touch the hearts and minds of the senior executives”. He went on to establish the leadership department at Insead, the leading European business school, where he still teaches.

Kets de Vries had just returned to his home in Paris from Moscow, where he spent four days running a course for a group of senior executives. Russia has some of the longest working hours in the OECD, and some companies expect employees to be available 24 hours a day. “Many Russians run their organisations like a Darwinian soup,” he said, but he believes that if he can help his clients change, their employees – who number in the hundreds of thousands – might also benefit. 

Many leaders, he said, suffer from “hubris”, and his job is to teach them the well-known Delphic maxim: “know thyself”. This involves unpicking the belief that organisations rise or fall according to the brilliance of their CEOs, and to “make them realise that leadership is a team sport”. This team is not comprised only of their colleagues but of their friends and families; a person’s work is unavoidably affected by their inner life. Often, global business leaders find this hard to grasp: “It’s very hard for many executives to accept that 95 per cent of their behaviour is unconscious.

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“If people come to me and say, ‘I want to become a charismatic, transformational leader,’ I say go find a snake-oil salesman. But if they say ‘I want to learn more about myself’… I train reflective leaders.” His courses last a year, to give him multiple opportunities to confront CEOs with their progress – or lack of it. “I live on shame and guilt,” he joked.

One symptom of a failure to reflect is overwork. Rather than facing their real concerns, said Kets de Vries, “many prefer what psychologists call the manic defence – they have to be running all the time. When they stop, they might get depressed.” Does this not sound familiar to the author of so many books? He laughed: “It’s true, I have a workaholic tendency,” he admitted.

Another symptom is micromanagement, which he said is a common problem for skilled people who have been promoted into management. “If you’re a good engineer, and your identity is focused on being a good engineer, and you become the head of engineering – it means you have to let go of that and become a manager. That’s a very difficult transition.”

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Often, he said, the best solution is for people not to become managers at all – but in many organisations “you don’t get respect” – or more money – without letting go of your identity as a skilled worker.

His latest book (unless he wrote one over the weekend, which seems possible) is called Leadership Unhinged. It looks at “the ugly, the bad and the weird” in modern political leadership, including arguably the most problematic businessperson of our times: Donald Trump. How would he treat Trump, in the unlikely event he became a client? “To have a client like Trump is hopeless. This is a terrible mixture of psychopathy and narcissism… they are very seductive, they tell you what you want to hear, but nothing happens.”

One of the dangers of people such as Trump, Kets de Vries said, is that “they are so good at managing upwards” that only those who work under them know how unpleasant they are. “Very often, HR directors don’t see what is going on.”

Recently, he took on a client he believed to be a psychopath, an experience from which he said he is still recovering. “One per cent of the population are psychopaths; in the financial sector, it’s probably three per cent.

“One characteristic of psychopathic executives,” he explained, “is taking credit for the work of others. And they also move fast to the next thing; you don’t see their mistakes, and they are very often blaming people.” There are many parallels with populist and authoritarian leaders, he said, who share the same “primitive defence mechanisms”, creating division and a culture of blame.

In politics, the narcissism that leads a personality such as Trump to seek the attention of media controversy and constant rallies can also lead to success, of a sort. The same can be true of CEOs, particularly of technology companies, whose pathological hubris is the right kind of crazy for early-stage investors. 

Kets de Vries’s contempt for populism and authoritarianism is deep-rooted. He was born in the Netherlands in 1942, and during the Second World War his Jewish father was detained and narrowly escaped being sent to Auschwitz; his uncle and aunt were not so lucky. In politics and in business, he said, one of the more unpleasant effects of an unhinged leader is the “emotional contagion” of the people around them. The selfishness and ignorance of a leader can cause the behaviour of a company, perhaps even a society, to regress.

But Kets de Vries remains an energetic optimist. He recounted a version of a story first told by the anthropologist Loren Eiseley: “You know the sea star story? It’s about this enormous storm. The next day, you’re taking your dog for a walk in the beach, and [there] are thousands of sea stars. And there’s a young lady on the beach, taking one sea star at a time and throwing it in the water. And so you say to her, ‘What are you doing? There are thousands of them, you can’t make a difference!’ And she says, ‘It makes a difference to this one.’ That’s my life. That’s the reason I work with CEOs… [to make them] more reflective, [on] how they affect the culture, and what they can do better.”

[See also: Without Marc Warner “thousands would be dead”: the physicist who averted a herd immunity disaster in the UK]