Books: What's on your boss' mind?

You might have thought the answer beyond you, but this book could provide the insight you need into the psychological health of your leader. Stefan Stern reports.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Leader on the Couch
Manfred Kets de Vries
Jossey-Bass £19.99
MT price £17.99
To order, visit

You don't have to be a psycho to get to the top in business but it may help, in the short term at least. A toxic blend of ambition, vanity, testosterone and ego has driven many a senior executive's career. And as for the men ...

Perhaps you've had one of those bosses who sent you reeling from their office in disbelief. You try to stay calm, but what you really want to do is grab them by the lapels and shout 'Get some f***ing therapy!'

Now you may not have to. Manfred Kets de Vries' new book could provide the antidote to the manic boss - if only you could get him or her to read and understand its messages. In a crowded market of dubious management psychobabble, the author offers a well-founded, properly researched, psychoanalytical approach to understanding the bizarre behaviour of troubled leaders. Crucially, he also offers some suggested ways of dealing with appalling behaviour.

Insead's Kets de Vries is unique among the business school community in having a profound grasp of both the imperatives of business and the psychology of business leaders. He is the director of Insead's global leadership centre and has published 20 books on business and organisations. He has taught at Harvard, McGill and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales in Montreal, but he's also a paid-up member of the psychoanalytical tribe. He understands what makes both businesses and people tick.

As a true Freudian, Kets de Vries looks for the darker, hidden motivations that drive us all. 'Many management theories that explain how people make decisions in organisations are inadequate over-simplifications,' he says in his introduction. 'In fact, the apparently rational explanations for certain decisions often turn out to be fiction, rationalisations made after the fact.' And, 'like it or not, "abnormal behaviour" is more "normal" than most people are prepared to admit ...'

This all matters enormously. The stakes at work are high, and yet those charged with the leadership of powerful organisations may not really understand why they behave in the way they do. If they could come to understand how their past has shaped them and why they respond in certain ways to different types of people or situations, business leadership might be more enlightened and secure.

As coach and consultant, the author has seen the consequences of this ignorance at first hand. Executives often lack any self-awareness or conception of their dysfunctional decision-making process. 'Though executives come together to make serious decisions affecting the future of the organisation and its people, they engage in ritualistic activities that centre on political gamesmanship and posturing rather than substance ...

'Far too often, it has to be "high noon" (or beyond) before corporate leaders are prepared to deal with the real issues.'

The real fun in this book comes from Kets de Vries' detailed verbal portraits of a dozen or so character types: narcissists, control freaks, charismatics, neurotic impostors, and so on. For narcissists, 'the early years are characterised by the tension between a grandiose self-image and the helplessness that is the true state of childhood. Inadequate resolution of that tension produces negative feelings and a hunger for personal power and status ... With their need for power, status, prestige and glamour, many narcissistic personalities end up in leadership positions.' But this is often not the sort of leadership we need. 'Because narcissists are motivated by selfishness their successes are ephemeral.'

'Abrasive leaders' can achieve much in the short term. 'Cold-blooded and detached, they behave as if they are unaware of the harm they cause,' says the author. But 'because of the way abrasives deal with others, eventually they or the company will run into problems.'

'Neurotic impostors' are, perhaps reassuringly, far more common than you might realise. 'The majority of the executives I've interviewed suffered, to one degree or another, from this syndrome,' Kets de Vries reveals.

'Deep down, many of them believed that they had been lucky to slip through their various jobs without being unmasked as frauds.'

How do we stop our bosses from driving us (and themselves) mad? Effective corporate governance can play a part, the author says. The mad must be stopped. Trusted advisers may persuade leaders that coaching has a part to play, both for individuals and for top teams.

But is the psychological health of our leaders really so fragile? A look at recent corporate history suggests that billions of dollars could have been saved with a better understanding of a few troubled CEO psychologies. More leaders would benefit from a few sessions on Kets de Vries' couch. 'Far too many executives engage in "manic" behaviour,' he writes. 'Uncertain what they want, they're nonetheless willing to kill themselves to get it.'

Stefan Stern also writes a weekly column on management for the FT. He is terribly well adjusted


All the books reviewed are available from the MT bookshop. To order, call 08700 702 999 or visit

P&P at £1.95 will be added to each order.


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