Change At the Top - Can CEOs Change?

CEOs wear the crown, which idiomatically, lies heavy. They are vested with authority (and of course, bear responsibilities) that comes with a very small margin of error. Clearly, they need to be well adjusted. To ensure this, they must be open to change and have not only the will also the skill to do so. Professor Manfred Kets de Vries discuses the value of this process and how it relates to the annual leadership workshop conducted at INSEAD.

by Manfred Kets de Vries
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

“When organizations go down the drain, it is generally because of the rot that started at the top,” says Professor Manfred Kets de Vries, The Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt Chaired Professor of Human Resource Management and Clinical Professor of Management and Leadership at INSEAD. He explains that leaders who have the ability to transform the work place into a “healthy and positive place” are also the ones who can write corporate success stories. And in order to do this, the person at the helm must be willing to place himself in a vulnerable position - that of wanting to be able to change.

If a leader cannot openly question his own actions and review his blind spots, how can he expect the same from his teams, asks Professor Kets de Vries. To do this he must stand back and explore his “inner theatre,” that is, to take a hard look at himself, understand and evaluate what happens within.

While it is true that change is a constant for everyone, this working paper focuses on change for those at the senior most positions in organizations, describing how CEOs can change, and how the annual leadership workshop offered at INSEAD catalyzes the process. This is important for two reasons, because their actions can impact others, and also because the process of change becomes more difficult for people in positions of power. “The higher up you get, the more you are surrounded by liars,” says Professor Kets de Vries.

The workshop entitled “The Challenge of Leadership: Developing Your Emotional Intelligence” evolved as a result of his extensive research on initiating personal change. The answer lay in “creating a learning community” (a small group in which each member had a vested stake along with “transitional space, where participants were shielded from the real world and could experiment with new forms of interacting).

This, he theorizes, provides the most effective change intervention to individuals who had achieved significant success but were hard pressed for time.

The paper discusses the conceptual framework behind the workshop, consisting of three triangles.

  • The “Triangle of Mental Life” highlights that behavior change needs a combination of the “cognitive and emotional” processes. While people understand rationally the benefits of change, the process would be partial if they were not emotionally committed to it-the “heart as well as the head” need to work together.

  • The “Triangle of Conflict” draws the linkage between the conflicts a person experiences due to unacceptable feelings that urge him to act in a defensive manner.

  • The “Triangle of Relationships” deals with patterns of response by pointing out similarities of past relationships and present–day behavior.

The author outlines six challenges the participants face during the process. The first addresses the manner in which one responds to catalysts for change. Professor Kets de Vries lists the criteria he uses to assess potential candidates for inclusion in the program. The second challenge works to define the “focal” issue that the participant hopes to deal with in the workshop. Then comes the process of “unhooking false connections,” where present day relationships and behavior patterns are analyzed in the context of those in the past. The next challenge is getting “involved” in the process in order to create an environment conducive to the transformation process. Professor Kets de Vries explains the various intervention techniques used in the workshop. The fifth challenge is “working through” a chosen theme using the group as a “screen,” experimenting with the “altered approach” in a sheltered setting. And finally, the sixth challenge is where the participant must deal with the critical task of internally accepting the “acquired gains” and making the transformation an enduring one.


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