Putting Leaders on the Couch - A Conversation with Manfred Kets de Vries

Although a number of business scholars have explored the psychology of executives, Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries has made the analysis of CEOs his life's work. In this article, Kets de Vries, a psychoanalyst, author, and Insead professor, draws on three decades of study to describe the psychological profile of successful CEOs. He explores senior executives' vulnerabilities, which are often intensified by followers' attempts to manipulate their leaders.

by Manfred Kets de Vries
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Although a number of business scholars have explored the psychology of executives, Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries has made the analysis of CEOs his life's work. In this article, Kets de Vries, a psychoanalyst, author, and Insead professor, draws on three decades of study to describe the psychological profile of successful CEOs. He explores senior executives' vulnerabilities, which are often intensified by followers' attempts to manipulate their leaders.

Leaders, he says, have an uncanny ability to awaken transferential processes--in which people transfer the dynamics of past relationships onto present interactions--among their employees and even in themselves. These processes can present themselves in a number of ways, sometimes negatively.

What's more, many top executives, being middle-aged, suffer from depression. Midlife prompts a reappraisal of career identity, and by the time a leader is a CEO, an existential crisis is often imminent. Not all CEOs are psychologically unhealthy, of course. Healthy leaders are talented in self-observation and self-analysis, Kets de Vries says. The best are highly motivated to spend time on self-reflection. Their lives are in balance, they can play, they are creative and inventive, and they have the capacity to be nonconformist.

"Those who accept the madness in themselves may be the healthiest leaders of all," he concludes.

Harvard Business Review, January 2004

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