The neurotic imposter. Illustration by Paul Davis

The seven deadly CEOs

The inner conflicts and tensions experienced by executives have a direct impact on the health of the companies they lead.

by Stefan Stern
Last Updated: 24 Mar 2016

It is the dirty little secret of leadership. "Every day when I go into the office, I have the ability to make the lives of my 10,000 employees either miserable or positive." This was the observation of one CEO who attended an executive workshop at INSEAD business school.

"It doesn't take very much to go either way. I need to keep reminding myself daily of the role I play." The outside world sees business as a global struggle that takes place on a grand stage, where mighty corporate armies clash by day and night. Business is about big numbers, market share, bold innovation and smart execution. It is about hard people taking tough decisions about hard things.

Manfred Kets de Vries - witness to the confession quoted above - knows otherwise. He is director of INSEAD's Global Leadership Centre, and the author of 22 books on business and organisations. He is someone versed both in business school orthodoxy, having taught at Harvard, McGill and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales in Montreal, and in psychoanalysis - he is a member of the Canadian and International Psychoanalytic Associations.

Kets de Vries argues that the inner psychological conflicts and tensions experienced by leaders can be every bit as violent and disruptive as the commercial campaigns waged by competing enterprises. We labour under the myth that leadership is a rational endeavour. We should instead try to gain a better understanding of the psyches of our leaders.

Kets de Vries' new book, Leaders On The Couch, will be published later this year. It is a passionate, carefully argued, exhaustively referenced work that makes the case for healthier leaders and healthier, more successful organisations.

It is above all a plea for senior managers to reflect a little harder on their behaviour: why they respond the way they do in given situations, and whether they need to take action to try to change that behaviour.

"Many management theories that explain how people make decisions in organisations are inadequate oversimplifications," Kets de Vries writes in his introduction.

"In fact, the apparently rational explanations for certain decisions often turn out to be fiction."

We need to dig deeper into our personal back-stories, our upbringing and our experiences, to understand why we act in the way we do. Dressed as adults, we nonetheless repeat behaviour patterns first learned in childhood.

And, unwittingly, we become stuck in a destructive and repetitive cycle.

Far too many executives engage in "manic behaviour", Kets de Vries writes, "running and doing all the time, forgetting why it is they're going to work each day. Uncertain what they want, they're nonetheless willing to kill themselves to get it." Executives who don't understand themselves, or each other, risk running truly dysfunctional organisations. Having worked as a consultant to a large number of major corporations, he has concluded that many boards are what he calls "unnatural acts".

He says: "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. The 'barons' of the various business entities are so busy defending their respective fiefdoms that true conflict resolution doesn't occur. Other, more intangible factors seem to take over as executives circle around 'undiscussables'. Far too often, it has to be 'high noon' (or beyond) before corporate leaders are prepared to deal with the real issues."

As well as describing the effective interventions that may be necessary - group and individual coaching, perhaps even some psychotherapy or psychoanalysis - Kets de Vries provides useful descriptions of certain dysfunctional character types that may be all too familiar to World Business readers.

A summary follows of some of the key personalities that Kets de Vries covers in his book, but, as he makes clear, "most people are hybrids, showing a mixture of various styles ... the prototypes should be seen as useful forms of shorthand that help the reader see certain elements of personality that are often not immediately identifiable".

Think of this as a rough guide to some of the 'challenging' colleagues you may have to deal with. And, who knows, it may also provide some insight into the colleague who stares back at you out of the mirror. "Like it or not," says Kets de Vries, "'abnormal behaviour' is more 'normal' than most people are prepared to admit."

- Leaders On The Couch by Manfred Kets de Vries, Clinical Professor of Leadership Development, INSEAD, will be published by Wiley


If we are to understand life in organisations, we have to understand narcissism. "There's no place where the vicissitudes of narcissism are acted out more dramatically than on the organisational stage, where narcissistic leaders can find themselves, but followers must lose themselves," says Kets de Vries Self-esteem is healthy. It makes us confident, assertive and creative.

But extreme narcissism leads to egotism, lack of empathy and the failure to acknowledge boundaries. "The combination of a leader's overly narcissistic disposition and his or her position of power can have devastating consequences."

Where does this narcissism come from? We must, I'm afraid, blame the parents. "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." Of course, narcissism may help reinforce the already confident that their success is only natural and to be expected. It may, in the short to medium term, underpin some executives' performance. As Sigmund Freud wrote: "If a man has been his mother's undisputed darling, he retains throughout life the triumphant feeling, the confidence in success, which not seldom brings actual success along with it."

Could this be you? The narcissistic leader may:

- have a grandiose sense of self-importance

- be preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success and power

- believe they are special and unique

- require excessive admiration

- have a sense of entitlement: unreasonable expectations of especially favourable treatment

- take advantage of others to achieve their ends

- be unwilling to recognise the feelings and needs of others

- show arrogant, haughty behaviour and attitudes


The control freak puts the micro in micromanagement. Rules and regulations, order and planning - these are the guiding disciplines of the controller.

"They fear the world will fall apart if they don't follow the highest standards at all times or if the rules aren't obeyed," Kets de Vries writes.

When children grow up living within very firmly set boundaries, they learn to avoid deviating from the approved line or showing too much initiative.

As adults, they still fear making mistakes. They remain dissatisfied, believing they could do more, or better. "They're obsessed with 'shoulds' and 'musts' and the need to drive themselves harder. The internalised image of harsh, judgemental parents is ever-present, haunting them and feeding a punitive inner conscience."

Controllers may display an admirable rigour and commitment at work, but the need for control holds them back, making them rigid and inflexible.

They are happier in a hierarchical rather than an egalitarian environment. "They're respectful, deferential, ingratiating, even obsequious to superiors (with whom they identify), while at the same time being autocratic, condemning, uncompromising and demanding towards subordinates. Working with controllers is like working in a minefield: you never know when you are going to trigger a mine and pay a heavy emotional price for violating some rigid standard."

At a certain level in the organisation, controllers make effective bureaucrats.

But as responsibilities rise, they become indecisive. "People with such characteristics are obviously unsuitable for leadership positions." Could this be you? The controlling leader is:

- rigid, inflexible and lacking in spontaneity

- a workaholic

- excessively judgemental and moralistic

- self-punitive and self-denigrating

- grim, joyless, angry, frustrated, irritable

- uncomfortable with emotions

- fearful of making mistakes

- tense, inhibited and reserved

- conventional, serious and formal


"Nothingness. Non-existence. Black emptiness." "What did you say?" "Oh, I was just planning my future." Love and Death, Woody Allen (1975).

If your organisation is currently pervaded by a sense of negativity and non-communication, the chances are that depressive tendencies are making themselves felt at or near the very top. Depressives are governed by a belief that they are bad, under-performing and failing.

"People with a truly depressive disposition have constricted interests and difficulty understanding different points of view," writes Kets de Vries. "They're poor bets for leadership because of their lack of spontaneity, their indecisiveness and their inability to take initiative. Because of their pessimism, they're inclined to overestimate their difficulties and underestimate their capabilities."

Of course, clinically depressed people are ill and need help. But the hurly-burly of working life can mask depression, or distract colleagues from noticing when a co-worker is suffering. The depressed person may be unwilling or unable to acknowledge the symptoms. Depressives may also be extremely critical and judgemental, and struggle to motivate others.

"At work, which they see as unpleasant drudgery, a duty to be fulfilled, their scepticism and cynicism create a downbeat, discouraging, destructive atmosphere. Not only are they very hard on themselves, but they put considerable pressure on others. They expect the people who work for them to take on a great deal of work, and they nag about getting things done while simultaneously criticising their subordinates' performance."

Could this be you? The depressive leader has:

- a sense of hopelessness and worthlessness

- poor appetite and weight loss

- loss of energy and chronic fatigue

- general apathy

- inability to concentrate

- dejection and joylessness

- guilt, remorse and wretchedness

- recurring thoughts of death and suicide


The tough competitive climate makes heavy demands on today's executives.

Constant pressure to perform may bring about lapses in behaviour and judgement.

But for those leaders with a tendency towards aggression and fearlessness, this may be exactly the sort of environment they prefer.

In extreme cases, abrasive leaders manipulate and demean colleagues.

"They take pleasure in the psychological or physical suffering of others, and may even use violence to establish dominance in a relationship," Kets de Vries writes. "Cold-blooded and detached, they behave as if they are unaware of the harm they cause."

Abrasives calculate crudely that it may be necessary to get their retaliation in first. They think their colleagues are as ruthless, devious and ambitious as they are. "They're pros at remaining untouched by the effects of their own unpleasant activities, scapegoating others when things go wrong, and finding excellent reasons why they're not to blame themselves." Abrasive leaders love power. Other people's feelings cannot get in the way of results. The weak deserve no sympathy. The good of the company - that is, the abrasive leader's personal success - must come first.

"Although abrasive executives can find a home in neurotic organisations, this style of leadership does not make for long-term success," says Kets de Vries. "Because of the way abrasives deal with others, eventually they or the company will run into problems."

Could this be you? The abrasive leader is:

- strongly opinionated, narrow-minded, unbending

- authoritarian, intolerant and prejudiced

- energetic, competitive, power-oriented

- rigidly self-disciplined, perfectionist

- fascinated by violence

- quick to take offence

- harsh, cruel and domineering

- prone to outbursts of rage

- given to humiliating or demeaning others

- fearful of the dominance of others


Intel's Andy Grove told us long ago that "only the paranoid survive".

But this was not a plea for greater mental illness at work. Paranoia exists on a spectrum that moves from normal and sensible vigilance, through paranoid behaviour and on to an ultimately delusional state. Grove argued for vigilance, not manic suspicion.

Still, the paranoid urge may be hard to control once it has taken hold of an individual. A victim may then succumb to a pervasive and unwarranted suspicion of other people, where the actions of others are misread and misinterpreted. Paranoiacs deploy three defence mechanisms: they split people into camps; they blame others for feelings they themselves possess; and they try to deny the reality of the current situation. They may also fabricate fantasy versions of the truth.

'Healthy', Groveian, paranoia keeps itself in check, and leaders will unavoidably create some real, non-imaginary enemies. As Kets de Vries writes: "For leaders, healthy suspiciousness is an adaptive mechanism, a rational response to a world populated by real and just imagined enemies ... If suspicion isn't moderated by a sense of reality, however, it slips over into paranoia.

"Effective leaders ground their behaviour in sound political practices that limit and test danger, and they rely on trusted associates to help them stay safe and sane. Unfortunately, leaders with a paranoid disposition are often too isolated to engage in constructive reality-testing. Preoccupied with details, they pay insufficient attention to the bigger picture, seeing hidden meanings and secret coalitions everywhere."

Could this be you? The paranoid leader is:

- hypersensitive

- reluctant to confide in others

- quarrelsome and quick to anger

- self-righteous

- prone to nit-picking

- tense and unable to relax

- unforgiving of insults, injuries and slights

- likely to make mountains out of molehills


Have you got the gift (kharisma is Greek for gift)? The etymology is revealing: it helps describe that sense in which the truly charismatic - Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Jack Kennedy - seem effortlessly to entrance and bewitch an audience.

At its best, charisma inspires and motivates. At its worst, it can create a 'leader-follower collusion' or folie a deux - think Sancho Panza and Don Quixote - a kind of shared madness. The delusional leader with excessive charisma makes demands on his colleagues that may lead to destruction.

"Followers who want to remain employed may need to engage in mental acrobatics to stay in the orbit of their leader," says Kets de Vries. "They may need to twist and stretch reality a little or a lot in order to stay close to the centre of power."

Hypomania, or elation, is related to manic depression, but it is also part of what makes the exceptionally charismatic leader special. "It's easy to see how executives in a hypomanic mood can revitalise and move organisations." But the perils are obvious. What at times makes the charismatic leader so compelling - energy, emotion, flamboyance, passion - can readily slip into near manic behaviour. The high moods are exciting, but lows will inevitably follow and the thrill-addicted leader may be tempted to run a risk too far.

"However, hypomanics who learn from their mistakes, who nurture their reflective capacities, who are able to put on the brakes when the alarm bells ring, who create life situations that have a balancing influence - these people can be a great asset to any organisation."

Could this be you? The charismatic leader can:

- charm an audience, leaving it spellbound

- help people transcend their normal way of doing things

- inspire people to do good or evil

- draw their followers into a collusive relationship

- engage in self-destructive behaviour

- be prone to mildly manic states

- lead their organisation astray

- show poor judgement while in an elevated mood


Have you been found out yet? Gordon Brown, the UK's chief finance minister, says that two types of people have held his job in the past: those who failed and those who got out in time.

The neurotic impostor just cannot believe his or her own luck. "They view their achievements as being undeserved or purely accidental, and they describe those achievements in much harsher terms than any other person would," Kets de Vries writes. "Convinced by their own arguments, they seriously question their ability to repeat past successes. Despite public evidence that they're very accomplished and talented, they live with the constant dread of being exposed as the incompetents and frauds they think they really are."

Perfectionism is another flaw of the neurotic impostor. First, the impostor sets himself impossible goals; these are duly missed. Then the self-criticism begins again with renewed intensity. It is a sado-masochistic pattern, characterised by workaholism. Neurotic impostors may remain undetected while they stay in a middle management position. Having got to the top, however, anxiety about impending failure begins to grow.

If this sounds all too familiar to you, don't despair. "The majority of the very successful executives I've interviewed suffer, to one degree or another, from this syndrome," says Kets de Vries. "Deep down, many of them believed that they had been lucky to slip through their various jobs without being unmasked as frauds."

Could this be you? The neurotic impostor may:

- have a constant dread of not living up to expectations

- be a workaholic

- be poor at people development

- be addicted to calling in the consultants

- be an absolute perfectionist and set excessively high goals

- feel that every day at work is a test they have to wing

- believe they have fooled others into thinking that they are smarter or more capable than they really are

- think that their luck isn't going to last

- believe that they will be unmasked as incompetent and a fake.

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