In 1994, after five years as an investment banker at Lazard Frères, Messier became the head of a utility group, Compagnie Générale des Eaux. It was a water and waste management company that ran sewage plants. He renamed it Vivendi, turned it into a global media and telecommunications giant, and started buying movie studios, music labels, and publishing houses. He moved to New York, living in a €20 million [US$17.5 million] apartment that Vivendi paid for, apparently lying about the company’s financial health, and racking up close to €14 billion [US$12 billion] in debt. In his early years, he condemned golden parachutes and promised never to accept one; then, when he was fired after a shareholder lawsuit, he blamed the rest of the company for not supporting his ideas and demanded a huge severance package. Billions were lost in shareholder value, and the company was destroyed, largely through vanity and greed.
S+B: Others might say, “These lessons don’t apply to my company. Messier’s was a special case. And the shareholders should have been paying more attention.”
KETS de VRIES: Yes, but the difference between a Messier and an ordinary leader is one of degree, not kind. The average American CEO gets paid more than 10-fold the salary of the U.S. president. Do you think that they are dealing with that much more complexity than he is? Talk about narcissism and a sense of entitlement!
I wrote a book called Lessons on Leadership by Terror: Finding Shaka Zulu in the Attic [Edward Elgar, 2005]. Shaka Zulu was a despotic 19th-century tribal warlord who brought together the Zulu nation in South Africa with violent, paranoid authoritarianism; he executed thousands of people. The book was partly a way for me to reflect on the behavior of Saddam Hussein. And I also recounted the famous Stanley Milgram experiments, in which many people showed themselves willing to administer what they thought were painful shocks to an innocent person (supposedly in a learning experiment), as long as an authority figure gave them permission to do it. We all have these elements in us — the self-aggrandizing narcissistic leader, and the follower who obeys, no matter the cost. All of us have a darker side. It’s best to know how to manage that part of ourselves. Otherwise, in extreme situations, we tend to regress and become destructive.
S+B: Several years ago, we published a review by Jim O’Toole of Lessons on Leadership by Terror. [See “Best Business Books: Monsters and Diplomats,” s+b, Winter 2005.] He wrote that he was skeptical that businesspeople in our world could regress as far as Shaka Zulu.
KETS de VRIES: I’m a product of the Second World War, and many of my family members in the Netherlands didn’t survive. That has colored my outlook about the damage that leaders can do. I think Hannah Arendt was right about the banality of evil, the ability of people in ordinary life to do great damage. I can see it today when I look around the world. Look at Robert Mugabe’s reign of terror in Zimbabwe, or at life in North Korea, or at some of the things going on in parts of Russia.
S+B: But those are all political, not business, leaders.
KETS de VRIES: And in business, look at all the corporate cultures gone astray. Look at Enron, with its brutal “rank and yank” practices. Even the first Henry Ford descended into violent cultural practices; toward the end of his tenure, if you were no longer wanted, you might find your desk in flames. Not a very subtle hint. It was like the Gestapo was running the place there.