The Hall of Mirrors
S+B: But what about the humble, responsible, very capable people who cope with enormous pressure and keep their heads? Haven’t you met many such people in business?
KETS de VRIES: Certainly. Most people in corporations are like that. Many of them have a solid dose of humanity, humility, and humor. If you can still make fun of yourself, that’s a good sign of mental health.
In an overly simplistic way, you can divide humanity into three groups. The first group, about 20 percent, has been lucky in life. They had a reasonably happy background. Take for example Richard Branson, the chairman of the Virgin Group, about whom I have written many case studies. I even interviewed his parents once; he had a very warm father and an entrepreneurial, supportive mother. He is an example of the kind of person who feels very good in his skin.
At the other extreme, 20 percent have suffered through a difficult childhood. When children grow up neglected, too pampered, or treated as an extension of their parents, they can lose their ability to relate their internal image of themselves to the real world outside them. As they grow into adults, they find it hard to maintain a stable sense of self-esteem. The pursuit of admiration, of feeling important, may turn into a lifelong quest. They’re determined to prove that they amount to something. Some of these people respond, given what they experienced, by adopting destructive character traits.
And then the middle 60 percent, from a clinical point of view, can be described as mildly neurotic. That’s hopefully us!
Some people, in these latter two groups, hold the attitude that life is tough, and they have to take for themselves everything they can. They may even turn spiteful and vindictive. Others say, “Listen, I have had a hard time, but I want to rise above it. I want to do something different, or give something back.” That is the group I most admire. They try to change things for the better, starting with themselves. And if they become leaders, they have an impact on their companies. In the political world, these are the Gandhis and Mandelas.
S+B: How do businesses end up with so many destructive narcissists in charge?
KETS de VRIES: Many successful people in business can be described as insecure overachievers. They feel like they’re fakes; that it could be discovered that they don’t actually know what they’re doing as managers. This is known as the “impostor syndrome,” and it’s quite common. Whatever they accomplish, they feel it is never good enough. It may start when they are tapped to lead others. The transition from being a very good salesman, trader, or researcher to heading a sales force, trading group, or research team can be difficult. And it is not always clear why they are successful in these more managerial roles.
But they rise higher, nonetheless. And if you rise to run a company of, say, 100,000 people, naturally you wonder sometimes, “Do I really deserve this position?” You’d be very unusual if you felt otherwise. But you’d have to be quiet about it, because if anyone found out you felt like an impostor, they would question why you were there, in that role, making so much money. Some people compensate for this feeling of insecurity by becoming more narcissistic: convincing themselves, and everyone else, that they truly are special.
S+B: Presumably, the higher they get, the more the rest of the company contributes to this.
KETS de VRIES: Exactly. Harvey-Jones tells the story that when he became the chairman of ICI, he wanted to continue to drive to work in his old, battered Volkswagen. But he was told subtly to stop such nonsense. The chairman of ICI is supposed to arrive in a Rolls-Royce, driven by a chauffeur. He had a good sense of how ridiculous this was; others easily get used to it. They start to believe that they are entitled to such things — and more.