Companies sometimes have to deliberately protect these values. For example, I think that Novo Nordisk would have been acquired a long time ago, but it’s owned by a Danish foundation, so it is protected from takeover.
S+B: What else do you suggest to leaders who are trying to move to more authentizotic behavior?
KETS de VRIES: If a person has a narcissistic personality, that individual is always going to be somewhat narcissistic, but he or she can learn to become more aware of the results of such behavior. Imagine that you have an elephant inside you. The elephant is a metaphor for your inner theater, your personality. You can nudge it a little bit, but you cannot make it go away. Sigmund Freud used to talk about having a wild horse inside us, but I think the elephant is a better metaphor. It lumbers around inside and it doesn’t forget.
I also suggest that when executives become the king or the queen of the castle, they need to create an environment where people will have a healthy disrespect for the boss. There should be an open give and take, with no penalties for venturing a different opinion. We don’t want leaders like Lieutenant Scheisskopf. Some great executives choose to have people working for them whom the French sometimes call a morosoph: a “wise fool” — the fool of Shakespeare’s King Lear. These people can raise difficult issues in a joking way. Of course, they may go too far and get “killed” eventually.
For example, when I go to Russia to work with senior executives, I often take on the role of the wise fool. I may walk in the snow and talk about the meaning of life, and sometimes when the timing is right, I say something that really sets the person thinking.
S+B: Say more about the challenges for leaders in Russia.
KETS de VRIES: I like to go to Russia because there are many interesting people there. Some of them are larger than life. But it’s basically a developing country with an enormous nuclear arsenal and a lot of raw materials. In the past 15 years, have any world-class companies come out of Russia? There are no equivalents to the Japanese companies that emerged after World War II to become some of the best companies in the world.
To be sure, some Russian companies, like Gazprom, are big. They have a lot of power and resources. But they are extremely bureaucratic organizations run by the industrial– KGB–military complex. That is sad, because Russia has so much talent, and some very visionary, entrepreneurial executives. I really hope that this will change. And I’d like to help them get there.
And of course, thinking about Russia, there’s a geopolitical reality. Russia has always been surrounded by enemies: Iran, Afghanistan, or China. In addition, Russians have for so many centuries experienced incredible hardship. Just look at the last world war. And Russia has always relied on autocratic leadership to keep the country together. Many of its citizens still believe in the strongman theory of leadership.
In trying to change people and organizations, I use a leadership group coaching methodology, in which the members of the executive team sign off on each other’s action plans and learn how to coach each other. This type of group coaching is quite difficult in Russia. You need to be somewhat open and vulnerable in front of other people. It’s very hard to lower the mask when, as has happened in most Russian families, you have heard a knock on the door at 2 a.m.