Other cultures also have difficulty in being more open within a group setting. In some Muslim cultures, for example, it is considered shameful to talk about any matters of private life with outsiders. Whatever difficulties exist, they need to be contained within the family.
S+B: What is the role of leadership development programs, like some of the ones you oversee at INSEAD, in helping executives move away from narcissism?
KETS de VRIES: First of all, most leadership development programs are band-aids, because they rely on classroom lectures and case studies. I’ve written something like 150 case studies myself, but I rarely use them anymore because it’s much more exciting to have people talk about themselves. I tell them, “You are the case study.”
It may not be easy in the beginning to be a live case study, but people like to tell their stories. They see it as a great opportunity, and they are right. The challenge is to help them open up and trust each other, to create an ambiance of social reciprocity, to take some risks together. I’ve seen this done extremely well within many companies in their learning programs or change efforts. But to be really effective, you need to start with the top executives, because they’re the ones who have influence, and then move down the hierarchy to other decision makers. The leaders in a company are not just the people at the top. But the top people need to take the initiative.
I remember talking to Jorma Ollila when he was the CEO at Nokia [he is now the non-executive chairman of both Nokia and Royal Dutch Shell] about the executive leadership workshops there. I said, “You know, the first time you attend such a workshop, it’s fun. But are you going to be there the 20th time?” He said, “I will still be there.” It was important because of the signal it would send to the attendees. And he delivered.
S+B: And the course you conduct at INSEAD?
KETS de VRIES: You refer to my seminar, “The Challenge of Leadership”? It’s an opportunity for a group of very senior executives to talk, in a fairly informal environment, with their peers about complex organizational and personal issues. Many of them start off with a question like: “I’ve been the CEO of this bank for a number of years. Is this all I want — to be the richest person in the graveyard? What can I do to renew myself?”
During the seminar, they get a better understanding of their leadership style, and how they come across to others. It is also a good opportunity to work on their emotional intelligence. They start to become more reflective in action on a day-to-day basis. This means they think more and say, “What am I doing — and why am I doing it?” before they act. In the process of giving feedback to each other, they become more effective leaders. They begin to use themselves as an instrument. They listen to the text of what people say and the music — the words and their unspoken meaning. Very often, the feedback from people close to them, like their children, has the greatest effect on them. If your grown daughter tells you you’re a shit, you start moving. Because how many chances will you have to change her perception?
The seminar takes place in four weeklong sessions over the course of a year. There is a six-month gap before the last session, so that we can assess whether the participants have internalized the things they promised to do. It’s not one of those short seminars where people exit with a eureka feeling, and soon go back to normal. This elephant inside you is very large. You can’t remove it in a few days.