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Published: May 10, 2010
 / Summer 2010 / Issue 59

 
 

The Thought Leader Interview: Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries

By the last week, I’m always quite impressed by the kind of changes the participants have made, both in their business and in their private lives. I am also very pleased with the way they deal with each other. They’re less self-centered; they start to realize the complexity and value of other people. They have courageous conversations with people at work and at home. And they have truly committed to reinventing the way they do things.

In our surveys of many programs at INSEAD, it turns out this is what senior executives want most. They don’t really want to be exposed to more economic models; they want to think about the direction of their lives. And since many of them are responsible for thousands of people, what they learn may have a beneficial broader effect.

S+B: Are most managers prepared for this type of self-awareness?
KETS de VRIES:
Not at first. But after a while, they discover that they are not alone in their confusion.

It’s been evident for a long time that many people, as they move on in their careers, become more interested in longer-term issues. They may start out influenced by money, perhaps if they were poor as children. They may then become obsessed by spending power, by what Thorstein Veblen called conspicuous consumption. Who can afford to buy the biggest car, house, or yacht? But eventually they realize that however rich they get, someone will always be richer. So they start to try to do something for society, something meaningful.

And it’s barely possible that the same may be true for businesspeople as a whole. In our “Consulting and Coaching for Change” class — which consists of a mixed group of people, including line managers, HR professionals, consultants, and executive coaches — we play a simulation game. It’s set on an island like Jamaica, with a large population under the poverty line. Teams of players represent a bank, a group of radical activists, an investor consortium, a hotel owner, and a group that wants to start an airline. And, of course, there is a team that plays the role of the government.

The island’s economy collapses. As the situation gets tougher, people typically begin to pull fast ones on each other, trying to get any advantage they can. The hotel group tries to sell at an exploitive price; the radicals start rioting. And the bank pulls back its lending. It becomes a zero-sum game.

But this year, the outcome was quite different. The players took a much broader perspective, and started designing a solution together that would be better for the island as a whole.

I’m a skeptical person. But it was striking that in the debrief, when I asked why they picked that strategy, the participants said, “Listen, given the economic state of the world, and the state of the environment, it would be better to look at the long run.”

Ten years ago, people in business schools talked only about short-term gains and the value of being purely rational. Now, it’s much more acceptable to talk about the value of emotions. And although many executive-education programs are not doing so well, given the economy, the programs that I am responsible for — that deal with emotional issues and pay attention to what happens under the surface — are oversubscribed. It’s very fortunate for me, because these students continue to help me discover my ignorance.

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Author Profile:

  • Art Kleiner is editor-in-chief of strategy+business and the author of The Age of Heretics (2nd ed., Jossey-Bass, 2008).
 
 
 
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