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Published: November 23, 2010
 / Winter 2010 / Issue 61

 
 

Best Business Books 2010: Leadership

Highlights in a Low Year


Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries
Reflections on Leadership and Career Development: On the Couch with Manfred Kets de Vries
(Jossey-Bass, 2010)

Charlene Li
Open Leadership: How Social Technology Can Transform the Way You Lead
(Jossey-Bass, 2010)

Howard Kunreuther and Michael Useem, eds.,
Learning from Catastrophes: Strategies for Reaction and Response
(Wharton School Publishing, 2010)

Robert I. Sutton
Good Boss, Bad Boss: How to Be the Best...and Learn from the Worst
(Business Plus, 2010)


It hasn’t been a good year for leaders, or for books on leadership. Can you think of a political honcho, with the possible exception of Brazilian president Lula da Silva, who hasn’t been battered by anti-incumbent anger? Corporate chiefs fared little better, the heads of BP and Goldman Sachs being only the most brightly painted targets.

Although most of the leadership books published this year were not whipped up in a few months’ time — to be sure, some read as though they might have been — the sourness of this low, mean year seems to have infected even those that took a long time to create. Don’t look to the current crop for a paradigm-shifting new way to think about what leaders do or who they are. Expect to be trotted through lots of overly familiar ideas and precepts: Self-awareness is critical to a good leader, for example (who knew?), and the right kind of leadership can make a whopping difference to the productivity of the team.

The books that break through the prevailing torpor do so mostly by confronting traditional notions of leadership with new circumstances, slap-in-the-face challenges almost “ripped from the headlines” (though by now even that phrase seems pretty old). How do you lead in a world where everyone under 40 appears to be Facebooking and tweeting? What can you do to prepare yourself and your organization for those supposedly once-in-a-generation disasters that seem to be occurring every other month — a market-freezing global financial crisis today, a region-crippling oil spill tomorrow? And instead of wasting time debating the finer points of leader versus manager, what if we should just be thinking about “bosses”?

Head Shrinking

With a twist appropriate to this topsy-turvy year, the very best book on leadership represents a return to, or maybe a retreat into, a form of classicism. Reflections on Leadership and Career Development, by Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries, collects and updates articles written over the past three decades by one of the foremost proponents of what might be termed — though probably not by its practitioners — the psychoanalytic school of leadership. It’s the second in a trilogy whose not completely felicitous subtitle gives away the author’s bias: “On the Couch with Manfred Kets de Vries.”

The psychoanalytic school fielded some intellectual powerhouses in its time: Elliott Jaques, who first identified and labeled the “midlife crisis,” as well as Abraham Zaleznik at Harvard Business School and Harry Levinson at Harvard Medical School. But of late, it hasn’t been heard from much. Indeed, Kets de Vries, at age 68, strikes me as the only big name still in the fray. Dutch by birth and educated in Amsterdam, at Harvard (he was a doctoral student of Zaleznik), and in Montreal, today he operates from multiple bases, including a professorship at INSEAD, a leadership coaching center he established there, and his own consulting firm. He is the author, coauthor, or editor of some 30 books. (See “Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries: The Thought Leader Interview,” by Art Kleiner, s+b, Summer 2010.)

As a mode of therapy, psychoanalysis has been overshadowed by the rise of new treatments (cognitive behavioral therapy, for one), new drugs (Prozac and other serotonin-manipulating antidepressants), and skepticism about the scientific underpinnings of Freud’s theories. But if you’re prepared to accede to a few seemingly commonsense generalizations — that our past shapes the kind of individuals we become, that our behavior often unfolds in repetitive patterns — you can still find in the psychoanalytic viewpoint a trove of insights that are helpful or at least provocative. Kets de Vries mines this vein for all it’s worth. To be sure, he’d probably say his work is rooted in psychology rather than in a narrow Freudianism, but it’s squarely in the tradition of the (arguably) good doctor and his intellectual heirs.

 
 
 
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