Our series: Ethics in Business – Where is the education for narcissistic leaders?

Reading Time: 13 minutes
Firoz1
By Firoz Abdul Hamid

The former Chief Secretary to the Government of Malaysia (Cabinet Secretary), Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan, wrote an article in 2011 on one of Thomas Hardy’s most acclaimed novels titled – The Mayor of Casterbridge, “The Life and Death of a Man of Character”. He related it to the issues of character in the making of a successful public sector.

The Mayor of Casterbridge tells the story of one Michael Henchard, who would sell his wife and daughter when in a state of total intoxication. Realising what he had done, Henchard would take an oath to remain sober for 21 years. He would rise to become the Mayor of Casterbridge (a town in Dorchester, Dorset, UK) in the ensuing years. Unbeknown to him, his past would haunt him at the pinnacle of his success when his wife and daughter would reappear.  As with the many tales of rise and fall of leaders, Henchard would revert to his drinking habits. An inevitable fall from grace follows and he ultimately dies alone. Poignant in this tale is – beneath all the success perhaps the same man was there all along – only cloaked by his exterior achievements. His character was not refined even as his outward achievements did. Most notable in the novel is Henchard’s heart rending will which reads as follows:

“That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me. “& that I be not bury’d in consecrated ground. “& that no sexton be asked to toll the bell. “& that nobody is wished to see my dead body. “& that no mourners walk behind me at my funeral. “& that no flowers be planted on my grave, “& that no man remember me. “To this I put my name.

At the heart of this tale is as Thomas Hardy would so eloquently present – “character is destiny”.  That destiny can be that of our countries, our organisations and businesses and our own. As we witness the rise and fall of once formidable world leaders – in politics and business – one wonders if behind the mirage of charisma and sound bites lie many such Mayors of Casterbridge in our own institutions and organisations. It is a wonder, despite the many organisational transformation programmes and trainings we attend in the course of our careers, that we have adequate tools to detect narcissistic leaders or even the tools to detect sound character.

The education journey of Bernie Madoff would show that he had no lack of it. Yet something went wrong somewhere. The trailer to movie “In God We Trust”, which showcases Madoff’s secretary’s account ends with a chilling note – she worked for him for 25 years and she did not know who he was.

Professor Manfred Kets De Vries, a clinical professor of leadership development, also the Chair of Leadership Development and Organisational Change at INSEAD, France,  Singapore and Abu Dhabi speaks candidly about narcissistic inclinations in leaders and if not addressed could affect the soundness and sustainability of organisations.

Professor Manfred hones in on the crux of education in the making of a leader. The following conversation with Professor Manfred surfaced such deep insights into the role of education and what narcissism is all about to Ethics In Business. He also discussed how the quest for outward glitter and shallowness today is resulting in many losing a sense of the true meaning of life.

Great civilisations were built by people of sound characters.  Do we know the people we choose to lead us, lead our nations, our institutions, and our destinies, today? Or can we realistically? Or are we allowing ourselves to be deluded by sterling CVs and superficialities? Perhaps our quest for external glitter veils us from the fact that a strong tree is held by roots embedded deep beneath the ground. Without these roots, the externality of the tree is simply naught.  There is no tree. Like the roots of a tree, without the tools to imbue soundness in character, perhaps we all contributing to creating Mayors of Casterbridge in our own societies!

Manfred2Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries

“They fear discovery of their ‘fraudulence’ and undertake too much work to compensate for their lack of self-esteem and identity.”

1. Where does ethics begin?

It all begins with education. Education moulds the mindset. Ideally, it should teach people how to reason. And you cannot teach the power of reasoning through rote learning – which seems to be the prevalent nature of education in many parts of the world – East and West – developed countries or otherwise.

The best examples of good and successful education system can be seen in Finland. Followed by South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. That being said, I like the system in Finland best as it gives teachers and students a voice. Education is more of a Socratic process. The education system is holistic and it doesn’t just focus on the classroom. Actually, in Finland, there is less time in the classroom, less homework, less testing, and less money spend per student compared to most other countries. But the teachers in Finland spend an enormous amount of time being innovative in educational pedagogy. In that country, the statement, “no student should be left behind” isn’t an empty slogan. It’s for real. The syllabus includes humanistic education. It’s not rote learning. Exams aren’t part of this package until you are 11 years old. So students are taught how to think, critically evaluate, question, and understand the human perspective of learning and education.

2. The education system that has worked

Finland faced many invaders – Sweden and Russia to name a few. In most recent history, it had the Winter War with Russia. Originally, it was a poor, peasant society. It has no natural resources except timber. Its citizens need to be focused to survive. They realised early on that with a small, 5 million population, they needed to do something different to stand out. And the best investment a country can make in its future is education. Given this context, Finland took the best and remade its country.

But the beauty of Finland is that the revamp of its education system was not an overnight project. They were thinking long-term—not something politicians tend to be very good at. It took them 40 years to get where they are now. No quick fixes. Today, its basic educational philosophy is “Community” not “Competition”. All schools are of the same quality in Finland. Unlike many other countries, these schools are not sectarian or religious or political based. As a caveat I like to add, however, that this emphasis on cooperation doesn’t mean Finns are not competitive—just think about sports.

Also, Finland has lowest rate of corruption in the world. It’s the way to prevent internal rot in the system. And what’s more, they are not hierarchical. You can call a big organisation to speak to a CEO and he/she will answer the call – not various gatekeepers. They don’t have a feudalistic culture like in Malaysia because they never had local monarchs. On the contrary, they have a very egalitarian culture and this in my view, adds to their remarkable education system. Many countries—and this includes Malaysia—would do well to study their example.

business-ethics3. Do you have to be religious to be ethical?

No, I don’t think so.  For some people it may be helpful to understand the meaning of values, but the basis is a good education system where children learn about the dos and the don’ts’s. The model of Finland is a good case in point. Ethics starts at home. Children should be taught self-regulatory system on what’s permissible and what’s not.  Of course, to do this effectively, societal forces come into play. If your society is feudalistic and authority driven, people will behave accordingly. The incentives, behavioural incentives, therefore are both driven by what is taught at home and what is accepted as societal norm.

Having a sense of what’s right, and what’s wrong is essential for all people in leadership positions. After all, leaders are merchants of hope—to quote Napoleon. They speak to the collective imagination of their people to create a group identity. But, as we all know, leadership has its darker side. Regressive forces are always around the corner. As Lord Acton’s statement goes, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And given the pressures on leaders, it doesn’t take very much. Before they are even aware of it, leaders will be surrounded by Yay-sayers, and lose touch with reality.

Paranoia is said to be the disease of kings. So when you live in an environment that does not promote value–driven leadership – a society that goes for Band-Aid solutions and shallow appearances – unfortunately people like that will come to the fore. You will create a vicious circle of negativity. To prevent that from happening, it would be wise that the leader has some kind of wise fool—like the fool of King Lear—who shows him or her reality. Particularly, when they are in power for too long, they may lose touch. A person like the Turkish prime minister seems to have been in need of such a fool—now his leadership “brand” is tarnished forever.

4. Is it idealistic to assume that ethics can be applied in the real world?

In our global world China is a rising star with an unholy alliance between the government and business. Ideology—meaning communism– has transformed into a purely materialism credo. Their princelings rule their world. They are the entitled, capitalistic class. This is the scenario in which they operate—like is the case in many other countries. So you create a world that revolves around glitter and materialism. It’s a world that can become quite shallow.

I have often asked people what’s happiness to them. There is a Chinese saying that says: Happiness is someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for. Unfortunately, in a world that only is interested in Mammon—material wealth or greed–relationships become very superficial, even with people close to you. And in spite of having so many “friends” on Facebook or whatever – people are actually quite alone. They feel lonely because they are all running after superficial glitz and glamour with no in-depth understanding of the true value of life. This of course shows in what we deliver in our work, in our relationships, and unfortunately in our lives.

Our various social media are a mixed blessing. How many “friends” can you really have? Unfortunately, what they encourage is self-promotion, thus making us increasingly narcissistic. We are creating an increasingly narcissistic society.

Briefly, narcissism (a clinically recognised disorder) relates to our reaction to our self worth. Thus, when our sense of self is rather shaky, we may be compelled to be seeking the limelight—to get other people’s attention. The typical indicators of being subjected to this disorder are the need for constant admiration, selfishness, lack of empathy, exploitation of others, enviousness, and an attitude that the rules are for others, not for us. And given the pressures on leadership, leaders will be more prone to this disorder than others. Frequently, it has to do with that unholy interface of position and disposition. So when a leader or those in leadership positions posses these characteristics, it can affect businesses and markets.

Narcissistic people have a tendency to push the boundaries, evade rules and the likes to make their mark known. Sometimes in so doing they can come across charismatic. Some organisations may see this as advantageous and may promote these people to key leadership positions. We should always remember, however, that charisma has its downsides. After all, Hitler and Stalin were quite charismatic.

leadership_marketing5. Can ethics be a tipping point in leadership i.e. whether you make or break as a leader?

Of course, ethics make a difference. But what is ethical or not? Too many people are strangers to themselves. In my work, I show a mirror to people: I make them understand that there is a difference in what they say they do, and what they really do. I try to get people out of their rut. But, unwittingly, many people are riding a dead horse. I can only tell you that when they are doing so, it’s time to dismount. It’s time to do things differently. It’s time to make different choices. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, is viewed as a definition of insanity.

We all need to realise that what might have been good at 12 – certain ways of behaving – may not work when you are 40. One example is being in and out of relationships. Why do some people feel the need to be in and out of relationships?  Some people seem to be marrying the same type of person—but only a younger version. And every time the relationship fails. In the meantime, they create a great interpersonal mess. These people need to become aware of the blind spots within themselves if they wish to move forward towards a happier life.

Recently, I had someone who attended a workshop with me. As a senior government official, he was a key player in a government transformation program. The role he was asked to play was psychologically extremely taxing. We shouldn’t forget that to play the role of Genghis Khan has its downsides. Frankly, he came into my workshop as a psychological wreck. Every part of his life was falling apart. But the workshop helped him to become more attuned to his inner world – what was really important to him. It helped him to create a greater congruence between his inner and outer world. We always need to remember that unless there is this congruence, it will be difficult to be effective – to be an authentic leader. His was one of the most dramatic transformations I have seen in a long time.

What transformed him? – You need to go to the roots of the person. Sometimes, to understand people, we may do well to go back to our paleontological history (the scientific study of prehistoric life). Basically, we have to look at our archaic origins. Palaeontology shows us the roots of leadership behavior. At times, it may be useful to look how our close relatives, the great apes, behave. Just look, how silverback gorillas behave in the rain forest. It’s very much a hierarchical society. Life in many organisations has great similarities. Obviously, some very archaic behavior patterns are still part of us. Like in gorilla society, in a very basic way, the leadership style of Homo sapiens has to do with such basic things as direction, protection, and creating order. These archaic variables still play a role.

6. Are there psychological and neurological aspects that are related or that drive how ethical we are?

Neurologists suggest that there are only 40 impulses/second of which we are conscious. In contrast, we have 11 million impulses a second of which we are unconscious. The implication is that we don’t really know ourselves; that we are strangers to ourselves. For example, the kinetics of just being able sit or to stand – many unconscious impulses are given to your senses and your muscles. And here I am only talking about the more simple ones. You may not even know what you like and dislike when dealing with people, while your body is reacting to through these unconscious impulses.

Thus when we are unaware of whom we really are, we need to find ways to acquire greater awareness. The implications for not doing so can be horrendous. As a matter of fact, the present, global crisis of leadership can partially be explained through these basic neurological and psychological processes. It’s important to realise that in situations of crisis, regressive group dynamics can come to the fore, forces that do not bring the best out of people. When this happens, we create an ideal playing field for reactionary movements—left and right of the spectrum. Leaders need to be aware of this. They need to prevent that a binary view of the world prevails. Such an outlook only leads to scapegoating, and other destructive activities. As we have seen in the financial crisis, narcissism, greed, distrust, and fear make for a very heady mix.

You can even argue that the economic crisis was a reflection of the narcissistic behaviour of these financial “masters of the universe,” with their great sense of entitlement. People in decision-making positions had lost touch with the reality of the market. They seemed to be in complete denial; they didn’t want to see. But I like to add that the best and brightest did not have the means to understand what narcissism could do to them. The net result has been quite disastrous for many innocent bystanders.

The world is now moving towards – Authentic Leadership – your internal values need to be in sync with the external values. Of course, we know that this is an ideal state. We are human beings at the end of the day—with all our flaws and weaknesses. Deeply embedded values ultimately determine how a leader deals with situations.

Learn & Lead7. Why do leaders lose touch?

Leaders have to be aware that the moment they are in a powerful position – candour disappears. Candour disappears with authority. You will have yea-sayers around you. And so these leaders lose touch. It corrupts. No party should be too long in the office.

So leaders should realise their environment and move out of their comfort zones to seek truth and reality. This is where judgement and maturity is essential in leadership. To get out of a make-belief environment to one of reality. If they don’t do so, then sooner or later, as we have seen in many of history’s examples in business and politics – the ultimately crash awaits.

8. How does one overcome narcissistic tendencies?

You need to create an honest environment were feedbacks and consultation are encouraged. You need to create an environment of 360-degree feedback. Thus having a feedback process not only top-down but also bottom up. In great organisations, people have a healthy disrespect for their boss. People are not court marshalled because they spoke their mind. I never learn anything from people who agree with me. To take a famous example: Initially, Alexander the Great had this great support system, which he built around him. He had his “Companions.” He was a great leader as a result. Of course, when he decided to be a god, the feedback system failed. But in many societies, unfortunately, feedback is only top down.

The environment of your workplace and your society breeds the kinds of leaders you create. So leadership at all levels must push for inculcation of sound and ethical leadership and also be prepared for feedback from these leaders. Industry captains must not be persecuted for showing leadership and courage. They should be assessed by the soundness of their business and their characters and not how politically affiliated they are to decision makers.

 

Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries (Econ. Drs., University of Amsterdam), management (ITP, MBA, and DBA, Harvard Business School), and psychoanalysis (Canadian Psychoanalytic Society and the International Psychoanalytic Association), Kets de Vries scrutinises the interface between international management, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and dynamic psychiatry. His specific areas of interest are leadership, career dynamics, executive stress, entrepreneurship, family business, succession planning, cross-cultural management, team building, coaching, and the dynamics of corporate transformation and change. A clinical professor of leadership development, he holds the Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt Chair of Leadership Development and Organisational Change at INSEAD, France, Singapore & Abu Dhabi. He has been the Founder of INSEAD’s Global Leadership Center, one of the largest leadership development centers in the world. In addition, he is program director of INSEAD’s top management program, “The Challenge of Leadership: Developing Your Emotional Intelligence,” and Scientific Director of the Executive Master’s Program “Consulting and Coaching for Change (and has five times received INSEAD’s distinguished teacher award). He has also held professorships at McGill University, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales, Montreal, and the Harvard Business School, and he has lectured at management institutions around the world.  The Financial Times, Le Capital, Wirtschaftswoche, and The Economist have rated Manfred Kets de Vries one of world’s leading leadership thinkers. The Financial Times, Le Capital, Wirtschaftswoche, and The Economist have rated Manfred Kets de Vries among the world’s top fifty leading management thinkers and among the most influential contributors to human resource management.  Kets de Vries is the author, co-author, or editor of more than 35 books and has published over 350 scientific papers as chapters in books and as articles. He has also written approximately a hundred case studies, including seven that received the Best Case of the Year award. He is a regular writer for a number of magazines. His work has been featured in such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Business Week, The Economist, The Financial Times, and The International Herald Tribune. He is a founding member of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations (ISPSO) that has honoured him as a lifetime member. Kets de Vries is also the first non-American recipient of ILA Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to leadership research and development, being considered one of the world’s founding professionals in the development of leadership as a field and discipline. The American Psychological Association has honoured him with the Harry and Miriam Levinson Award (Organisational Consultation division) for his contributions to the field of consultation. Furthermore, he has been given the ‘Freud Award’ for his contributions at the interface of management and psychoanalysis. He has also received the ‘Vision of Excellence Award’ from the Harvard Institute of Coaching.

E-mail: manfred.ketsdevries@insead.edu; websites: www.ketsdevries.com; www.kdvi.com.

 

See other posts from our articles series on Ethics in Business:

Ethics in Business: Perception of sleepwalking

Ethics in Business: Facing medical ethics head on in Malaysia

Ethics in Business: A take on business ethics in the US

Ethics in Business: Moving Islamic finance from conference rooms to humanity

Ethics in Business: Walking the ethical track in Malaysia a perspective

Ethics in Business: Soul of ethics in the new Dubai

Ethics in Business: A conversation with Professor Tariq Ramadan

Ethics in Business. With whom does the heartbeat of a nation lie, Part 1

Ethics in Business: With whom does the heartbeat of a nation lie, Part 2

Ethics in Business: Are we aware of the Iagos in our midst?

Ethics in Business: Fair trade or fair game, who benefits really

Ethics in business: What moves the conscience when mortality is at stake

Please: CSR is not Ethics in Business

Panel discussion: Medical ethics (plus video)

(Firoz Abdul Hamid is an Inside Investor contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.)

 

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Reading Time: 13 minutes

By Firoz Abdul Hamid

The former Chief Secretary to the Government of Malaysia (Cabinet Secretary), Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan, wrote an article in 2011 on one of Thomas Hardy’s most acclaimed novels titled – The Mayor of Casterbridge, “The Life and Death of a Man of Character”. He related it to the issues of character in the making of a successful public sector.

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Firoz1
By Firoz Abdul Hamid

The former Chief Secretary to the Government of Malaysia (Cabinet Secretary), Tan Sri Mohd Sidek Hassan, wrote an article in 2011 on one of Thomas Hardy’s most acclaimed novels titled – The Mayor of Casterbridge, “The Life and Death of a Man of Character”. He related it to the issues of character in the making of a successful public sector.

The Mayor of Casterbridge tells the story of one Michael Henchard, who would sell his wife and daughter when in a state of total intoxication. Realising what he had done, Henchard would take an oath to remain sober for 21 years. He would rise to become the Mayor of Casterbridge (a town in Dorchester, Dorset, UK) in the ensuing years. Unbeknown to him, his past would haunt him at the pinnacle of his success when his wife and daughter would reappear.  As with the many tales of rise and fall of leaders, Henchard would revert to his drinking habits. An inevitable fall from grace follows and he ultimately dies alone. Poignant in this tale is – beneath all the success perhaps the same man was there all along – only cloaked by his exterior achievements. His character was not refined even as his outward achievements did. Most notable in the novel is Henchard’s heart rending will which reads as follows:

“That Elizabeth-Jane Farfrae be not told of my death, or made to grieve on account of me. “& that I be not bury’d in consecrated ground. “& that no sexton be asked to toll the bell. “& that nobody is wished to see my dead body. “& that no mourners walk behind me at my funeral. “& that no flowers be planted on my grave, “& that no man remember me. “To this I put my name.

At the heart of this tale is as Thomas Hardy would so eloquently present – “character is destiny”.  That destiny can be that of our countries, our organisations and businesses and our own. As we witness the rise and fall of once formidable world leaders – in politics and business – one wonders if behind the mirage of charisma and sound bites lie many such Mayors of Casterbridge in our own institutions and organisations. It is a wonder, despite the many organisational transformation programmes and trainings we attend in the course of our careers, that we have adequate tools to detect narcissistic leaders or even the tools to detect sound character.

The education journey of Bernie Madoff would show that he had no lack of it. Yet something went wrong somewhere. The trailer to movie “In God We Trust”, which showcases Madoff’s secretary’s account ends with a chilling note – she worked for him for 25 years and she did not know who he was.

Professor Manfred Kets De Vries, a clinical professor of leadership development, also the Chair of Leadership Development and Organisational Change at INSEAD, France,  Singapore and Abu Dhabi speaks candidly about narcissistic inclinations in leaders and if not addressed could affect the soundness and sustainability of organisations.

Professor Manfred hones in on the crux of education in the making of a leader. The following conversation with Professor Manfred surfaced such deep insights into the role of education and what narcissism is all about to Ethics In Business. He also discussed how the quest for outward glitter and shallowness today is resulting in many losing a sense of the true meaning of life.

Great civilisations were built by people of sound characters.  Do we know the people we choose to lead us, lead our nations, our institutions, and our destinies, today? Or can we realistically? Or are we allowing ourselves to be deluded by sterling CVs and superficialities? Perhaps our quest for external glitter veils us from the fact that a strong tree is held by roots embedded deep beneath the ground. Without these roots, the externality of the tree is simply naught.  There is no tree. Like the roots of a tree, without the tools to imbue soundness in character, perhaps we all contributing to creating Mayors of Casterbridge in our own societies!

Manfred2Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries

“They fear discovery of their ‘fraudulence’ and undertake too much work to compensate for their lack of self-esteem and identity.”

1. Where does ethics begin?

It all begins with education. Education moulds the mindset. Ideally, it should teach people how to reason. And you cannot teach the power of reasoning through rote learning – which seems to be the prevalent nature of education in many parts of the world – East and West – developed countries or otherwise.

The best examples of good and successful education system can be seen in Finland. Followed by South Korea, Hong Kong and Singapore. That being said, I like the system in Finland best as it gives teachers and students a voice. Education is more of a Socratic process. The education system is holistic and it doesn’t just focus on the classroom. Actually, in Finland, there is less time in the classroom, less homework, less testing, and less money spend per student compared to most other countries. But the teachers in Finland spend an enormous amount of time being innovative in educational pedagogy. In that country, the statement, “no student should be left behind” isn’t an empty slogan. It’s for real. The syllabus includes humanistic education. It’s not rote learning. Exams aren’t part of this package until you are 11 years old. So students are taught how to think, critically evaluate, question, and understand the human perspective of learning and education.

2. The education system that has worked

Finland faced many invaders – Sweden and Russia to name a few. In most recent history, it had the Winter War with Russia. Originally, it was a poor, peasant society. It has no natural resources except timber. Its citizens need to be focused to survive. They realised early on that with a small, 5 million population, they needed to do something different to stand out. And the best investment a country can make in its future is education. Given this context, Finland took the best and remade its country.

But the beauty of Finland is that the revamp of its education system was not an overnight project. They were thinking long-term—not something politicians tend to be very good at. It took them 40 years to get where they are now. No quick fixes. Today, its basic educational philosophy is “Community” not “Competition”. All schools are of the same quality in Finland. Unlike many other countries, these schools are not sectarian or religious or political based. As a caveat I like to add, however, that this emphasis on cooperation doesn’t mean Finns are not competitive—just think about sports.

Also, Finland has lowest rate of corruption in the world. It’s the way to prevent internal rot in the system. And what’s more, they are not hierarchical. You can call a big organisation to speak to a CEO and he/she will answer the call – not various gatekeepers. They don’t have a feudalistic culture like in Malaysia because they never had local monarchs. On the contrary, they have a very egalitarian culture and this in my view, adds to their remarkable education system. Many countries—and this includes Malaysia—would do well to study their example.

business-ethics3. Do you have to be religious to be ethical?

No, I don’t think so.  For some people it may be helpful to understand the meaning of values, but the basis is a good education system where children learn about the dos and the don’ts’s. The model of Finland is a good case in point. Ethics starts at home. Children should be taught self-regulatory system on what’s permissible and what’s not.  Of course, to do this effectively, societal forces come into play. If your society is feudalistic and authority driven, people will behave accordingly. The incentives, behavioural incentives, therefore are both driven by what is taught at home and what is accepted as societal norm.

Having a sense of what’s right, and what’s wrong is essential for all people in leadership positions. After all, leaders are merchants of hope—to quote Napoleon. They speak to the collective imagination of their people to create a group identity. But, as we all know, leadership has its darker side. Regressive forces are always around the corner. As Lord Acton’s statement goes, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. And given the pressures on leaders, it doesn’t take very much. Before they are even aware of it, leaders will be surrounded by Yay-sayers, and lose touch with reality.

Paranoia is said to be the disease of kings. So when you live in an environment that does not promote value–driven leadership – a society that goes for Band-Aid solutions and shallow appearances – unfortunately people like that will come to the fore. You will create a vicious circle of negativity. To prevent that from happening, it would be wise that the leader has some kind of wise fool—like the fool of King Lear—who shows him or her reality. Particularly, when they are in power for too long, they may lose touch. A person like the Turkish prime minister seems to have been in need of such a fool—now his leadership “brand” is tarnished forever.

4. Is it idealistic to assume that ethics can be applied in the real world?

In our global world China is a rising star with an unholy alliance between the government and business. Ideology—meaning communism– has transformed into a purely materialism credo. Their princelings rule their world. They are the entitled, capitalistic class. This is the scenario in which they operate—like is the case in many other countries. So you create a world that revolves around glitter and materialism. It’s a world that can become quite shallow.

I have often asked people what’s happiness to them. There is a Chinese saying that says: Happiness is someone to love, something to do, and something to hope for. Unfortunately, in a world that only is interested in Mammon—material wealth or greed–relationships become very superficial, even with people close to you. And in spite of having so many “friends” on Facebook or whatever – people are actually quite alone. They feel lonely because they are all running after superficial glitz and glamour with no in-depth understanding of the true value of life. This of course shows in what we deliver in our work, in our relationships, and unfortunately in our lives.

Our various social media are a mixed blessing. How many “friends” can you really have? Unfortunately, what they encourage is self-promotion, thus making us increasingly narcissistic. We are creating an increasingly narcissistic society.

Briefly, narcissism (a clinically recognised disorder) relates to our reaction to our self worth. Thus, when our sense of self is rather shaky, we may be compelled to be seeking the limelight—to get other people’s attention. The typical indicators of being subjected to this disorder are the need for constant admiration, selfishness, lack of empathy, exploitation of others, enviousness, and an attitude that the rules are for others, not for us. And given the pressures on leadership, leaders will be more prone to this disorder than others. Frequently, it has to do with that unholy interface of position and disposition. So when a leader or those in leadership positions posses these characteristics, it can affect businesses and markets.

Narcissistic people have a tendency to push the boundaries, evade rules and the likes to make their mark known. Sometimes in so doing they can come across charismatic. Some organisations may see this as advantageous and may promote these people to key leadership positions. We should always remember, however, that charisma has its downsides. After all, Hitler and Stalin were quite charismatic.

leadership_marketing5. Can ethics be a tipping point in leadership i.e. whether you make or break as a leader?

Of course, ethics make a difference. But what is ethical or not? Too many people are strangers to themselves. In my work, I show a mirror to people: I make them understand that there is a difference in what they say they do, and what they really do. I try to get people out of their rut. But, unwittingly, many people are riding a dead horse. I can only tell you that when they are doing so, it’s time to dismount. It’s time to do things differently. It’s time to make different choices. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, is viewed as a definition of insanity.

We all need to realise that what might have been good at 12 – certain ways of behaving – may not work when you are 40. One example is being in and out of relationships. Why do some people feel the need to be in and out of relationships?  Some people seem to be marrying the same type of person—but only a younger version. And every time the relationship fails. In the meantime, they create a great interpersonal mess. These people need to become aware of the blind spots within themselves if they wish to move forward towards a happier life.

Recently, I had someone who attended a workshop with me. As a senior government official, he was a key player in a government transformation program. The role he was asked to play was psychologically extremely taxing. We shouldn’t forget that to play the role of Genghis Khan has its downsides. Frankly, he came into my workshop as a psychological wreck. Every part of his life was falling apart. But the workshop helped him to become more attuned to his inner world – what was really important to him. It helped him to create a greater congruence between his inner and outer world. We always need to remember that unless there is this congruence, it will be difficult to be effective – to be an authentic leader. His was one of the most dramatic transformations I have seen in a long time.

What transformed him? – You need to go to the roots of the person. Sometimes, to understand people, we may do well to go back to our paleontological history (the scientific study of prehistoric life). Basically, we have to look at our archaic origins. Palaeontology shows us the roots of leadership behavior. At times, it may be useful to look how our close relatives, the great apes, behave. Just look, how silverback gorillas behave in the rain forest. It’s very much a hierarchical society. Life in many organisations has great similarities. Obviously, some very archaic behavior patterns are still part of us. Like in gorilla society, in a very basic way, the leadership style of Homo sapiens has to do with such basic things as direction, protection, and creating order. These archaic variables still play a role.

6. Are there psychological and neurological aspects that are related or that drive how ethical we are?

Neurologists suggest that there are only 40 impulses/second of which we are conscious. In contrast, we have 11 million impulses a second of which we are unconscious. The implication is that we don’t really know ourselves; that we are strangers to ourselves. For example, the kinetics of just being able sit or to stand – many unconscious impulses are given to your senses and your muscles. And here I am only talking about the more simple ones. You may not even know what you like and dislike when dealing with people, while your body is reacting to through these unconscious impulses.

Thus when we are unaware of whom we really are, we need to find ways to acquire greater awareness. The implications for not doing so can be horrendous. As a matter of fact, the present, global crisis of leadership can partially be explained through these basic neurological and psychological processes. It’s important to realise that in situations of crisis, regressive group dynamics can come to the fore, forces that do not bring the best out of people. When this happens, we create an ideal playing field for reactionary movements—left and right of the spectrum. Leaders need to be aware of this. They need to prevent that a binary view of the world prevails. Such an outlook only leads to scapegoating, and other destructive activities. As we have seen in the financial crisis, narcissism, greed, distrust, and fear make for a very heady mix.

You can even argue that the economic crisis was a reflection of the narcissistic behaviour of these financial “masters of the universe,” with their great sense of entitlement. People in decision-making positions had lost touch with the reality of the market. They seemed to be in complete denial; they didn’t want to see. But I like to add that the best and brightest did not have the means to understand what narcissism could do to them. The net result has been quite disastrous for many innocent bystanders.

The world is now moving towards – Authentic Leadership – your internal values need to be in sync with the external values. Of course, we know that this is an ideal state. We are human beings at the end of the day—with all our flaws and weaknesses. Deeply embedded values ultimately determine how a leader deals with situations.

Learn & Lead7. Why do leaders lose touch?

Leaders have to be aware that the moment they are in a powerful position – candour disappears. Candour disappears with authority. You will have yea-sayers around you. And so these leaders lose touch. It corrupts. No party should be too long in the office.

So leaders should realise their environment and move out of their comfort zones to seek truth and reality. This is where judgement and maturity is essential in leadership. To get out of a make-belief environment to one of reality. If they don’t do so, then sooner or later, as we have seen in many of history’s examples in business and politics – the ultimately crash awaits.

8. How does one overcome narcissistic tendencies?

You need to create an honest environment were feedbacks and consultation are encouraged. You need to create an environment of 360-degree feedback. Thus having a feedback process not only top-down but also bottom up. In great organisations, people have a healthy disrespect for their boss. People are not court marshalled because they spoke their mind. I never learn anything from people who agree with me. To take a famous example: Initially, Alexander the Great had this great support system, which he built around him. He had his “Companions.” He was a great leader as a result. Of course, when he decided to be a god, the feedback system failed. But in many societies, unfortunately, feedback is only top down.

The environment of your workplace and your society breeds the kinds of leaders you create. So leadership at all levels must push for inculcation of sound and ethical leadership and also be prepared for feedback from these leaders. Industry captains must not be persecuted for showing leadership and courage. They should be assessed by the soundness of their business and their characters and not how politically affiliated they are to decision makers.

 

Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries (Econ. Drs., University of Amsterdam), management (ITP, MBA, and DBA, Harvard Business School), and psychoanalysis (Canadian Psychoanalytic Society and the International Psychoanalytic Association), Kets de Vries scrutinises the interface between international management, psychoanalysis, psychotherapy, and dynamic psychiatry. His specific areas of interest are leadership, career dynamics, executive stress, entrepreneurship, family business, succession planning, cross-cultural management, team building, coaching, and the dynamics of corporate transformation and change. A clinical professor of leadership development, he holds the Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt Chair of Leadership Development and Organisational Change at INSEAD, France, Singapore & Abu Dhabi. He has been the Founder of INSEAD’s Global Leadership Center, one of the largest leadership development centers in the world. In addition, he is program director of INSEAD’s top management program, “The Challenge of Leadership: Developing Your Emotional Intelligence,” and Scientific Director of the Executive Master’s Program “Consulting and Coaching for Change (and has five times received INSEAD’s distinguished teacher award). He has also held professorships at McGill University, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales, Montreal, and the Harvard Business School, and he has lectured at management institutions around the world.  The Financial Times, Le Capital, Wirtschaftswoche, and The Economist have rated Manfred Kets de Vries one of world’s leading leadership thinkers. The Financial Times, Le Capital, Wirtschaftswoche, and The Economist have rated Manfred Kets de Vries among the world’s top fifty leading management thinkers and among the most influential contributors to human resource management.  Kets de Vries is the author, co-author, or editor of more than 35 books and has published over 350 scientific papers as chapters in books and as articles. He has also written approximately a hundred case studies, including seven that received the Best Case of the Year award. He is a regular writer for a number of magazines. His work has been featured in such publications as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, Fortune, Business Week, The Economist, The Financial Times, and The International Herald Tribune. He is a founding member of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations (ISPSO) that has honoured him as a lifetime member. Kets de Vries is also the first non-American recipient of ILA Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to leadership research and development, being considered one of the world’s founding professionals in the development of leadership as a field and discipline. The American Psychological Association has honoured him with the Harry and Miriam Levinson Award (Organisational Consultation division) for his contributions to the field of consultation. Furthermore, he has been given the ‘Freud Award’ for his contributions at the interface of management and psychoanalysis. He has also received the ‘Vision of Excellence Award’ from the Harvard Institute of Coaching.

E-mail: manfred.ketsdevries@insead.edu; websites: www.ketsdevries.com; www.kdvi.com.

 

See other posts from our articles series on Ethics in Business:

Ethics in Business: Perception of sleepwalking

Ethics in Business: Facing medical ethics head on in Malaysia

Ethics in Business: A take on business ethics in the US

Ethics in Business: Moving Islamic finance from conference rooms to humanity

Ethics in Business: Walking the ethical track in Malaysia a perspective

Ethics in Business: Soul of ethics in the new Dubai

Ethics in Business: A conversation with Professor Tariq Ramadan

Ethics in Business. With whom does the heartbeat of a nation lie, Part 1

Ethics in Business: With whom does the heartbeat of a nation lie, Part 2

Ethics in Business: Are we aware of the Iagos in our midst?

Ethics in Business: Fair trade or fair game, who benefits really

Ethics in business: What moves the conscience when mortality is at stake

Please: CSR is not Ethics in Business

Panel discussion: Medical ethics (plus video)

(Firoz Abdul Hamid is an Inside Investor contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.)

 

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