Profile of a Leader

Psychoanalyst Kets de Vries offer insights into the mind of a leader.

Leadership is the global obsession. Thousands of recent books—many of them best sellers—have dissected the leadership styles of great leaders from Jesus to Jefferson. Business writers, too, have joined the frenzy. The trouble is, much of the business literature on leadership—unlike the broader literature on the subject—starts with the assumption that leaders are rational beings. In part, that's because readers come to these business books for advice, so they get suggestions on how to imitate the conscious motivations, behaviors, and choices of role models. Advice books are hardly likely to focus heavily on leaders' irrational side—and still less likely to suggest that the role models' successes may even stem from their psychological frailties. Yet irrationality is integral to human nature, and psychological conflict can contribute in significant ways to the drive to succeed. Surely, therefore, we can benefit from putting CEOs on the couch, to explore how their early personal experiences shaped subsequent behaviors and to understand how these leaders deal with setbacks and pain.

Interesting stuff. It adds to my concern that companies are often promoting the wrong people to leadership positions. Confidence and assertiveness are great, but I think leaders too often cross the line into problematic narcissism. At the risk of sounding sexist, I think this is why women often make better leaders – they are (in general) more humble, more aware of their own faults, and more likely to accept constructive criticism. It is not always good to have a superman CEO, despite the media fascination with them.