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Leaders need to know themselves

The litmus test of a great organisation, Prof Kets de Vries said, is: Would you recommend your workplace to friends and family?

WHEN asked what the post-Covid world might look like, French author Michel Houellebecq said: "The same - only worse." While the quip is funny on the surface, there is indeed reason for all of us to wonder where the world is headed.

In a recent webinar, Manfred Kets de Vries, Insead Distinguished Clinical Professor of Leadership Development & Organisational Change, shared his thoughts on what the current crisis means for leaders. Drawing from the teachings of the early Greek philosophers, he said that the inscription on the temple of Apollo in Delphi, "Know thyself", remains utterly relevant to this day. Indeed, a large part of the professor's life's work has been to help executives become more self-reflective leaders.

"Most people are strangers to themselves," he said. A lot of them resort to the manic defence - filling their calendar with a flurry of activities meant to prevent them from having any time to reflect. They are always running, without knowing what they are running for or running to. Also, they feel drained, but do not know why. Others, having reached the pinnacle of professional success, fail to find meaning. All too often, excess greed has left them very lonely.

Looking inward

Prof Kets de Vries added: "Much of what happens is beyond our conscious awareness." Fantasies, dreams and symbolism are ways to access this kind of self-knowledge and to reveal our blind spots. Another is reflecting on one's past, which can form a "lens through which we can understand the present and shape the future", he added.

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Unfortunately, there is no magic pill to become a self-reflective leader, he said. It requires a journey and quite a bit of "Sherlock Holmes" detective work. That is why transformational programmes such as the one for MBAs are often organised in modules, to give participants time to process new information, decipher what is going on in their inner theatre, and ultimately change.

But why is it so necessary to know oneself as a leader? Essentially, the world has reached an unprecedented level of complexity and the pace of change is dizzying.

While the Covid-19 crisis is particularly salient in that it threatens lives and livelihoods, it is but the latest in an unending stream of disruptions. In such a state of affairs, it is critical for leaders to realise that they cannot be good at everything, and that it is time to kill the myth of the chief executive as hero.

"Leadership is a team sport," said Prof Kets de Vries. Leaders need to know their strengths so they can best use them. At the same time, they need to humbly recognise their weaknesses so they can build and empower a team that fills those gaps.

The humility that comes with self-awareness is also critical to fighting off the rise of autocratic leaders, the kind that lives in echo chambers of their own making. As Prof Kets de Vries noted, the sirens of hubris are always beckoning. Many leaders can become self-destructive.

Also, as he pointed out, with crises often comes social regression. People suddenly feel more dependent and start looking for messiahs. The most striking examples of this phenomenon can easily be seen in the political realm.

But it is also commonly observed in organisations, where there is natural tendency for people to tell their higher-ups what they want to hear. And after a while, leaders "like it", he said. Truth-tellers are not wanted. Even in the best of times, this combination of narcissism and sycophantic behaviour led to the downfall of giants such as Nokia.

What does meaning mean?

The pandemic is an inflection point. To turn it into an opportunity and a force for good, chief executives need to provide meaning to their employees. As Prof Kets de Vries says, this comprises purpose ("a forward-looking concept"), a sense of belonging ("we are very social animals"), competence ("what are we good at"), control ("people like to have a voice") and transcendence ("going beyond the self").

He described his vision of the ideal organisation and coined a term for it: the authentizotic organisation.

He defines this as a trust-based organisation in which people find meaning in, and are captivated by their work. It is also a place where people feel safe to speak their mind. Today this is as needed as ever, with a Gallup poll showing that 85 per cent of the global workforce is disengaged.

A Gallup blog said that such employees "likely come to work wanting to make a difference - but nobody has ever asked them to use their strengths to make the organisation better".

The litmus test of a great organisation, Prof Kets de Vries said, is: Would you recommend your workplace to friends and family? Sadly, a lot of organisations are fairly toxic and filled with depressive-anxiety and paranoia.Post pandemic, it is the attitude of employees - particularly individuals in leadership positions - that will determine how an organisation will perform.

Prof Kets de Vries said good leadership involves a "delicate dance between disposition and position", that is, the ability to resist the intoxicating effects of power. It always requires checks and balances.

Above all, it needs self-aware and vulnerable leaders who, to paraphrase Napoleon Bonaparte, can be dealers in hope.

  • This article is republished courtesy of Insead Knowledge. The writer is Insead Knowledge Senior Editor

In his latest book, Journeys into Coronavirus Land, leading management thinker Manfred Kets de Vries takes us through his ruminations during confinement, widening his explorations into group phenomenon, leadership, organisational dynamics and economic and environmental crisis. The book is free to download. A donation to Unicef's Save Generation Covid campaign is encouraged.

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