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Why the World Needs Self-Reflective Leaders (2020)

Manfred Kets de Vries

Good leadership requires self-aware and vulnerable leaders

The coronavirus crisis facilitates the rise of autocratic and narcissistic leaders just when we least need them.

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 his 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 they don’t 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

 

Kets de Vries promotes what he calls the clinical paradigm as a channel of self-reflection for leaders. The paradigm, in technical speak, involves a psychodynamic-systemic orientation to organisational analysis. “Much of what happens is beyond our conscious awareness,” he said. 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”.

 

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’s going on in their inner theatre and ultimately change. The same is true for the programme he has been running at INSEAD for many years – the longest-running programme by the same professor – that one of his colleagues once called the “CEO recycling seminar”.

 

But why is it so necessary to know thyself 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 can’t be good at everything. It is time to do away with the myth of the CEO as hero.

 

If you are interested in learning more about this topic:

INSEAD Knowledge, 2020

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