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16 Oct, 2020 06:16

Trump is a malignant narcissist – leadership guru

When disaster strikes, strong leadership is needed to rebalance and regain control. Who are our leaders and how do they become them? We asked one of the world’s most prolific thinkers on the psychology of leadership, Manfred Kets de Vries.

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The text of the interview has been edited for clarity.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Manfred Kets de Vries, professor of Leadership Development and Organisational Change at INSEAD business school, it's really great to have you with us. Wow, what amazing times to talk about leadership, but I'm going to start actually from a little behind. So, we like to think of ideal leaders as being modest, a little selfless, accommodating, emotionally intelligent, compassionate, etc. In reality, though, ask just anyone about their boss from hell, and the story goes that you will hear plenty about self-centeredness, that they're rough, they're insensitive as leaders. Is it realistic to think that this gap between the ideal and the real, the realistic can be actually bridged? 

Manfred Kets de Vries: I hope so, otherwise not why would I do what I do. I would do something else in my life. I mean, you're right. You know, we all need a degree of narcissism in life but unfortunately, too many leaders are looking really out for number one and not for the common good. It's true, and the nice term you used about humility, sense of humanity, empathy, all those things — you wonder if they went down by the wayside. So, in that respect, we live actually in very interesting times because of the pandemic, because of its focuses — In a way, it's the largest social experiment ever done. There are a number of scenarios you can envision. One is that people become more reflective and say, what kind of world do we need? I mean, at the moment, I look at the world and I remember many years ago, before you were born, I read this book ‘Silent Spring’ which talked about how we're poisoning the earth. So now people are more concerned, of course, about global warming and things like that. There was also a movie in the 60s, which was, of course in the time of the Cold War. It was ‘Dr Strangelove’, you probably never saw it. It's an ironic movie about the danger of nuclear holocaust. And so that's still there, actually. I mean, think about countries like Pakistan and North Korea, you don't get a warm feeling with them having their finger on the nuclear button. Then, of course, you have the terrorism which is all over the place, it’s still there. And then you have what's also the case in Russia — I know Russia quite well because I’ve been so many times there, - it’s income inequalities. I mean, you look at America, and it's enormous. Fortunately, Europe, where I live, it's much less, and of course, in countries like Poland and Sweden, it’s much more equal. But when you have large income inequalities it's an invitation for social disaster. And then you have the pandemic. And the way different countries have dealt with the pandemic, bad examples, of course, being countries like America, Brazil and also a country like India, — you know, it’s a terrible way of dealing with it, which now that masculinity is supposed to be people who don't wear masks are, you know, ‘real men’. It's totally ridiculous. Anyhow, it's really a perfect storm. And, of course, what we need are leaders, Sophie, as you’ve mentioned, who are compassionate and have some empathy, instead, there has been a rise of populism so people pick leaders who cater to our wish to believe — snake oil salesman, you know, it is totally unrealistic.

SS: But let's be a little more precise, because I would like to talk to you during this interview about leadership in different kinds of walks of lives, but now we've touched upon the world leaders, the political leaders, and you're saying this is a perfect storm and this perfect storm actually brings to surface all the downfalls of the systems, of the people who are actually heading the countries. Masks are off. I mean, never has there been a time where everything has been so clear. When they say ‘the king is naked’, this is the time about the saying. So, it seems like, looking over the world landscape, the political leadership landscape... 

MKV: You fairly say ‘the kings’ because queens do better... 

SS: That's my next question. But if we talk about the kings that are naked, and that has become obvious during the pandemic: it has a lot of people thinking that maybe the political elite that is heading the world right now lives in an old paradigm that doesn't correspond the new problems that the world is facing, and I'm not really only talking about the pandemic. The pandemic will go away in a year and a half, hopefully. There will be a vaccine, I mean, every hundred years, there is a pandemic, but I'm talking about the problems that it has brought to the surface and the inability of the current political elite to deal with these new problems that just don't correspond that old political paradigm. What kind of leaders do we need right now, considering that we know more precisely what are the problems the world is facing now? 

MKV: No, you know, certain things are not new. And I think one of them, the problem we always have is the greed factor. Now the element of greed has been there throughout the ages, and it's still there and that's, I think, not so silent motivator that people behave the way they do. I mean, when you take the United States as an example, even the richest communities, even though they have the best education because obviously education is a way of looking, the wish to believe to promised miracles, they still will vote for Trump. Many of them will vote for Trump because it is advantageous to them financially, which is a very short way of looking at it. And it’s very sad to hear. So, you end up in a country which is divided, and people live in safe communities, guarded by whatever – towers and goons who protect them, which is a terrible way of living, I think. So, the greed factor has always been there and, unfortunately, it has come very much to the fore. Coming back to your question, and you really answered your question yourself – what you need is people who are courageous and are willing to face reality. And all the problems by the way that we live now in an age of social media have an enormous effect. And Russia is no stranger to that, by the way, in the distribution of factoids. And the whole world has become a master in that and it is quite unfortunate that you start to get confused what is real and what is not real. 

SS: A lot of people that I've spoken to said, you know, when things like pandemics happen, when there's so much uncertainty, and no one has the answers, you can be the most experienced leader and you can be very smart and you can be very talented, but unless you have emotional intelligence, and that encompasses a lot of other traits within itself, for instance, empathy, and adaptivity there's no way you can lead a nation out of a crisis like a pandemic. Would you agree with this? Would you agree that something like emotional intelligence is a must-have for a good leader during the times of crisis like this? 

MKV: The first thing you have to know what are your strengths and weaknesses, you can’t do it all. Leadership is really a team sport. And unfortunately, Trump, to give that example, because I like the example since I'm also now a psychoanalyst in my other life, I have two hats, I’m a management professor and psychoanalyst. He is the example that’s called a malignant narcissist. And a malignant narcissist is basically — I've written quite a bit about him, actually, because I couldn't believe that people would pick a sick-o, which he really is, —  so his major thing seems he is so insecure, that it's all about him. It’s always about him, something about him. And the second thing, he is very vindictive. So, anybody who is not with him is against him, and he will do anything to crush the person, he has to win, which is, of course, going to be interesting because of this election, because he cannot lose in his mind. So, he has to find all different ways to find excuses not to lose. But coming back to executives, you know, the first thing I try to do in my — going back to your question about emotional intelligence, is the question of ‘know thyself’ and understanding the strengths and weaknesses. So many executives don't know themselves, they don't know why they're doing what they're doing. The second thing is that very often — and Russia is a very good example, actually, given the power distance in Russia, which is kind of remarkable if you think about communism and things like that's in the past, — there's an enormous amount of obedience to authority. So, there's a great tendency for another Greek word called hubris. People become too full of themselves and nobody can push them back which is the case, of course, also with Trump. And that is also the road to self-destruction. So, it's always my surprise that many people in leadership positions have a tendency to self-destruction unless you have a clear corporate culture, that people have a healthy disrespect for their boss, but it's not so easy. And particularly in Russia, I've done quite some work there with organisations and again, the power distance. The second thing that always surprises me that many executives don't get the best out of their people. It's really again, they have no – again, it has to do with emotional intelligence. But I found it very noticeable after the first week in my program, which is four weeks over a year, the first thing they do, they don't know their people, they never had a serious conversation with them, they have never listened to them. So that's what they do, they start to have some conversation with them. The other thing has to do with teams. As I said, leadership is a team sport. And since you can’t do everything, you should focus on the things you’re good at. And you should find people who can compensate for the things you’re not good at. And so, I always say, give me a somewhat neurotic team, and I make something out of it in the short time. In my work at INSEAD I've been trying to pioneer in team coaching. So, it always surprises me when you look at leadership in organisations, that people spend millions or tens of millions of dollars or whatever, euros, whatever, on IT systems, things like that, but they are unable to align the top team. And that costs more money because you get turf fight, baronies all this kind of things, people are not aligned.  

SS: Manfred, correct me if I'm wrong, but what I see in real life is that the vast majority of leaders, whether it's CEOs of corporations, whether it's heads of states, whether it's you know, just heads of little small companies, doesn't matter, - they have the traits that good guys don't have, you know, because good guys always finish last. I mean, you’re talking about Trump being a malignant narcissist, but a lot of people who actually get to power are power-hungry, are narcissistic, are pushy. They do go over other people's heads to get where they want. And that's why they're leaders and other good guys with compassion and emotional intelligence, always stay behind... 

MKV: I wrote recently an article about we should have leaders for life, which was a very cynical article, because leaders for life are not… It doesn't make for stability in the country and it's also not good for any organisation. So, in the short term, those people might come up, but I think one should do everything to have some checks and balances to prevent those people to come to the fore. That's the reason, for example, I've developed many kinds of C-60 questionnaires that you basically tease out the narcissist, I mean, the pathological narcissist. Narcissism is part of the deal, by the way, but it's the question of excess always. You need to be narcissistic, it’s the need for self-confidence. That's the excess that people can push back [against], they can tell a person ‘you're full of s***’, you know, that kind of thing, you know, ‘stop it, this doesn't go anywhere’. But I think when you have too much obedience to authority, people are reluctant. And many of the leaders you talk about live in an echo chamber. I mean, they know what they think, why aren’t they interested in what other people think. That's, I think, important, that's the way you learn. You don't learn by us telling yourself the same thing. So, this day and age, you can have some autocrats to take advantage of the pandemic. You can also say, maybe we should have somewhat of a different world and you have to be somewhat without hope. And that's partially also the younger generation. I mean, I am not going to even think about global warming. I'm too old to really…. 

SS: Oh, come on. You're not too old. 

MKV: I don't feel that old but I mean, I'm not going to necessarily be affected so much by that. But when I think about my children and grandchildren, they are. And so, I can see that maybe the pandemic is actually the revenge of the younger generation because the younger generation is not so affected, but my age is more affected by it. Maybe that's what it is: to finally get all those people out of the way, who have certain ways of looking at things.  

SS: But let's say you live a couple of centuries ago and you’re a tutor to, I don't know, let's say, Prince of Orange, and he hasn't led the revolts yet, yeah? What are you going to teach him? What are the essential leadership qualities you will try to grow in him? 

MKV: Well, I guess one thing we talk about certain qualities, one is to have a certain amount of self-confidence. I had one executive who runs a large media company, who told me, ‘Thank you for being at the seminar, because I have the courage — which he didn’t have before, he was a very insecure person — to make some tough decisions. One thing is I'm not going to fight anyone. But that was actually a very tough decision, of course, because it was much easier to invest in penny to fight.’ He said, ‘I'm not going to fight anybody, I'm going to really help the hospitals also and I take a salary cut with the whole top executive team, etc.’ So, courage, to have the courage to do certain things and to stand up and say ‘this is right’. And it's you know, everybody who's courageous, is also fearful. But there is such thing as courage muscle to say, ‘this cannot stand’. So, you have self-confidence. I mean when you look at the Trump person he is basically a child who’ll never grow up. He’s so insecure, he needs all the time reinforcement. So, to be more aware of what you can do and can’t do, coming back to strengths and weaknesses. And also coming back to your comments about care, that you have a sense of compassion. Now you have to do it in moderation. Because if you’re too empathic you don't act anymore. You can understand everything, but you might be paralysed. 

SS: What about cold-bloodedness? This is something a good leader should also balance in himself? 

MKV: Now, that has to do with the balance of compassion...  

SS: I’ll explain what I mean because when you see big leaders, they need to take big decisions. And even though it's for the good of the people in the long run, it doesn't necessarily come across that way to the people right then and there. And people sometimes have to suffer for big reforms for a certain period of time, five years, ten years, that's a big chunk of time for one person's life. So these people are faced with the fact ‘be compassionate, not go with the reforms’ and, you know, ‘let the people be happy now’ or ‘be cold-blooded, go on with the reform’, whether it's big CEO of a company or president of a country, but in the long run, even though people aren't happy now with the reforms, it will be better off for the country or for the company. 

MKV: I see it not as cold-bloodedness. I see this as being courageous. Sometimes, you know, you have to make a difficult decision, because they're the right decision, as far as you can see and that’s the reason supposedly you’re elected. But when you elect people who just cater to the wish to believe, like you see in Brazil, you see this kind of this kind of person, or I mean, coming back to America, they don't have that competence to make those decisions. Now, if they really realise they're stupid — but stupid people don't realise it — they would surround themselves with people who can give good advice. I mean, look at the populists, like coming back to America, which is such a good example, of Ronald Reagan — he was an actor, and but he also knew when he was out of his depth, so he had pretty decent advisers. That's not the case when you look at the present situation in America. So, cold-bloodedness is the ability, I think, to take some distance, and be able to explain what you think is in the best interest of the nation. And there was a man, Konrad Adenauer, who was the German chancellor, he said, ‘a thick skin is a gift of God’. Unfortunately, as a leader at times, you need to have a thick skin because you can never please everybody. If you want to please everybody, you sell ice cream. That's my advice. 

SS: Is there like a natural divide and people between leaders and followers, and some people are destined to lead and others follow? Or anyone really can grow a leader in himself if he wants to? 

MKV: That's a very interesting question. And it's not easy to answer because some people feel much better... I mean, in cases of crisis, we have a tendency to go back to what's called the dependency assumption, we’re looking for someone who can lead us. You know, there's, as probably already from Paleolithic times, you know, when talk about our evolution, we look for somebody, that's a general tendency (we also have this fight-flight response at the same time), and some people, depending on their background, I mean as a psychoanalyst, you look at some developmental aspects to see if you are as a man, as a male leader, if you had been the favorite of your mother, you can’t lose. That's what he said. So, you get a lot of self-confidence that you can do anything. And actually, you can see similar when you look at Margaret Thatcher at the time. She was interesting when you read her autobiography, there is no mother there. There is only a father, which was interesting because in in this male chauvinistic world she lived — her father wanted to have a son — so she was brought up as a tomboy. So, you have different — But of course, the best scenario I think, is that it's not just ‘honey, I'm home’, you know the trends of men coming home, but you have two ‘honies’ coming home, so you have role models in the family and those make it different. If you are very competent as a woman if you have a competent mother it's really sets the role model. It really depends on what kind of relationships are developed in the family. It's a little bit like also, you know, coming back to security, do you know the parable of the hedgehog?  

SS: No.  

MKV: That's of Schopenhauer. Imagine you're a hedgehog, it's cold in the winter, and you want to get warmer, so there are some other hedgehogs and you try to get closer. But as a hedgehog, how close can you get before bad things happen to you as they sting? So, you have different kinds of hedgehogs, you have to find the proper distance. So, if we come back to child development, there are three strategies usually. One is secure attachment, that you feel comfortable at a certain distance. Some people don't want to get close, they are always avoidant because everything ends badly. And then you have the people who are very needy. So, coming back to your question, if you have people who are very needy, probably they’re better followers. You know anxious attachment, they look for someone. It’s always interesting to me, because this hedgehog metaphor sets the stage of couple relationships and the relationships you have in organisations. So, if you are, for example, very avoidant, and your partner is very needy, it's bad news. You know, one partner is the one after and the other one wants to take distance… 

SS: ...going away. 

MKV: Yeah. Coming back to your question about leadership, certainly given your particular attachment behaviour you have very early in life, which has to do with what kind of care you had, some people will be much better followers, other people who are more secure in their skin, build much better leaders. 

SS: Do you think the demands of what a good leader or traits of a good leader should be, change according to the times we live in? Or a good leader is a good leader anywhere anytime? 

MKV: No, that, of course, are different things. We live in an information society, we need certain different skills. But I mean, I wrote once...  

SS: Not skills, traits. 

MKV: No, I mean, that’s the question which have been asked before, some journalists asked me that before and I said, you know, the leadership skills of Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and Shaka Zulu, you know, that some face similar you need now. That was a flippant remark to a journalist. So, in the end, I wrote a book on Alexander the Great, I wrote a book on Shaka Zulu, he was the leader of Southern Africa, – never Genghis Khan, I had a problem with that because there’s not much written about Genghis Khan. But I think many of the qualities are still the same, which has to do... You know, when you look at Alexander the Great, the use of symbolism in his particular way of operating was very good in that. Also, the way before the battle he would be in front, by the way, which is stupid if you are the leader of the troops because you can be killed and he was certainly no stranger to many wounds. Also, before the battle, talking to people, singling people out like that that people felt special. So that, I mean, really creates the community of people. And it’s still the case, like you have Henry V, the famous Battle of Agincourt, there's the famous speech there, and he singles out all his major people so they felt really committed, they will fight till the end, they will do anything. 

SS: If there's someone that you think is a great model of a great leader that corresponds today's reality in today's times, who would it be? Can you name a president or a CEO of a company that you think fits perfectly the times and challenges of today? 

MKV: I felt that Mrs. Merkel has done a pretty good job. I think she has done a very good job. It's not an easy country to manage. She made some mistakes, which is underestimating, for example, the influx of immigrants and the impact it had on society. But she has been pretty decent, a woman of strong values. I think when you look at some other women, I mean, look at some of the Scandinavian countries... Men? I am, I am more reluctant at the moment.

SS: So, on that optimistic note that it's the era of the woman leaders, that is actually coming, I would like to thank you, Manfred, it's been really a treat talking to you. And I hope we get to do this again. And maybe I can actually connect with you when I'm in Paris. And we can talk more about this because this is a really interesting topic that has come more than ever in focus right now. So, thanks a lot for your tips and for your thoughts and insights.

MKV: Thank you for having me. 

SS: Thank you.