The Leadership Mystique: a user's manual for the human enterprise

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9780273656203: The Leadership Mystique: a user's manual for the human enterprise

Your business can have all the advantages in the world; strong financial resources, enviable market position, and state-of-the-art technology, but if leadership fails, all of these advantages melt away. - Manfred Kets de Vries Organizations are like automobiles. They don't run themselves, except downhill. Leadership now, requires very different behavior from the leadership tradition we are used to. It requires leaders who speak to the collective imagination of their people, co-opting them to join in the business journey; leaders who are able to motivate people to full commitment and have them make that extra effort. It's all about human behavior. It's about understanding the way people and organizations behave, about creating relationships, about building commitment, and about adapting your behavior to lead in a creative and motivating way. So, ask yourself what you're doing about the leadership factor. How do you execute your own leadership style? Whether you work on the shop floor or have a corner office on the top floor of a shimmering skyscraper, what have you done today to be more effective as a leader? There are no quick answers to leadership questions, and there are no eas

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About the Author:

Manfred Kets de Vries is one of Europe's leading management thinkers and an experienced author, co-author, or editor of 17 books. He holds chair and Directorship positions at INSEAD. He also holds professorships at McGill University, the École des Hautes Etudes Commerciales, Montreal, and the Harvard Business School and has lectured at management institutions around the world.  

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Preface

The most difficult thing in life is to know yourself.

-Thales

I've learned one thing - people who know the least anyways seem to know it the loudest.

-Andy Capp

You can observe a lot by just watching.

-Yogi Berra

I would like to begin this book on leadership with an anecdote, one that's most likely apocryphal. It's about Wilfred Bion, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who has greatly influenced my thinking. During World War I, Bion was a tank commander. For those of you who have never been in a tank, it's a very small "working environment" indeed. Bion learned a considerable amount about small-group behavior while serving in such a machine. One world war later, when he was the director of a mental hospital dealing with people suffering from war neuroses, Bion was able to apply some of the concepts he had learned in his military career.

Although Bion had acquired considerable insight into the dynamics of war neuroses by this time, many questions remained. What factors contributed to the problems that the patients in his mental hospital faced, for example? What led to their neurotic symptoms? Why did they suffer from combat fatigue? More important at that moment, what could he do to help them? Bion worked with his patients in small-group settings and wrote about the psychological processes he observed. His work intrigued many people, but his writing style was dense and his conceptualizations complex.

Many years ago - he's been dead quite some time now - there was a conference in London at which Bion was to be a featured speaker. There was a lot of excitement about his presenting; people were interested to hear what he had to say, expecting him to clarify some of his complicated ideas. According to the story, when Bion walked onto the podium, he looked out at the packed auditorium and said, "Here we are!" And having uttered these words, he walked away. That was it.

At lunchtime that day, one of the organizers of the conference went to Bion and said diplomatically, "Dr. Bion, many people have commented on your speech and told me how fascinated they were with your ideas. But they found the presentation somewhat short. Would it be possible for you to elaborate? Could you say something more? Would you mind if we organized a special session this afternoon?" Bion agreed, so a special afternoon session was scheduled. Again, the auditorium was packed. Bion walked to the podium, looked around, and said (or so the story goes), "Here we are again!" And off he marched.

When I'm scheduled to give a presentation, I'm often tempted to act in a similar manner. As must have been the case with Bion, many thoughts cross my mind just before I step up to the podium. I ask myself: Can I articulate my ideas clearly? Will I remember everything that I want to say? Can I meet the audience's expectations? And I'm realistic enough to realize that in each case the answer is probably no, given my own human failings and the audience's range of personal agendas. No wonder that every time I make a presentation I'm very curious to hear what I have to say!

I teach at the most global business school in the world - an institute called INSEAD, which is located in France and Singapore. The main campus is situated in the forest of Fontainebleau, not far from Paris. What once used to be the hunting grounds of the French kings now is the gathering place of probably the most geographically diverse student group in the world. Most of these students - as I tend to say facetiously - walk around with their head tilted slightly to the left (a behavior that they share with the faculty, for the most part). And that tendency inclines them to walk in circles.

Most of my students are "rational" engineers and economists, "logical" thinkers whose left brain appears to be overdeveloped. Preoccupied with rationality and objectivity, they seem to be interested only in "hard" data to analyze complex business situations. They tend to perceive intuition, emotion, and subjectivity as being somewhere on the continuum between rather wishy-washy and dangerously soft, not realizing that "soft" matters can actually be very "hard." Because soft matters can kill a career, I frequently give my students (and colleagues) a slight knock on the head to get the brain back into equilibrium, to help them deal with both sides of that vital organ. But my efforts last only briefly. After a short time, most left-brainers go back to "normal," walking once more in circles.

In my academic work, I make an effort to merge two major disciplines. As I sometimes like to say, I try to combine what John Maynard Keynes called "the dismal science" (once upon a time I was an economist) with what Sigmund Freud called "the impossible profession" (I'm also trained as a psychoanalyst). Thus my interest lies in the interface between management and clinical psychology.

In this book, I'll address a number of themes that touch upon leadership, using the clinical paradigm as my microscope for looking at the world. (By clinical paradigm I mean the particular perspective that underlies psychoanalysis and related fields - but more on that later.) Unlike many of my organizational colleagues, I'm not interested just in organizational structures and systems. Although I certainly put these variables into the equation when I look at an organization, I'm more interested in the people who make up that organization.

My main objective in studying leadership is to bring the person back into the organization. Obvious as the need for the human factor may seem, a considerable body of research in organizations stands out for its conspicuous neglect of the people who are the principal actors in these organizations. Far too many organizational specialists give structures and systems precedence over people. In general, positivism and objectivity prevail in the world of organizations. The credo is that what you can't see doesn't exist. One of the explanations for this outlook is that it's much easier to deal with structures and systems than with people. People are much more complex. Furthermore, people are much harder to change. (As I sometimes like to say, it's easier to change people than to change people.)

My clinical orientation to management comes at a price. While my interest in the stories people have to tell makes my observations richer, it also make my life more complicated. After all, structures and procedures are so much more tangible than personality and biography. Furthermore, my focus on the human factor has caused some students of organizations to denigrate my work. For a large number of organizational researchers, storytelling isn't serious business. They see real life as consisting of "rats and stats"; according to their view, only controlled experiments that center around subjects evoking no empathic reactions and that generate unambiguous statistics make phenomena real. Granted, this outlook makes both business and life simpler. The internal, subjective world of the individual - indeed, the whole process of inter-subjectivity (that is, the constellation of effects of one person on the other) - is much harder to control.

In my work, I pay considerable attention to the internal world of people, one person at a time. I ask myself questions such as, What are the focal problems that preoccupy this individual? What has emotional resonance for him or her? What are the script and setting of this persons's internal theater? But it's not only the internal world of the individual that's important. A person is also part of a social setting. We can talk meaning fully about a person only in the context of others. Nobody is an island unto him- or herself (much as some people would like to think so); people function in relationship to others. Thus I also pay attention to the interpersonal dimension. I'm interested in the chemistry of one person with another, especially in the ways that leaders affect the lives of those working (and living) with them.

As I try to get to know individuals in the workplace, looking to both personal and social issues as I deal with people within the context of their organization, I always keep a basic rule of journalists in mind: I focus on the five W's. When interacting with people, I ask the following questions: Who? What? Where? When? Why?

This book on leadership is based on a series of lectures I've been giving on the topic to many different audiences in more countries than I care to recall over a period of many years. Although the comments and conclusions contained herein are based on a large body of research on leadership, it's not my intention to write a highly theoretical book. This is meant to be a workbook, a volume that uses practical exercises to actively engage practicing executives who want to learn more about leadership and its vicissitudes - individuals who want to increase their leadership effectiveness.

In spite of the practical slant of this book, however, it's not a simple "how to" presentation. It's also an attempt to reflect on what leadership is all about. Many of the observations to be found in this book are based on research contributions I've made over many years in the study of organizations and their leadership. Readers who are interested in further developing their understanding of the clinical approach to organizational analysis may want to read some of the original source material. (I've included at the end of the book a list of some of my own research contributions and that of others on which this book is based.)

I'd like to caution readers that many of the things I say in this book aren't new; some of the ideas I present have been around for a long time. Furthermore, many of those ideas may seem quite obvious. But ideas that lack the sheen of novelty shouldn't be ignored on that ground alone. Ideas that have a long history aren't necessarily worse than a trendy set of new ideas. (Neither, I should add, are they necessarily better.) What matters is how these ideas play out in the workplace, in the lives of real leaders and followers. So I encourage you to look at my observations in light of your own experience, and to evaluate that experience critically. Ask yourself what you're doing about the leadership factor. How do you execute your own leadership style? Whether you work on the shop floor or have a corner office on the top floor of a shimmering skyscraper, what have you done today to be more effective as a leader? Do you walk the talk? Are you making an effort to be as effective as you can be?

There's a story of a frog that was lying on a log in a river. Because the log was surrounded by alligators, the frog was at a loss as to how he could cross the river unharmed. At one point, he looked up at a tree and saw an owl sitting on a nearby branch. He said, "Wise owl, please help me. How can I cross this river without being eaten by the alligators?" The owl said, "That's very simple. Just flap your legs as much as you can. That should do it. That will make you fly, help you cross the river, and keep you out of reach of the alligators." The frog did as suggested, and just before he fell into the water, to be snapped up by one of the alligators, he asked the owl, "Why, why did you give me this advice? I'm going to be eaten." To which the owl responded, "My apologies. I'm only into concepts. Implementation of the concepts is not my cup of tea."

As the story suggests, only a fraction of the strategies that are formulated in organizations are effectively executed. Most people aren't very good at synchronizing vision and action, at aligning ideas and execution. Anyone dealing in ideas needs to take into consideration people's abilities to implement those ideas. Navel gazing alone doesn't take visionaries past the drawing board. Leaders, to be successful, must understand action as well as theory.

This book hopes to help leaders shape their action effectively. It does so by addressing the following leadership themes:

  • Chapter 1, "Leadership in a dissonant voice," first looks at what leadership is and does and then introduces the clinical paradigm (which, as I noted earlier, governs my approach to organizational theory and action).
  • Chapter 2, "Emotional intelligence in the world of work," focuses on emotional intelligence, identifying ways that it can enrich both a leader's self-understanding and his or her ability to understand, motivate, and support followers.
  • Chapter 3, "The mussel syndrome," looks at the natural human tendency to resist change - a tendency that can bring down leaders and organizations alike. It also takes stock of the changes occurring in the world of organizations.
  • Chapter 4, "The failure factor in leadership," dissects the interplay of rational and irrational forces behind executive behaviour, examining how such issues as transference and narcissism affect leadership and offering ways to offset their power.
  • Chapter 5, "The dynamics of succession," presents the life-cycle of the CEO and reviews some of the dilemmas that make planning for leadership succession so difficult.
  • Chapter 6, "The Dilbert phenomenon," looks at how organizations suck the life out of their people and offers ways to resuscitate lifeless employees.
  • Chapter 7, "The rot at the top," introduces specific "neurotic" leadership styles - styles that originate with the leader but eventually have a "toxic" effect on the entire organization - and then offers suggestions for rebalancing these neurotic styles.
  • Chapter 8, "Achieving personal and organizational change," probes the dynamics of the change process as it applies to individuals and the organizations they inhabit.
  • Chapter 9, "Characteristics of effective leadership," looks at what leadership demands and outlines some of the competencies that distinguish effective leaders from those who are ineffective.
  • Chapter 10, "Leadership in a global context," looks at cultural differences and their impact on business, reviews the special demands of global leadership, and highlights ways that organizations can select and develop leaders who work well in the global context.
  • Chapter 11, "Roles leaders play," focuses on two dichotomies - leadership versus management and charismatic leadership versus architectural leadership - and suggests how leaders can balance these contrasting but necessary strengths.
  • Chapter 12, "Leadership development," deals with how organizations can assess leadership ability in potential candidates and develop leadership skills in those already within the fold.
  • Chapter 13, "Authentizotic organizations," defines a new sort of workplace and challenges organizations to adopt that new model.
  • Chapter 14, "Concluding comments," makes a case for the "fool" in organizations and presents some final thoughts on the subject of leadership.

As I indicated earlier, this book is intended to be somewhat interactive. To that end, it contains a large number of quizzes, self-assessment exercises, and questions. It's my hope that these exercises will facilitate the process of self-reflection in readers. Please note, however, that although many of these exercises are based on a robust body of research, neither the questions nor the measurement of responses have been validated. For that reason, the results of these exercises should never be the sole basis for making a decision. Rather, they should be looked at as guidelines to help readers reflect on and improve their leadership capabilities. These results need to be seen as part of a total package that includes th...

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