SCARPINO: Let me get this thing going again. All right, that one is on, and they’re both on. Just for the benefit of anybody who’s listening to this recording or reading the transcript, this is the second session with Manfred Kets de Vries. Where we finished up, before we took a break, we were basically talking about your accepting an appointment at McGill University. So that I can get all of this in one place, you accepted a position at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, on the Faculty Management. You advanced through the academic ranks, earning tenure in 1979 and full professor in 1980. While you were earning tenure and full professor at McGill, you also took Psychoanalytic Training from 1977 to 1982. You then earned membership in the Canadian Psychoanalytic Institute in 1982. You then engaged in private practice as a psychoanalyst. So, I guess the obvious question is, for most people earning tenure and promotion in a discipline is a job in itself, and at the same time you were taking training in psychoanalysis.
KETS DE VRIES: I was doing consulting to pay for it all.
SCARPINO: How were you able to do all that?
KETS DE VRIES: It was very difficult, to be very honest. I mean, my wife makes some jokes about it, but dinners were—she said, “You can have dinner at 6:20, between 6:20 and 6:40,” I think quite out of spite. Of course, I was teaching, I was taking seminars at the Psychoanalytic Institute, and I had three patients plus three supervisions. So, I had also my rounds on Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes I got totally nuts because I had no freedom, because I don’t like that, and I would take a day off. I would basically say, “Cancel everything,” and go fishing, which is not so difficult when you live in Quebec. So, that was my way of getting—I also would go to New York State. They had some big fish there in the river, Pulaski or something like that, the Canandaigua lakes. I would do it, but it was difficult. I also had to do some consulting because I had to pay for my—the salaries, as you know, a professor runs very high. I had to pay for—Shane went to private schools after he gave up on the public schools. There was a strike at the time. So, that was quite—and then—I didn’t write that much because I had not the time for it. It was actually interesting, the moment I finished my training and got accepted as a member, I wrote a book in a month with Danny Miller, The Neurotic Organization. At the time, we had no email. It was kind of a funny way we wrote, because Danny is a night owl. He lives at night, and I live in the day. So, I would pick up early in the morning under his, you know, the mat, the doormat what he has written. I’d continue, and I would give it back to him, and he would continue. So, it was a 24-hour process of writing this book.
SCARPINO: I heard you actually wrote the book in a month. He did it at night, and you did—I was going to ask you if that could possibly be true, but I guess it was.
KETS DE VRIES: It was true.
SCARPINO: You wrote the whole book in a month?
KETS DE VRIES: In a month, yeah. Well actually, first we wrote an article. I mean, he was my student, a Henley Mintzberg student, the best student I probably—he was very smart, but he never taught, really. He never—he didn’t like teaching and he managed to get away with it, but he made Associate Professor. I think he would be a good teacher, by the way, but we all have our own demons. So, he was interested in structure, you know, uh—Henley’s structuring, and I was interested in personality. So, we started to talk. He was also my house sitter when I went to Europe. So, we started to talk, and he really is very imaginative. We wrote a paper, “Personality, Leadership and Organization,” something like that, I don’t remember the exact title. Then we did another paper and another paper. If you continue like this, you have a book. So, it was very fast. We had—I think once a week we had a meeting face to face. We talked about things. It was—he’s silly. He’s kind of an interesting character, Danny, quite—quite unusual.
SCARPINO: Besides working all night, what made him an interesting character?
KETS DE VRIES: I think his night owl. I think he got married finally, which is a miracle I think, and he got more socialized. Then he managed to get two professorships, one that—I should say, which I helped him at the time with, at a business school in Montreal, and then one in Alberta, which was part time, part time in Alberta. So he has—he also had a sense that he had MS, but he seems to be fine. It seems a very good excuse that he didn’t have to teach or whatever, didn’t want to travel. But he was interesting, interesting, but very talented. You’d give him some data and he’d make something out of it. In that respect—like also my ex-doctoral student, who is now in Berlin, Konstantin. He was very—Konstantin. He kept on pestering me last week about, “Let’s do another book together.” I said, “Listen, I need some time to think.” I mean—I’m so happy, I don’t have any—I mean, everything is ready to go now. It’s due to come out in the next month or so, and one book—we have one book that’s still in the process, but I don’t want to have this pressure of three books hanging over me. I mean, it’s schizophrenic behavior. You get all sorts of invitations to write chapters in books, which I find is actually quite useless because you don’t add very much. You know, one would get bored.
SCARPINO: I notice that you’ve co-authored with quite a number of your colleagues and students.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, I’ve done this whole series on coaching, the three volumes. The last one I didn’t want to do. Konstantin kept on pestering me, so I said, “You’re going to be the first author.” So, because I wanted—you know, it was like I was on a train. For the last six years, you know, too many books. It’s not just the book writing, that’s fine, but then you get the proofs and all those other things, all the hassles and inquiries. After I finish with something I’ve written, I’m so fed up with it, I don’t want to see it ever again. That’s basically what it is. Every sentence I’ve written 30 times, so I don’t want to see it ever again. I mean, I marvel—I was having dinner last night with an old student friend of mine from Harvard. He said he dictates everything, but he’s not a writer, he’s a businessman. He dictates everything and it comes out very well. But that’s not me; I have my two fingers, I plunk along.
SCARPINO: (laughs) That’s really amazing. While you were at McGill, when did you begin to see psychoanalysis fitting together with your previous training in management and economics? How did you put those pieces together?
KETS DE VRIES: It’s sort of interesting. My wife tells me that initially I said, “You know, this is going to be—the area I’m interested in is so small, it’s never going to be anything.” And it has really—and I think I contributed a little bit to it; it has really grown quite exponentially. But I started to see that, when I was in training, psychoanalytic training, because I met—in discussing of creativity takes place in the interface of different worlds. I don’t know if you have the same experience as an historian. I was in the world of clinical psychologists, psychiatrists on one hand, as well as the world of business. Unfortunately, McGill was not very pragmatic, I mean the business school at least, as far as the real—like for example, Robins, that’s a school where—I mean our business model is very much driven by the business community, not just MBA’s, an MBA production line. And so—but I started to—and that’s the reason the book was written so quickly, The Neurotic Organization, which had quite an impact even though, I mean, I gave so many lectures on it at the time, I got bored. I got bored with—and would I write a similar book now? Probably somewhat different. But that was—so I became the—probably the foremost person on the darker side of leadership. Now we see more of, you know, Snakes in Suits and all those kinds of books. Robert Hare, the man with the psychopath test also wrote a book on psychopaths. So, I haven’t done much because I—10 years ago I made a change again, when I became the director of the Global Leadership Center at INSEAD, in which I said, “Okay, let’s,”—and it was very good timing, serendipity, I didn’t plan it, serendipity. I had a consulting and coaching program for a year, which then became an assessment center, so I could really see who were the best and I could pick out who to use for my Center. Coaching was becoming quite popular. So, everything came together, so it was certainly not sophisticated planning. It was trends of the market, all those things coming together. And also the clinical approach, the group coaching idea, which I had been doing for quite a few years but it didn’t work that well because they wanted high touch. It was expensive because there was only one person there; me. Then I decided that maybe you can’t afford it for the MBA students, but you can afford it for the business community. They’re willing to pay for it. So it was—then I had another problem; how to get leadership coaching into the executive programs. Of course, when you bring something in, something has to go out. People don’t like to have things that go out. So, it really was the marketplace, who said, “Listen, it was the most important in that management program, it is the most important experience we had, those days of coaching.” That was really—I mean, people don’t want more finance or economics or whatever. They want to think about their lives when they’re there; that was an opportunity to do that. So, then I had to defend our position against the Center for Creative Leadership. That’s the reason I got into psychometrics. I developed these five tests which cost me—every test cost me a summer. A real pain in the neck. I mean, there’s manuals, facilitator guide, participant guide, such boredom. It’s really—it’s the lowest denominator for the general idiot, and they had to get it on the web, which you know—again, you don’t have a very supportive dean for, you know, getting some IT support. He said, “Oh, you know…” It was difficult.
SCARPINO: The reason for developing and integrating the psychometrics was…?
KETS DE VRIES: I needed to get—since in the executive education group, it is 60% of our business model—income, coaching could not be many days because of the cost, because every coach costs me so much money. I had to jumpstart the process. One of the best ways to jumpstart it is when the coaches get some bio-data information and get some 360 data.
SCARPINO: What is 360 data?
KETS DE VRIES: 360, feedback from people at work and people at home, and friends, whatever. Whatever they want—feel they could make some sense—like you asking some people about me. So, the 360 data sort of to jumpstart the process. So, that works. My problem is that some of the things I did, like how to create a more transitional space, like having people do a self-portrait and things like that, becomes institutionalized. I think it’s remarkable how things become gospel. Well I—you know, just a little icebreaker. It’s now total gospel. People do all—my coaches do all this hocus pocus around it.
SCARPINO: Is that good or bad?
KETS DE VRIES: I always worried about gospels. That’s uh—I want people to be their own people in many ways, but it does work.
SCARPINO: So what’s wrong with a gospel? What scares you about a gospel?
KETS DE VRIES: That it cannot adapt to changing circumstances. Maybe the world changes and that may not be the right way to go about it. Like psychoanalysis can be so dogmatic about, you know, how many sessions and that kind of thing. And the kind of unwritten law that you can project your fantasies to support the transference neurosis. I mean, come on, come on. I mean, you don’t get away with it anymore. People want empathy and some reactions. A few grunts are not good enough.
SCARPINO: So on the one hand, you have developed practices and activities that other people have embraced. On the other hand, you’re concerned that they embrace them too tightly and that creativity gets cut off.
KETS DE VRIES: It could be said that, exactly. That always worries me. Also, I mean, after a while I’ve used it a number of times, I get bored. Like now, I’m a little bit searching, what can I do? You know, you have basically so much time left. It’s the old Jesuit approach about, you know, what have I done today which is meaningful? So, do I want to do a book again with someone else? Many people ask me to do a book together. I’m not so sure about it. Also, I write faster alone, I’ve discovered.
SCARPINO: I’ll bet you do.
KETS DE VRIES: And editing books is actually a pain in the neck because many of the people cannot write, so you have to restructure things and whatever. Liz—Elizabeth Florent is very good because she’s got more patience than I have. But you have to—you sometimes get very lazy people, people make promises about doing things and then don’t do it.
SCARPINO: You said Liz was…
KETS DE VRIES: …Liz has been my research director. She started as a typist.
SCARPINO: She told me that; a bilingual typist.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, she started in California, started as a typist in the typing pool. Talk about job enrichment. She will—I see her as a professor in a few years.
SCARPINO: I’m interested in something you said a minute ago, about not wanting to be bored. Is one of the things that has driven your career a desire not to be bored?
KETS DE VRIES: Boredom is a [inaudible] to me. It’s an interesting topic. I even tried to write about it a little bit, although I don’t think I’ve made any major breakthroughs about that, to write about boredom. But Freud said it has to do with depression and anxiety. That’s what it really is. So, if you do the same thing—now, if you have one good idea in your life, you’re lucky, that’s basically it. I see myself as a translator, really, of something—a complex concept to make it palatable to another organism. That’s the way I really see it. So, the old statement, which is overdone maybe, standing on the shoulder of a giant, is very true. I mean, what is new after Plato? The older I get, the more I see this recycling. You start seeing some young people talking about the great leadership statements of someone. I say, you know, “A lot of other people already wrote about it. They called it different names.” So, what is new? What is new? But then of course, we all want to have our footprint somewhere, and to do it by reframing things. So, the boredom—it’s actually—I think the closest way to describe boredom is really it’s a depressive reaction. Of course, life is not a rose garden, to use this kind of cliché. I mean, I look at people getting older, fortunately they get gaga. That’s probably the best way to go in the end.
SCARPINO: You’ve worked really hard to keep boredom at arm’s length.
KETS DE VRIES: Yes, I do.
SCARPINO: So what’s in your footprint? When you talk about your footprint; what do you think your footprint is?
KETS DE VRIES: My footprint, you know, I have a fantasy. In the present CEO program there are probably at least 200,000 people. There’s possibly maybe 200,000 people. If I can make them a little bit more humane and effective, it may have a kind of cascade effect to the rest of the organization. So, it’s my small contribution to society. You must have heard the parable of the sea star, about the storm, you know, a thousand sea stars on the beach. In the morning a person taking his dog for a walk and sees there’s one person there on the beach throwing one sea star after another. He comes there and says, “What are you doing? What are doing? You can’t throw them all back. You can’t make a difference.” “It’ll make a difference for this one.” So, this is the way—I mean, and it’s very often that I do a workshop, for example, for a company. I did one not too long ago. There were a hundred of the top people of this 40,000-people organization. They were sitting there waiting for [inaudible], that you have the power. If you want to change things, you can change it; you! Don’t wait for a god or whatever; it’s you. And I say this kind of passivity sometimes, you know, to realize that you have to take initiative. When you talk about personality types, in a very simplistic way you can say there are two kinds of people; people who give energy and take energy. This is very simplistic; people who have some skills and have no skills. You can make a whole, you know, two by two things about what kind of people you meet. We make it very often too complex, I find. I was holding this interview this morning and there were all of these psychologists there who asked me questions about personality types and whatever, and I was trying to—but keep it simple. Keep it simple. Psychobabble is all over the place, and also management babble. When you look at the management books, aren’t you scared? If you look at Amazon.com, leadership; 70,000 books on leadership. I mean, it is scary.
SCARPINO: It’s a challenging body of work, let’s put it that way.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, but most of it is crap.
SCARPINO: I’m interested in a word you used a minute ago. With your training in psychoanalysis and economics and management and consulting, you said you look at yourself as a translator.
KETS DE VRIES: I learned to be a translator when I worked for the journal. It was a Dutch journal called NRC/Algemeen Handelsblad. It was the elite daily in Holland. I became a translator. I wrote the book—Life and Death in the Executive Fast Lane, I think came out of that. I had a plan there. So I knew I was going to write for—I’m going to write and make them longer editorials so it can be used later for a book. And I did. It was fun actually to take some concepts and questions, people, various journalists who came and ask questions and I could answer them, thinking about it, and playing with the ideas. It made me feel alive. I mean, we all need to—when I don’t write, I’m very sad and I don’t feel that well. Lately, the only thing I wrote really in the last month or so was a speech for my Honorary Doctorate. That’s the only thing I did.
SCARPINO: Do you feel like you’re having withdrawal?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, I mean, it’s not good for me. I was actually—I was writing a lot of business reviews, so I—the day before yesterday, and I started to become—I see how it does to me. Then there are other ideas—and I decided to have a moratorium for a short while. I don’t want to jump into another project because it—I think what, of course, happens; we all are meaning-searching animals. How can you really have impact? So I’m not—that’s what I’m looking forward to now.
SCARPINO: I want to go back to the word “translator,” because you really are a translator. One of the ways that we measure scholarship is by what we add to knowledge, its impact, and what we add to what we know. What do you think your impact is? What do you think you’ve added to what people know about leadership?
KETS DE VRIES: You’re too deep. I have an association. There was a Dutch painter called Karel Appel. I think he’s now dead. His paintings sell for millions. He was this kind of cultural—art historians would come to him and ask him, “What is the meaning of these blots and things?” He said, “I just mess around a little bit.” That’s what he was saying. I always liked that answer.
SCARPINO: But it’s a dodge. (laughs)
KETS DE VRIES: What?
SCARPINO: It’s a dodge. (laughs)
KETS DE VRIES: Actually, I’ll tell you another story, which is kind of strange. There was an exhibition in the Pompidou Museum in Paris about Yves Klein. Yves Klein, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him. He’s famous for his Yves Klein Bleu. I think his family still lives, but he died fairly young. At the exhibition his paintings cost zillions; a lot of money. One thing he did, if you go to the web, you could type in Yves Klein and really all you see is little videos. In one, he is dressed in tails. There’s one tone of music. And he uses naked ladies who press themselves against the canvas, blue. Millions. So I think it’s a joke. That’s my feeling. Then I went with my wife to Galerie Maeght in the South of France, and they were black, all black. I thought, ‘I can do it, too.’ So I decided to become a painter. I went to Moscow [inaudible] My students organized the whole [inaudible]. There were six naked ladies from I think Saint Petersburg probably for the rehearsal. And then we had an auction. So I was muddling along. That’s what I do in my writing. I muddle along. But what I’ve added, to be more serious about it, and my wife doesn’t like this. She wasn’t there. I had videos made of it.
SCARPINO: You notice I didn’t follow up on that. I just let you talk. (laughs)
KETS DE VRIES: It was quite—well, actually it was a shambles. The hoi polloi of Moscow were there. It was actually a big—it got sponsored by a number of companies. It was quite something, but my wife failed to see the humor about the whole thing. But I felt this—sometimes the element of—I think you need a sense of playfulness about things. Sometimes people get too serious. I was listening to the students this morning talking about one of my colleagues’ work, who I know quite well. It becomes all so dogma. You know, that’s my feel. I mean, you need this kind of—play and creativity is very closely related. There’s also the element of leadership as an art. When I looked at this Eric Whitacre of the Virtual Choir, I felt it was interesting. The man thought out of the box. So, I’m thinking also now, how can I use the Internet in, for example, group coaching and to really make an impact, so I don’t have also to travel that much, you know, fly to Australia or other places. But my contribution, really, is that I have helped people to have an excellence in their organizations. That’s the way in a very simplified way, after my whole detour of the art, leadership as an art. Many things, it’s almost like intuition, which is another form of reasoning which is hard to transmit. If I get your card, I can send you this video I made. It’s a big file. I will send it. It’s about illustrating the clinical paradigm, and my video I made—not a video of the painting video—but a video of the intervention of group—group coaching intervention, which I found—that’s one of my contributions, I think also; how to really help people change. Because most people when you—when I write the bio notes and I read them, they say, “My boss, you know, I’m micromanaging. My colleagues tell me I’m micromanaging.” They’ve known it for years, but they don’t do anything about it because they’re stuck. Now, I help people get unstuck. You have Bob Kegan at Harvard. He has a system, the immunity system, to try to get them out of it. That’s one way, already clarifying some of the other forces which are there, but it might not be good enough. That’s not good enough because it’s the power of the group. When I go to Moscow and deal with one of my clients there, it’s an interesting discussion. I enjoy it, but I don’t have much impact. But if he would be part of a group—in this case, not possible because he’s too glorious—you can—and other people pushed him back, like I did recently in the UK, where you had a very reluctant CEO. You know, band of brothers, fine. But in the end, somebody has to make a decision. You cannot wait for Godot. Godot is no longer there. He is retired. So who’s next in line? So to push him, to push him. And it takes practice and practice. That’s the reason virtuality and the Web becomes more important because what used to be very expensive, to fly them in, for the follow-ups, you can now do on the Web. That’s what I’m trying to play a little bit with.
SCARPINO: Have you done any of that yet?
KETS DE VRIES: We do it—I don’t—personally I don’t do much coaching. I don’t think it’s the best—I have a lot of good coaches. I don’t think it’s the best use of my time. I think—I know I can do it, like to teach the basic course in OB, I know how to do it. I did it for 20 years. I know how to do it. But I think—I mean at this point in time, I’m more in the people development process, to have other people do it. And some people do it much better than I do, like certain coaching. I have one person who I “recycle” who is now a fantastic professor at our school. And you give him any bad group, anything—you know, really difficult groups, he bounces up and makes something out of it. It’s fantastic.
SCARPINO: At this point in your career, do you see one of your major goals as developing other people?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah. That’s really also—I’m in the—in the Hindu religion, the fourth development stage, and also the generativity stage of Erikson. So yeah, sure, I’ve developed lots of people. I mean, I’ve developed large numbers of people. It was actually striking when I got in my accident, I—you know, how many people have you touched? And I discovered which I—even though I’m an introvert, I’ve touched many people. All those emails, whatever, letters, whatever, I got cards.
SCARPINO: What kind of an impact did that have on you when you realized that?
KETS DE VRIES: It feels good. (laughs) I have to be honest about it. No, I mean, you feel that you—you don’t realize it. You should read this little book by the head of KPMG in America, Seeing Daylight or something like that. Basically, the man realized he had a brain tumor and was going to die in half a year. So, he says, you know, “Who have I touched?” He wants to meet the people he has touched. It was a very touching book. You realize about the finality of life, which is very hard to imagine, actually. That’s one of the most difficult things we have to be a mortal. I guess, because I’m getting older—and of course, people, you start to wonder sometimes, will I see them again? So that’s more—it may be that we spend all our lifetime to suppress the idea of dying. And we have—we’ll do anything. We have, you know, from religion to creative works to children, one way is the [inaudible]. But so we all do all different kinds of things. That also means the electricity is out—now it seems to be on.
SCARPINO: No, it’s the light. Let me—I’m going to stand up and see if I can get some lights back on. There’s some at least. Otherwise, we’re going to have to stand up and do jumping jacks. All right, for the benefit of anybody who is listening to this, we’re walking around the room turning the lights back on. There we go, okay.
In 2003, you gave an interview to Business Strategy Review, which I read. In the interview, you described your work as taking place in two main areas; management and psychoanalysis. And then you added—you talked about The Neurotic Organization, which you’ve already mentioned that you published with Danny Miller in 1984. You said that The Neurotic Organization, and I’m quoting you, “was the first time someone tried to show in a systematic way the relationship between personality, leadership, corporate structure and strategy. I’m wondering, first of all, for the benefit of people who are not in your field of expertise, which will be most of the people who will listen to this, how The Neurotic Organization demonstrated in a systematic way the relationship between personality, leadership, corporate structure and strategy, which I gather is the essence of what you were trying to do in that book?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, it’s actually interesting because somebody later on, which I must say, later on realized that Henry Mintzberg also thought in fives, but he thought more—he was a multipathologist. Of course, Henry Mintzberg and I were the thesis advisors of Danny Miller, so it’s a very small circle. I also have been somewhat of taxonomist, also. Henry is a taxonomist. I’m also somewhat of a taxonomist. I’ve written many articles on personality and have been influenced by the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, in which you have the Axis II, which has to do with personality types. Now, I’m very ambivalent about it because the moment you put a label on people, they’re stuck. I realize that the longer you know people, the lesser—the more difficult it is to put a label on them. You realize they have a lot of elements of everything. So—but I have been influenced by that and so I—so I wrote a lot, for example, on narcissism, which you see, of course, quite a bit among leaders. And of course, paranoia, as I’ve written in a book—I wrote a book once—a bio—psychobiography-type book, which is actually two books in one, about Shaka Zulu, which—he was a despot in Southern Africa, who created Southern Africa. Paranoia is the disease of kings. I see that, of course, also when I talk with some of those business tycoons I meet. They don’t trust anything anymore. They know and don’t know that they’re surrounded by yes men and yes women. So, those are the obvious ones, but you also have some sleepy organizations, like what was called the depressive types, like at that point in time that I wrote the book it was Disney. Because after Walt Disney died, they were in a stupor—like I wonder what’s happening now after Steve Jobs died. What would Steve Jobs have done? What would Walt have done? That was—everybody else going in circles and circles and circles until his nephew, his dumb nephew supposedly, broke the circle. Of course, then you had Eisner came in and struggled with his own problems. So, I started to have a number of archetypes, in a way. So, basically looking at personality, looking at structure dimensions, so we put that together. Danny was very much influenced by Henry Mintzberg, so that’s—it was a marriage between the two. It hit a sensitive chord because people realized—when power was quite generally centralized, the personality of the dominant coalition might have an effect. And you see that actually with Murdock and his empire, and Rupert’s influence has—is—you know, had such an influence on his organization, which is very different from, for example, another empire here which is the Daily Mail and Trust Corp, where that’s not—they haven’t found anything. I hope it won’t happen. He has been my student. But they had some strict rules and I think—but the personality of Rupert, I think, was permeating that particular culture. So the—and this of course is a topic which has interested me for a long time, corporate culture, organizational culture. And because it’s—that’s the reason I think that at the time Ed Schein was asked to write review on that book, which was for the American Psychological Association.
SCARPINO: That’s The Neurotic Organization?
KETS DE VRIES:The Neurotic Organization, yeah. That actually was kind of a seminal book. Then I’ve written a number of other books. I’ve now come out with a book called The Hedgehog Effect, which is a takeoff on the parable of Schopenhauer; the two hedgehogs in the winter, which is really a parable for the human condition, which is also a way of looking at groups. One difficult part for me has been the crowd, which is really the group as a whole, and how to sense that you have to go from the individual to the group as a whole to create progress in the process of what you’re trying to do. You have to be very careful. Otherwise, you might really get egg on your face. But those are some interesting puzzles. I’ve had situations where I did an intervention for an executive team and they got stuck. Am I fast enough? Am I not anxious enough, you know, to really?—and then can I frame it well? Another difficult thing about the clinical profession maybe perhaps, I have this feeling, I’m not sure, that kind of thing, but if you don’t make a difference, do you have an escape and the client doesn’t feel hit over the head? So, those kinds of maneuvers. Some of it is really almost like an artist, when you see a person at work, and you videotape them and see them at work. That’s the reason, for example, the videotape, my intervention. Some people get very irritated because I’m originally Dutch, and Dutch have quite an act. And of course, one of the things we have to fight with all the time is how far can you go and we have little time, so—and you do no harm. So, there are all those forces. And the other thing that I have been very proud of in the ten years I was the director, my greatest fear has always been that, you know, a salaried man from Japan gets to go to the session and suddenly has some insight and goes bananas, looks at his life and goes bananas and gets psychotic. My school cannot handle that. The nerds cannot handle that. So, tens of thousands of people have passed by. We’ve never had anything. Knock on wood. So, it really shows something about the talent of the coaches.
SCARPINO: A few minutes ago when you were talking about The Neurotic Organization, you said it was a sort of seminal book, and I’ll drop the “sort of.” What in your own words made that book seminal?
KETS DE VRIES: I think because nobody had done it. It was something new. This book really brought the person back into the organization. That’s what I’ve been doing because, I mean, the world of organization I believe was dominated by structural, structural rational assumptions.
SCARPINO: That was really your contribution, wasn’t it; to focus on the individual?
KETS DE VRIES: Yes. But no, no—it tied the individual to the organization, so it’s not just the individual. Or you have the psychologists who are basically looking at individuals. Or you have the OB profession who is basically looking at structures.
SCARPINO: Tell us what OB stands for. What does OB stand for?
KETS DE VRIES: Organizational behavior.
SCARPINO: Okay, that’s for the benefit of anybody listening to this.
KETS DE VRIES: You can call it organizational systems, but systems, it’s structural, the rational structural tradition. Coming from the economic—you know, you realize now that—it’s interesting, when I was a student of economics, the brightest one did econometrics. That was not me. Now it’s all behavioral economics; that’s where the action is. It’s kind of interesting how it shifted, because people realized that it’s a real dismal science.
SCARPINO: What you did was to tie the individual to the structure?
KETS DE VRIES: Yes, and try to make some sense out of it. You can do it, but make some sense—and don’t make it a total—you know, even though I have certain archetypes or whatever, don’t make it—make it more fluid. Now, there’s always the danger the moment you are engaged in taxonomy that it becomes very rigid. That’s the reason I’m saying—you can do two things with people. You can say, this is this kind of character, you know, narcissistic, masochist, self-defeating, schizoid, whatever it might be. Or you can say, this person has a number of themes in his life. Of course, if you have enough themes, the thematological approach, he becomes a character again. But themes I think are richer, to say—when you look at Putin, what are the themes that dominate his life? And so to make some predictions about some of the behavior you can expect from him. So that’s—and what kind of organization will he create. Of course, in his case, it’s control and also paranoia. He wanted to work for the KGB already from a very young age. He had this fantasy about that spies or whatever could make a difference. His grandfather was a cook of Stalin, so he must have heard some stories about that. You don’t know what happened. I mean, it’s the family stories, the myths in the family which are important, like we talked about earlier; my mother telling me the stories about the Nazi period and my grandfather telling me, “Finally they got what they deserved.” That was, you know, the righteousness about it when the Nuremberg trials were taking place and those war criminals. Now, I read a book many years ago, which was Into That Darkness by Gitta Sereny. It’s about the camp commander of Treblinka. That was really effective. Everybody who came there died. Basically it was like he was running a brick factory; so many bricks a day. He had a nice house with some flowers and was very religious and things like that. And that, of course, is—you know, talk about the statement which is overdone, the banality of evil. Is there no empathy? Of course, you talking now about psychopaths, they have no guilt, no conscience. But still it is scary, scary. Of course, you have the Milgram experiments, like my little experiment of the bathtub on the field with the cold water. Scary. Nobody stands up and says, “Listen, do I want this. This cannot stand. This cannot stand.”
SCARPINO: Do you think that people who do evil things are leaders?
KETS DE VRIES: I mean, you have dark leaders. I mean, it depends on your moral values. Are you doing it for the good of it? Hitler was a very—I mean, you look at his film, Triumph of the Will. You have seen it, of course. He did a magnificent job there in getting people aroused. What a fantastic oratory, picking up themes, the theater of Leni Riefenstahl. I mean the Nuremberg parades there. I mean you feel you’re in to something bigger than yourself. I mean, you really get some pride, you know, pride and passion, I mean he was very good at it.
SCARPINO: Is that another quality of a leader, to persuade people that they’re in to something bigger than themselves?
KETS DE VRIES: I think so, but for what purpose? That’s the catch, and that’s the reason Mandela is seen as one of the greatest leaders of this previous century now, because he went beyond spite and vindictiveness and revenge. He said, “Listen, how can we together build a better country?” And I think about my time in Quebec. I mean, the petty politicians, petty. Instead of saying, “Okay, we were wronged,” by the British; but now we’re going to get even. We had the British establishment really discriminated against, but now we have the political power. And is that—the economic power, you know, went all through the states or went to Ontario. That’s the end of that, thank you very much, because of stupidity. So it becomes—and Montreal became a backwater. That’s what it is.
SCARPINO: One could conclude based on what you said that a large part of the reason for that was a failure of leadership.
KETS DE VRIES: Exactly, a failure of leadership. But we have a tendency—when you think about it, when you take an evolutionary psychology approach of the territorial imperative, so there are very aggressive partners. Fortunately, there are also collaborative partners; otherwise it would be, you know, self-destructive. But how to manage that in a careful way is not always easy. And I think the only way is, of course, to—we all have—somewhere is an altruistic motive. We all somewhere usually get caught by something bigger than ourself, and if politicians and leaders can speak to that. And again, you come to business organizations, now, what are we really doing here? Of course, when you make mustard gas, it’s not exactly the most—or cigarettes, that’s how industry is, which is difficult. I was—recently I met the person who is the chairman of British Tobacco. I looked at him—because my grandfather, every morning coughed his lungs out because of smoking. So, I never touched a cigarette. It was a good thing. So I looked at him. He used to be I think the CEO of Heineken. So, then he looked at me and he said, “Listen, do you want me to be the chairman of British Tobacco, or do you want a mafia figure to be the chairman of British Tobacco?” And actually, it was a point he made. It was different. He probably has had a lot of comments before, but still, certain industries, it’s difficult to tell a compelling story. But most industries, even banks, if they do the right job, you can tell a compelling story. They can do it as a force for the good.
SCARPINO: I’m going to introduce a few facts into the record here and then ask you some questions about INSEAD. In 1982, 1983, you returned to INSEAD as a Visiting Professor of Organizational Behavior. Then you spent a year as a visitor at the Harvard Graduate School of Business. Then you went back to INSEAD, and you earned the rank of full professor in 1984.
KETS DE VRIES: I came as a—when I came after the visiting year, I came immediately back as full professor.
SCARPINO: Okay. You were Director of the Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt Chair in Human Resources Management in 1987. In 1992, you were appointed to holder of that chair.
KETS DE VRIES: It was a little bit of—it had to do with who had the chair—the directorship before.
SCARPINO: You mentioned that that was the second oldest endowed chair.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, the first one was the Loudon chair, which was at the time the—used to be the chairman of Shell. Then the Raoul de Vitry Chair which was the name of the father of the giver. It was ([inaudible] got the money from [inaudible] I think at the time.
SCARPINO: How did it feel to come back to INSEAD as an accomplished fellow, when they had let you go a few years earlier?
KETS DE VRIES: No, not two years earlier.
SCARPINO: A few, I said a few.
KETS DE VRIES: A few years earlier. I had a lot of friends there. I kept friendships there, so it was in a way easy. There was, of course, some ambivalence. You know, there’s always the element of what does it mean for other people in certain areas? I left OB actually after a number of years, and went into entrepreneurship because I felt—it was not like at McGill—but it was a fairly good group I felt and mutual support at that time. It may be different now. There was a lot of fighting going on and I felt it didn’t bring out the best in everybody, so entrepreneurship was much more pleasant. I first became faculty at large under Zaleznik, and then, yeah, I was actually faculty at large, which was—you know, the real reason, the underlying reason was very simple, to be very frank about it. They wanted me to—I had been the chairman of two areas in McGill, strategy and organizational behavior. So, I had done a lot of serving, institutional serving. I came to INSEAD and they wanted to make me chairman of the area. I saw a lot of the people who were doing a lot of consulting and not very much else. And I said, “You know, I am the one who can really [inaudible] best of them, and should I spend my time on secretary assignment and office assignment and whatever and somebody else should do it,” so I thought that was not right. So finally they kept on pushing me there, and so I said, “Okay, I quit,” and I became faculty at large. Then the dean at the time asked me—we had a very small entrepreneurship department—to be a little bit of a mentor to the people that were younger. And that has been a very pleasant group. You know, so, maybe I should—but of course, I belong in OB, which became a problem. Then the Center, the Leadership Center, grew like crazy and so the poor OB group felt, you know, it should be really an OB. So my successor, by the way, is an OB.
SCARPINO: You have published so much that it’s obviously it’s difficult, particularly for somebody not in your field, to categorize this. I’m going to note here that during the 1980s and 1990s, early ‘90s, mid-‘90s, you published several books in quick and astonishing succession. I already mentioned Organizational—I didn’t, Organizational Paradoxes, which was your second book, and then The Neurotic Organization. I’m going to read a few more titles and ask you a question. You edited I think The Irrational Executive: Psychoanalytic Explorations in Management in 1984; Unbalanced at the Top, again with Danny Miller in 1987; Prisoners of Leadership in 1989; Organizations on the Couch in 1991; Leaders, Fools, and Imposters in 1993. Before I just kind of throw it open and ask you a broad question, I noted that all these titles you picked are full of descriptors that describe challenges or even dysfunctionalities. We’ve got neurotic, unbalanced, prisoners, fools, imposters.
KETS DE VRIES: You’re getting depressed, aren’t you?
SCARPINO: Well, it almost seems as though, you know, Dr. Kets de Vries, the practicing psychoanalyst, was extending his private practice that treated people with problems and disorders to organizations and leaders that were troubled or sick. Is there anything to that? Or is this the outsider looking in?
KETS DE VRIES: No, you’re right. I said already before, I was the pathologist of organizations. I actually make a joke sometimes. I first—when I give a lecture, I say, “I used to be a pathologist of organizations.” I get people depressed and then I tell them—the second part of my lecture is how to become a charismatic organizational leader in one easy lesson. So at one point in time, which was really around 11 years ago when I was asked by the dean to set up the Leadership Center, the dean at that time, I decided how can you—it was more the American coach; how to make good people even better. So I switched. But still, not being a positive psychologist, to keep the other side in mind because it’s there, too. There’s an element of the darker side. So I went more the other way, and the work at the Leadership Center has been not—using this clinical paradigm, understanding that people may have some other sides, too, but what can we do to make them more effective? That has really been—and there has also been to some extent—my main laboratory has been for 20 years my CEO seminar. Because it’s not like, you know, I see all those case studies at Harvard Business School and I’ve written many case studies and it’s—you know, you get very often the party line. But to have people really talk very frankly, that happens there. That’s the reason I’ve never had—never had anybody in that class—the other class, yes, I do, the Consulting and Coaching—but many journalists, for example, wanted to be in that class, but that’s totally for confidentiality. Of course, you can say you have 20 people in the class, how confidential can it be, because people talk. They just talk. People talk. The secret—sometimes the secrets can be very audible. They talk to their wife, husband, whatever. But still, I try to create a private, safe space for them as much as possible as I can. And that’s when you really start to learn—when I was writing my book, Sex, Money, Happiness and Death, maybe in combination to that, some of the themes which are important to them, which go beyond the more banal business themes, you know, how to manage my boss, you know, that kind of thing. Or I have a merger and I don’t understand that culture. Not so banal maybe, but it is a more traditional one.
SCARPINO: But those are not the issues you generally address.
KETS DE VRIES: They will be addressed. Anybody—you know, I will address any issues as long as you can personalize it. I don’t want abstract discussions. There will be sometimes, because that’s—it’s the kiss of death—going through general abstractions. I want, “I have a problem. I have a problem. I just merged with a company and I don’t understand the Swedes. You know, I’m a Dane. The Swedes are idiots. I mean, I don’t understand them.” Or I get, you know, “I have now this—we have now a global,” whatever, “company and I don’t understand how we integrate that.” Or he said, “Listen, I’ve been an ex-patriot for all my life. My wife and children want me to be in one place, and next week I have a meeting with the chairman. I know he’s very overwhelmed and he’s going to ask me to go to Thailand, and to run the Asian, the Asian group. How can I deal with that?” Those are—and then you can, of course, talk about cross-cultural differences. But it has to be—you have to feel it in your stomach, otherwise it’s not real. Because when you change people, it is not just the head, which is where most education takes place, but it’s also the stomach, so the emotional part. It’s both affect and cognition. They have to be combined to have any effect. Otherwise it doesn’t work.
SCARPINO: So the stomach is the irrational part?
KETS DE VRIES: No, it’s more the affective part, the more emotive part. That’s what I’m referring to. So, and that’s the reason in a seminar like that, lectures are not good because people get passive dependencies, you know, tell me, I’ll remember—no; “tell me, I’ll forget; involve me, I’ll remember,” which was Confucius. You have to get them involved.
SCARPINO: Is that really the key to your seminar strategy, is to not allow people to become passive?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, of course, you can’t have 100% concentration, but I don’t—I’m very quick in picking up canaries even in large audiences. I see a person who’s slowly fading away, “Ah, what’s your name?” “John.” “John, you’re going to be my canary.” John thought he was safe in the back row; now he’s not safe anymore. “Are you still awake, John?” I mean, I find the people who nod—it certainly keeps people—everybody alive. I learned that actually from a colleague of mine, Jeff Sonnenfeld, who did a CEO seminar in Atlanta when he was at Emory. I thought it was fascinating to keep all those executives on their toes for two days or so, but he had done his homework. So there I was dozing away just coming from Europe to Atlanta. He said, “Manfred, you are a cross-cultural (inaudible).” I was not asleep anymore. It was a very simple trick about teaching. You have to—I mean, why waste your time, sit there, you know, actually many of them big planning meetings like that. The average attention span of my students is 20 minutes. So you have to do something to keep their attention span.
SCARPINO: When I talked to your colleague, Erik Van de Loo, he generally talked to me about psychotherapy. I know I’m going to do some violence to this, but I want to see if I can get you to respond to what he said. He said there are basically two traditions; an individual tradition and a group tradition. He talked about the individual tradition being Freudian, where you start with the individual. He said that Abraham Zaleznik was definitely in that group, and you. And then he talked about the other group tradition. He talked about one of your colleagues, Anton Obholzer…
KETS DE VRIES: Anton Obholzer. He was chairman at Tavistock.
SCARPINO: He said that you began squarely in what he would call the Freudian camp, and that over time you sort of incorporated what he called more levels of reality into your work, including a group level or an organizational level. The question that I’m asking here is a growing willingness on your part to embrace a group tradition a fair characteristic of part of your scholarly development?
KETS DE VRIES: Fair enough. I mean, I’m trying to think about it. I think I had the individual tradition and the organizational tradition, but the group was somewhat missing, and I went into more group processes later on. But you can’t—I mean of course it’s ridiculous. I didn’t do it immediately because you go from the individual to the diad to the group, small group and then a big group organization and maybe civil society, so a different step to take. But I was more focused on the individual and the organization, which is probably a percentage to some extent—some extent also in The Neurotic Organization book, at least some chapters in it, although I did some other chapters where I talk about change where the small group gets more into the picture. I’ve also been very interested, of course, in family business. I wrote two books on family business, which, of course, is a fascinating area for clinicians because a lot of craziness takes place there, and people regress to when they were five years old, and still act it out among each other.
SCARPINO: Does that interest in family business have anything to do with your father?
KETS DE VRIES: Sure. Sure. I—I saw finally after he left how the family business got destroyed, you know, vendettas between different family members. You know, really Greek tragedies take place in the family business. And sometimes they are very difficult to change, you know, to change patterns. It’s very, very difficult. The comment is: there’s always hope, there’s death.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, it’s true, terrible though. Letting go, I mean, it’s not easy because I let go of my directorship. I mean, I’ve been very gracious about it I think because I’ve been preaching that, you know, you shouldn’t pick your own successor alone. You should give advice but not alone. Also, I think you should give the person space; not hang over there and hope to become a messiah to save the whole mess, whatever, if it’s going to be a mess. I think I’ve been very gracious about that. I let go. There’s also some benefits. I have more time to think, which is—which was not so easy for the last years with all other things going on.
SCARPINO: Several of your colleagues, in talking about you as a scholar and a person, used various terms that I would translate as “flexible.” One of them said you live by the theme: do what makes sense or do what works. Someone else said: do what works. Elizabeth Florent said you had the Woody Allen philosophy of whatever works. I could go on, but they all sort of had different takes on that.
KETS DE VRIES: I think they have listened to me carefully because I always tell them I do whatever—what works. I don’t say, “This is the only way to do it.” If I see—like motivational interviewing is actually counter—a little bit counter to the psychoanalytic tradition. We have a famous person in coaching, Marshall Goldsmith, and he said there is no past, which is bullshit. On the other hand, he looks at the future, which makes a lot of sense. You know, what can you do to go to the future? But you cannot avoid to be influenced by the past. That part of him I have a hard time understanding. I think he might have a temporary victory, but it will come back. I’ve seen it too often. So, you have to—like Russia which has been close—I brought Russia actually to INSEAD because I was fascinated by Russian literature. This was—it was kind of a hook. Putin hasn’t dealt with the past. Of course, being a KGB has too many negative connotations. So, there’s a danger of certain things repeating itself. There was a book written many years ago by a psychoanalyst in Germany. It was quite influential. The Inability to Mourn, by Mitscherlich. I think Germany has done quite some mourning about their past and, you know, the atrocities. They have made an effort. Austria didn’t; they basically said it was the Germans. Hitler was Austrian, by the way, as you might know.
SCARPINO: Yes, I do.
KETS DE VRIES: They pretend to know, this kind of [inaudible] and operatic atmosphere, but they were—you know, they have not really dealt with their Nazi past.
SCARPINO: You, several times, have raised the name of Nelson Mandela. Do you think that one of his successes is the fact that he helped the country come to terms with its past?
KETS DE VRIES: Yes. The Truth Committee with Bishop Tutu was I think very important for the country. And to some extent, when you think about other countries where atrocities have taken place, like Argentina, also, it’s important. Now, of course, that’s going to be a problem in the Middle East. How are they going to deal with all those issues? So, it’s—Tunisia has actually done remarkably well with the first election, which is a positive role model. We’ll see. Now, of course, Tunisia is not as big. It has somewhat of a French tradition, for better or for worse. Egypt is a very big country, another story. Then when you go to Libya, they have a very different tradition; tribal tradition, which has been too fast urbanized. I mean, I don’t want to talk about Syria and what’s going on there. It is dismal. Dismal. And of course, Saudi Arabia has its own problems with the kind of strange marriage of family business [inaudible] religion. I mean, it’s—it will not hold.
SCARPINO: With the family business being the monarchy.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah.
SCARPINO: I want to ask you about the Consulting and Coaching for Change program. I talked to Roger Lehman and Erik Van de Loo both about the genesis of that program. I’m wondering if you could just talk a little bit about how that program got started.
KETS DE VRIES: Actually, we probably have different—they’re going to be different interpretations of the history. According to my interpretation of history is that it—there was a meeting here at the Conrad Hotel many years ago and Roger and Erik were two youngsters relative…
SCARPINO: Gerhard Lenz maybe facilitated that?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, Gerhard Lenz, who was a fairly wealthy person, thanks to his wife who was a Henkel and that was a big company. So, Gerhard—so what I decided was to have those two put a number of psychoanalysts together with a group of HR directors and see what happens. So, they ran a relatively unsuccessful seminar. I think the HR people were more willing to compromise than the psychoanalysts, with some exceptions. So, they were rather frustrated with it, and there was an opening at INSEAD. I was running the CEO seminar, and coaching became…
SCARPINO: …so basically the psychoanalysts were not very good subjects.
KETS DE VRIES: They were not very good, not very adaptive. At the same time, I had become—I had quite a few clients who came to me of the [inaudible] consulting firms. They wanted the younger consultants to be better with their clients. I mean, Bain was one of them, and PCG was one of them. Of course, I did a lot of work later with McKinsey. So, we designed the seminar for—actually originally aimed at consultants. We discovered that the people who applied was a tripartite population; ones who were consultants from the large consulting firms to the small ones, mom and pop stores; people in talent management, human development, HR in general; and line managers. The original model was a modular system which was a little bit like—Henry Mintzberg had also kind of developed some kind of program for many different universities. Gosling who is now the—was one—was one of the people—who’s now the chairman of the meeting. So, the input came a little bit from the failed experience of what is called EPOC—EPOC it was called, the failed experience of Roger and Erik. My experience with doing workshops for consulting firms privately and my CEO seminar, that was the influence. I still remember the two of them; they were so scared. It was the first time getting into an extended form of a class—really a class was a big deal for them. It was also, by the way, another thing, it was a joint venture with HEC and there is an artifact that HEC is owned by the Chamber of Commerce of Paris.
SCARPINO: I’m going to have to ask you for the term again.
KETS DE VRIES: HEC is a grande ecole—France has this system of great schools. They have great specialized schools, which is where the action is, not at the universities. If you graduate from a grande ecole, you get a job for sure. If you graduate from a university, it’s not so sure. You have to pass this competitive entrance exam. So HEC is the best business school in France. It’s owned by the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber of Commerce owns the ground INSEAD in France is standing on, in Fontainebleau. That’s not a good thing because they never expected INSEAD to outshine HEC, so they’ve been pestering us to some extent. So, they wanted collaboration with INSEAD. When the two deans saw a possibility of a program together, it was a match made in heaven for two years because then I de-hired HEC, which was not a love affair, but I think they took it graciously, which had to do partially with the hotel facilities. HEC is now better I think, but they had a monopoly on hotels. We also had very good hotel facilities. So, that’s the way it started. I had the support also of, at the time, the assistant dean, who became later one of my students and worked for me, of Executive Education. So, it was all a combination of factors, and it was a raving success.
SCARPINO: And it persists.
KETS DE VRIES: I mean, now I got my degree after—because when I de-hired HEC, I lost the degree. After eight years of pestering and whatever, and also basically, as I said, because of the success of the program and, of course, a stabilization of the income stream, when you have long programs as opposed to short programs. We have now two sections; one in Singapore and one here. Singapore I was worried about because the first priority in developing countries is not this kind of orientation; but fantastic, a full house.
SCARPINO: Another major leadership program…
KETS DE VRIES: …that was very much also due to Erik and Roger because they have been—because they have to manage the lives of those 36 people in class.
SCARPINO: Right. And they’re involved with both?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, they do both. That is, by the way, that is one of the concerns I have. Think about it: you have 16 sessions and all those lives and jet-lagging back and forth, it’s exhausting. And because—I have basically decided now only to be there at the opening session.
SCARPINO: I actually caught up with Roger. He was in Chicago.
KETS DE VRIES: Roger has become really…
SCARPINO: …he promised to sit still for an hour and he was very gracious, and he did.
KETS DE VRIES: He has become crazy in a way. He’s caught up in the INSEAD syndrome. My worry sometimes, you know, you talk about reflective space for your students; how much reflective space can you have? And living basically—you know, he’s American, but he has a house in Frankfort. He officially lives in Singapore, taxes I guess. Then all the other things, I mean, it’s—you can say, okay, you can make a lot of money, but much money do you need?
SCARPINO: You also at INSEAD worked with another major leadership program called The Challenge of Leadership.
KETS DE VRIES: That’s with my CEO…
SCARPINO: ….can you talk a little bit about that?
KETS DE VRIES: That has been a laboratory for other programs, really, of testing things out. I’m being very honest, but Erik and Roger may have a different opinion now, and now it’s more [inaudible]. But the basis of the program comes from The Challenge of Leadership. The questions, the kind of approach and all those things comes very much from there.
KETS DE VRIES: From The Challenge of Leadership, the CEO program, because—but then, of course, the difference is that it’s a modular program that we bring in, for example, a professor of psychiatry from Canada, from Toronto, for the interpersonal segment. We bring in different people. We bring in Randel Carlock, who is interested—I wrote a book with him together on family business—for family business. So you’ve got different specialists. But it’s still also very much a live presentation.
SCARPINO: That particular program is for executives?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, you have to—the age range was also worrisome to me at the time. It was between 30 and 65. Some are the grandchildren, some are the grandfathers.
SCARPINO: You were also the founder of INSEAD Global Leadership Center in 2002. What prompted you to found that Center?
KETS DE VRIES: A kick from the dean.
SCARPINO: A kick from the dean. (laughs) It must have been more than a kick from the dean. At that point, you were pretty senior.
KETS DE VRIES: No, it was—yeah, it’s true. If the dean gives too many kicks, I basically tell him to “f” himself. That’s very true, but my rebelliousness to his authority. No, it was—we had a faculty retreat and the Boston Consulting Group wrote a report about INSEAD, a study. One complaint was that we didn’t have much of a leadership focus, while we’re saying we create leaders for the world. So at that meeting, probably a public execution meeting, the dean asked me in public with all the others if I would be willing to take the lead. I said yes. I had no choice because I was the only one at the school…
SCARPINO: What did you see as the mission of the Global Leadership Center? What was is to do?
KETS DE VRIES: To create sustainable, more humane organizations; so creating leaders who can act according to that.
SCARPINO: It’s primarily an academic program?
KETS DE VRIES: Not at all. No, I mean, I talked about our business model. In the first place, when you look at MBAs, the average age is 29 or 30, so you already have got some experience. We have a doctoral program. That’s fair, that’s true. But then 60% of our revenue comes from the business community. So no irrelevance, no repeats. It’s very simple. We have now more chairs, but our business model is very fragile. So, we have to relate to the business community. It worries me sometimes because of the academic respectability. I think there are very often two solitudes if you’re not careful. So, we actually have now a caste system. We have the tenure track professors, and you have the slaves. That’s the affiliate professors. They do a lot of teaching. And adjunct professors.
SCARPINO: (laughs) Tenure track and the slaves.
KETS DE VRIES: I mean, I’m being nasty about it because…
SCARPINO: …and the tenure track have the obligation to publish.
KETS DE VRIES: The refereed journals, yeah.
SCARPINO: And those who do not, they work with the business community.
KETS DE VRIES: They teach a lot. So, it’s not good, because we wanted to be—you know, in the past, when I was the first here the first time, you could get tenure if you were an excellent teacher. Now, it’s impossible to become a tenured professor as an excellent teacher. You have to be—you need so many papers in “A” journals.
SCARPINO: Do you think that one of the things that the Global Leadership Center has done is to expose some problems with the academy in terms of the way it’s organized and interfaces with the rest of the world?
KETS DE VRIES: You know, we have—all this businesses were driven by ratings, you know, the Financial Times, it’s The Economist, it’s The Wall Street Journal, and so how many publications and things like that. I think it’s sad, because we have now at our school, they talk about the caste system. We have, of course, assistant, associate, full, chair professor. And that’s [inaudible] Then you have adjunct. That’s a lower slave. I can make adjunct professors, I made quite a few people that. Adjunct, affiliate, senior affiliate, and professor of management practice. It’s ridiculous. I mean, you’re all in the same boat and it’s not—and it is, you know—and some of those “A” journals, I’ve written some of the “A” journals. Nobody reads them. They’re totally trite. Trite.
SCARPINO: That’s true, isn’t it?
KETS DE VRIES: I mean, ASQ, the most creative part is very often the cover, but for the rest, trite. Do I read articles in ASQ? Rarely. Rarely. It must be a very special article. Boring. It basically shows your efficiency in manipulating data. So, maybe there’s something good about that, but what about being good in the design of programs, you know, that kind of thing? But I think it’s a little bit sad, but you can go to Duke, where you have basically [inaudible] and make fun of the nerds who write articles, but maybe outsource it now and are people who really do the work with the executives. But you know, thinking of medical school, you hope that your research will better the patient. I wonder how much of the research is bettering our clients. I do wonder. That worries me. It’s a real concern to me. I’m not the only one. I know Warren Bennis wrote about it, Jeff Sonnenfeld wrote about that, Henry Mintzberg wrote about it, I wrote about it. It’s worrisome, but who is listening? Nobody is listening. They keep on going, driven by the ratings. So you can make a Jeremiah and say—but I think it’s sad. You have the three—to become a full professor, there are three criteria. One is institutional contribution; you have to be a dean or a director of a center. Fine. Then it’s the academic writing. And then teaching, including teaching methodology. Now, if you are excellent I think in two of them, but you have to be—now in our school, you have to be good, you have to write papers for “A” journals. Otherwise, you become an affiliate professor or a senior affiliate professor. Some of those senior affiliate professors should be normal professors, not a second-class citizen. I’ve told them many times, but we are—we have in that respect have lost a little bit of our soul, I feel, because—do we want to be—I was at McGill. Eighty percent of my colleagues couldn’t talk to an executive. It was ridiculous. I mean, it’s ridiculous. It becomes, you know, two solitudes. Now, don’t get me there.
KETS DE VRIES: I know you already got me there, but I’m trying to get away from there.
SCARPINO: (laughs) Now I’ll pull back. In the spring of 2011, you stepped down as director of the Global Leadership Center. You mentioned that already and that you felt it was time to do that. Do you think that planning for succession is an important part of being a leader; and is that what you were doing?
KETS DE VRIES: No, I mean, the real acid test of a leader is how well their successor does. It’s very simple, and very few pass that test. So, I want my successor to succeed. He is not a clinician. He is going to take my course.
SCARPINO: That could be tricky.
KETS DE VRIES: Precisely. We have a brand. I mean, my coaches have this brand, the clinical brand. So, I suggested he take my CEO course and he graciously accepted that. He lives in Singapore so he has to fly three times because the fourth module is in Singapore. So, he’s doing that, which is a good sign, I felt. He’s a very different kettle of fish man. He’s much more—he comes from the Harvard vision of control, control faculty, so he’s much more hands on than me. So, that was a little of a shock for some of the people, when they go from one extreme to the other extreme. We’ll see how it works out.
SCARPINO: I bet it was shocking to the people who work there. During the time you were at INSEAD from 1982 through 2011 when you stepped down as director of the Global Leadership Center…
KETS DE VRIES: I’m still a professor at INSEAD.
SCARPINO: I know you are. (laughs) I’m still going to get you to reflect a little bit, though. In that time period, which is quite a lengthy period of time, how would you assess INSEAD’s significance as a center for theoretical and applied study of leadership?
KETS DE VRIES: So-so, because it has been too much of a one-man show, and it’s me, which is unfortunate. It’s getting better now a little bit. Because most of the people I attracted, I could attract, were practitioners. That’s the reason I forced them to start to—I mean blatantly the dean repeated my words, “the one-trick pony.” We are a very good one-trick pony and I wanted some differentiation. Now it’s slowly happening. I think the OB Department is also rising more to the occasion, I think, the Organizational Behavior department. But it was too much—I mean I don’t know what—for example, at USC, University of Southern California, they have this leadership center. I think there are more different people there. It’s bigger. But it’s not easy to get—you know, it’s not that easy to get people here. You know, you’re sitting next to the Forest of Fontainebleau. In that respect, it’s risky business for young scholars to go there. It’s easier now. We give them a lot of—they don’t get paid too badly and we give them a lot of free time. Therefore it’s not a very heavy teaching load. We don’t really package them in; not a Darwinian survival like I had to do at the time. But no, it’s in that respect I’ve developed lots of people, but I had to—I was trying to preach partially the pragmatics of leadership. That’s what I did, meaning that I did it; it’s not just theorizing about it, I did it. I have had a hard time to get many of those people to sit down and make interesting contributions. For example, on the whole issue between leadership and corporate culture, I would like to see more of that, but they’re very good with small group work. Even there, I would have liked to have more writing done. Erik, for example, had this capability, but again, he’s too busy running around. Erik is much more of a scholar. Roger just cannot write. He’s not a writer. Liz is now reflecting on group dynamics. She’s writing on that. She has written quite a few books with me, so she is becoming—getting more on her own. People have the illusions of a big center. It’s not another big center. I mean, it is a virtual center. I probably could have built more alliances, also, in hindsight. A lot of people want to work with me, but you know, I don’t really—when I’m there, I’m there, but I have lots of other constituencies so I’m looking all the time for people who can bridge. Bridge; that’s what I’m looking for. There are not that many who can do that. I mean, you look here, right, there are 801 persons who come to the UK to listen to leadership speeches or whatever and on most esoteric topics. So there must be whole industries going on there.
SCARPINO: Do you think that’s a good thing?
KETS DE VRIES: I don’t know, I’m a pragmatic person, so I say, “How does it help the patient?” I think much of it doesn’t help the patient very much. Of course, they have also the area of consulting firm. I have my own consulting firm, which is very narcissistically called by colleagues, the KDVI, which stands for using my leadership brand. So, a little consult—I mean, I was at a conference at Harvard last year. It was last year, and time flies, and Nitin was not yet the dean of the Harvard Business School. He had organized it with Rakesh and he had I think—I think 40 presentations in two days. Many of them were like hallelujah, I mean, hallelujah, you know, you do this and your world will change. It gets me very itchy about all this hallelujah thing. A lot of consulting firms have this particular model. I mean, you listen to some of—I had dinner with two leadership scholars in Cambridge, Ron Heifetz and Bob Kegan, and so it’s—and then you listen to people talking about them. I’m getting a little bit itchy, you know, they’re human beings with their weaknesses and frailties, but they become all deified, deification taking place. There’s an expression in my language, “doe maar gewoon, dan doe je al gek genoeg.” That means be normal, then you’re already crazy enough. So, there’s something true about it.
SCARPINO: (laughs) Well, I’m trying to think here a little bit about the scholarship of leadership. Without trying to frame a question so that it presupposes an answer, what happens to the significance of that body of scholarship when the scholars retreat into rooms and talk to each other?
KETS DE VRIES: I think it becomes a masturbatory exercise, to be very honest, because I think many of the leadership studies done are done in laboratories or with young students who have not much experience. So, it is very healthy for many of the leadership scholars to meet politicians, to meet senior civil servants. I mean, I deliberately went to the senior group because I want to have oomph, to use that word again. I want impact. Many of the studies have been done, of course, original studies in organizational behavior to lower the factory floor and things like that. I went deliberately there to really have an impact because of my fantasy about the cascade effect. I think it’s a very healthy idea for leadership scholars to say, “Okay, what do I have to tell? If I were to have 20, 30, 100 executives, what can I tell them that will add some value to them; they walk away and say, ‘He was interesting, I can learn something I can use in my work.’” That should be somewhere in the back of their mind. And that is very often—you know, it’s very often, like in HR sometimes, you get staff and staff and staff and staff. They start to live a separate life from the organization. I’ve seen that too many times. And they finally implode. They have more questionnaires, and what are they doing there? They go to conferences. Scary. So you have to remember what business are you in, and I’m very pragmatic about it because I had to make money and it was the only center at INSEAD who made money. It’s still the only one to make money. So, I’m very pragmatic about it. I mean, can you add value? Can you tell something new? Can you make your organizations better? Can you help people function better? You know, can you—that kind of thing.
SCARPINO: You think that is a test of the value of…
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, of course, you can do—Lewin—Lewin said about, you know, the best, the serious—it was again the Center—the serious, the most pragmatic thing, whatever, I forgot it. With some question marks. I mean, to me—I mean, I come from a family of entrepreneurs. My father used to make fun of me sometimes about, you know, “The dismal science, economics—what use is that?” So that’s still very much alive. If I cannot—am I doing something which is helpful to the client? Which in that respect, the medical metaphor is very relevant to me, in doing something which is relevant to the client.
SCARPINO: You stepped down as the director of the Global Leadership Center this past spring. You’re still a full professor at INSEAD. You’re still working hard. Do you consider yourself to be a work in progress?
KETS DE VRIES: Yes, I’m a work in progress, but I’m wondering now because in America you can stay as a professor until you’re totally gaga, I think.
KETS DE VRIES: But not in Europe. So, I was the first professor at INSEAD who get a postponement because at that time the retirement age was 65, but still, who can even afford to retire at age 65 in France? So, now it’s 70. I mean, I am going to become 70 next year, so I’m trying to think what will I do? Will I—I don’t like the title emeritus. I have a difficult time with that. Emeritus sounds like you are—of course, I’m stupid not to be emeritus because it’s probably better for me—financially it’s better to be emeritus. So I’ve been thinking about that. On the other hand, I’ve been offered on a regular basis now professorships in other places. But I do like—I mean, France is a nice museum. It’s good. It’s a nice museum. When I was walking in Singapore…
SCARPINO: What makes France a museum?
KETS DE VRIES: … I mean, I was walking in Singapore and it’s a shop till you drop atmosphere. After a while, I got claustrophobia. It’s buy, buy, buy, buy. Then I come back to Paris. I walk 30 seconds, I’m at the [inaudible], see there the Notre Dame, and there’s the [inaudible], all the bridges. I thought, this is really pretty. It’s aesthetically very pretty. So, it’s a museum because—they’re changing—it was certainly a museum under Mitterrand and Chirac. I think Sarkozy tried to do certain things, but he got a lot of—for example, try to get a taxi at 6 o’clock in the evening in Paris. Good luck. We have the same number of taxis as in 1930. It’s a monopoly.
SCARPINO: I tried at 6 o’clock in the morning. (laughs)
KETS DE VRIES: That’s also probably hopeless. That’s probably hopeless because they don’t work—because it’s not a good time. They only can work 11 hours or so, so you don’t start—you start at 11 o’clock in the morning but not at 6 o’clock. So you find ways around it. You know, I have now [inaudible], a subscription for my taxi, so I get a taxi. But I mean, it was a hard lesson because it’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous. Things like that—what I’m trying to say is that the organizational process is a march, and to really do something about it takes time. I think in that respect, Sarkozy has been trying. It’s part of his theatrics, but he has been trying.
SCARPINO: I know that you’re still a full professor and that you’re still working, but I’m still going to ask you this question anyhow. You’ve been in this business…
KETS DE VRIES: …too long, huh?
SCARPINO: …decades. What do you consider to be your legacy? What are the most important things you’ve done? We’ll take away the word “legacy.” What are you proudest of? What do you think are the most important things you’ve done?
KETS DE VRIES: I’m trying to recall the metaphor of putting your finger in a glass of water and taking it out; what is left? So in the march of time, you should be very modest. I mean, I have so many years in the management business. Look at people who were very famous and now—it’s a very temporary high I think very often. Very few people have a lasting impact. So, I have made some narcissistic dreams, but I’m also a realist.
SCARPINO: I’ll ask it a different way. I think I pushed the wrong button. What are you proudest of? What do you feel the best about?
KETS DE VRIES: I think my children.
SCARPINO: That’s a good start.
KETS DE VRIES: That’s a good start. I mean, the children. I’m really pleased with the children. They’re doing well. I’m also proud of some of my ex-students. I love to see them flourish, which for example in Berlin, there are a number of my students there and they do very well, thank you very much. I saw one of them in Cambridge. I see them there; they’re very active. It’s nice to see. So, look at Roger and Erik, who were in a way my students; they do quite well. Then, I think, I made an effort to be one of the people to bring the human person—the human being back into the organization. When I was at the Harvard Business School in the MBA program, there was very little of that. I can tell you that. It was all structure, structure, structure. Not as bad, by the way, don’t—but I think not enough. So, I have made my, whatever, my mini effort to bring it a little bit back there and make people aware of those things. I mean, think about behavioral economics, which is now so popular. Maybe because of this kind of more clinical lens, that has an indirect influence to the culture of organizations. I guess they elected me at one point in time a fellow of the Academy, which I’m a deviant in a way. I mean, I don’t feel necessarily that comfortable. I was there at the last meeting—not the last meeting, the previous one—I never go there, there’s too many people. Montreal, and so there were some new members who were, you know, being inaugurated; so many citations and so many citations. I felt really out of it, I must say, listening to that. I was lucky I was sitting beside some interesting people for a change, but it could have been bad luck. Of course, everybody has his hobby and his focus, but I felt not completely with it. Maybe that’s the story of my life, an outsider, almost like the camera, the outsider, looking always at a distance at what’s going on there.
SCARPINO: Do you think that’s one of the things that push you to keep working and trying new things and crossing boundaries?
KETS DE VRIES: I mean, I’m a pest.
SCARPINO: A pest? (laughs)
KETS DE VRIES: I’m a pest, yeah. I can be a pest. I mean, pestering. I try to be a constructive pest, but I’m a pest, you know, asking sometimes questions which—and basically—you know, you go to a cocktail party or whatever, you go to a dinner. You can talk about the weather, you can talk about politics or the—you can talk about some very incisive questions and you get essentially much more out of it. In the beginning it can be shocking, but in the end they realize that you get more out of that than just another boring evening, you know, boring evening or boring dinner.
SCARPINO: Is there anything as you think about your career that you wish you could have a do-over, that you’d do differently if you had a chance?
KETS DE VRIES: No, I mean, I was walking with my wife in Cambridge and we were reflecting on what kind of life we would have led if I would have been a professor there. At that time, I felt Harvard was the center of the world, you know, this kind of illusion. It’s difficult, you know. Our children would probably live in America, would have lived in America. They would not live in Sweden and here and in France. You can speculate about that. So, it was a narcissistic injury that I didn’t get a professorship for the wrong reason, because of—so that is something. But it’s a question of how you deal with it. It’s easy to deal with success. It’s—so I made—I made—I’ve had an interesting life. Could I be able to function according to the rules of the Harvard Business School, which is, you know, very driven by teaching groups and things like that? Maybe not. I mean, under this kind of regime. I was having breakfast with a young professor who actually is a professor at INSEAD, but he’s there now teaching for a year. I was listening to him, he said, “Really for me this kind of lockstep, all those things you have to do, teaching groups and so many meetings, I’m too rebellious for that.” But on the other hand, it’s interesting to speculate. By that time it was a great desire of mine, which had to do with idealization of—you know, I come from a nonacademic [inaudible]. At that time—the first time I came to the Harvard Business School, professors wear, you know, their mink coats. Now I realize they all have clay feet. But it was funny, last year I met who became the Associate Dean at Harvard Business School. He’s retired of course. He was my first teacher in Business Policy and he was scary. He was scary.
SCARPINO: What was his name?
KETS DE VRIES: [inaudible] You don’t know him. He was a Dutchman. I remember my English was not very good. The case—you know, in the Dutch tradition, you sit somewhere in the back and nothing happens. But he called on people, you know, called, called. Scary. So I actually went to him and he was nice to me. I said, “Listen, my English is not so good.” I was trying to explain to him indirectly that maybe he shouldn’t call on me because I would probably make a fool of myself. So, then I met him in a different situation. I’m now a very well-known professor and he is—and so you see all the—what was the big deal that was all—and he was the one I was trying to go the other way around and try to see me, more of me. So, but I had never been also at the time—talk about network. I have a terrible network because I’m too much of a dreamer and too much a loner in certain ways. That’s going back also to the Leadership Center at INSEAD. I think it became successful and the second largest in the world because I had to deal against things. I didn’t get the support of the dean. I didn’t get the support of the organizational behavior group because they were anxious about—so, in spite of it, I made it a success. Maybe I need that. I need that. That’s part of my personality. But I didn’t do a Zaleznik, I think, because there is no legacy. Because when you’re [inaudible] conference on leadership and people hadn’t heard of him anymore. He was at the time quite important, but he hadn’t developed enough people. He didn’t do that. He was I think too—and that I have not done. I mean, I see now this big pillar is going to be, this—I wanted INSEAD to become the best school in soft skills in the world, and I think we’re getting there. We might already be it. That was my dream. I mean, every dean talks about soft skills and, you know, the hard skills, but what are they doing about it? We are doing something about it. We have now an Executive Master’s in it. It’s a serious business, and two continents. It’s also—it permeated through all the programs, also. So, that’s the legacy.
SCARPINO: You said the best school of soft skills?
KETS DE VRIES: The best business school in the world in soft skills.
SCARPINO: Okay, for the benefit of somebody who doesn’t quite know what that means, what are soft skills?
KETS DE VRIES: Interpersonal, emotional intelligence, that kind of thing. Interpersonal skills, emotional intelligence. I think it would be hard to find a school which is better in it at the moment. We have a big school. We have thousands of MBA students, and then 3,000 or 4,000 executives.
SCARPINO: That’s your mark on the…
KETS DE VRIES: What?
SCARPINO: That’s your mark?
KETS DE VRIES: I think that’s my—to some extent you can say that I made a contribution; me as in my people, who did it. I’m not into mass production, but I think it was my influence which added to it.
SCARPINO: I want to ask you one more question.
KETS DE VRIES: That was a very good question, actually, because—that you pulled that out because that’s—that has been important to me, but I don’t—I don’t—I don’t wave the flag too much and I forget about it. But this has been—what I’ve been telling the deans as my vision. And they’ve—it took them some time—the new dean listens. He listens. He has a sense of what I have been doing. He was actually very gracious when I resigned as director with all the events that were around it.
SCARPINO: Is there anything that I should have asked you that I didn’t? Or anything that you would like to have said that I didn’t give you a chance to?
KETS DE VRIES: They’re two different things.
SCARPINO: Yes, two questions. The ACME oral history manual says don’t do that, so I’ll ask you one at a time. Is there anything that you wanted to say that I didn’t give you a chance to say?
KETS DE VRIES: I would say to people, you know, “I have asked you many questions. Is there anything you want to ask me?” That’s a very soft skill. I mean, it’s a nice question actually, that people feel it’s not just a one-way street. You have done a very good job, I feel. Of course, I always think there’s are odds and ends which are not touched upon, which has to do with personal life and things like that, but you got some images of my personal life and why I did certain things and the relationship between personality and life in general. So you—for a detective, it’s not so difficult to figure out certain relationships. That’s what I always say, I mean, I play Sherlock Holmes. That’s one of the things one has to do. What’s the time? I guess our cocktail party is coming up.
SCARPINO: Yeah, I think we probably need to call this off. While I still have the recorder on, I want to say thank you very much for being kind enough to sit with me on behalf of the International Leadership Association and the Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence. I will now turn off the recorder.