These interviews took place on October 27, 2011, in London, England, at the annual meeting of the International Leadership Association.Learn more about Manfred Kets de Vries
Manfred Kets de Vries
Part oneSkip to next interview transcript
SCARPINO: The recorder is on. As I said when the recorder was off, I’m going to read a brief introduction. Today is October 27, 2011. My name is Philip Scarpino. I’m a Professor of History at Indiana University/Purdue University, Indianapolis, and the Director of Oral History for the Randall L. Tobias Center for Leadership Excellence. Today I have the privilege of interviewing Dr. Manfred Kets de Vries in a conference room in the Park Plaza Westminster Bridge Hotel, London, England.
Dr. Kets de Vries is a leading scholar of leadership. We are going to provide a detailed summary of his professional accomplishments that will accompany this interview. For right now, I will say that over a long career he has authored or co-authored several dozen books and an impressive body of articles and book chapters relating to leadership and management. He earned a Master’s Degree in Business Administration and a Doctoral Degree in Business Administration from Harvard University in 1968 and 1970, respectively. He completed Psychoanalytic Training at the Canadian Psychoanalytic Institute in 1982, which included four years of supervised clinical work. Among his academic positions, he is founder of INSEAD Global Leadership Center in 2003. He stepped down as director in May of 2011. He is the holder of the Raoul de Vitry d’Avaucourt Chair in Leadership Development at INSEAD since 1992. In 2008, the International Leadership Association inducted Dr. Kets de Vries into the Leadership Legacy Project, along with Bernard Bass, Joseph Rost, Warren Bennis, James MacGregor Burns, and Francis Hesselbein. The International Leadership Association also gave him a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008.
Dr. Kets de Vries, I’d like to ask your permission to record this interview, to have the interview transcribed, and to deposit the transcript and the recording with the International Leadership Association, the Tobias Center, and the IUPUI Archives and Special Collections where they may be used by the patrons of those organizations.
KETS DE VRIES: That’s fine.
SCARPINO: A long lead-in to a short answer. Thank you so much. Ordinarily, I would begin an interview by asking some basic demographic questions. I’m going to get to those in a minute, but I thought I’d start with some broader questions. The way I’d like to do this is to say that I read an article that you published a long time ago in 1994 titled “The Leadership Mystique.” It appeared in the Academy of Management Executive, Vol. 8. I’m going to read a few lines for the benefit of someone who might listen to this recording in the future so they’ll know what we know. You said, “All of us possess some kind of inner theater and are strongly motivated by a specific inner script. Over time, through interactions with caretakers, teachers, and other influential people, this inner theater develops. The internalized core conflictual relationship themes that make up this inner theater form the core of an individual’s personality and are the matrix on which behavior and actions are based. Our internal theater, in which the patterns that underlie our character come into play, influences our behavior throughout our lives and plays an essential role in the molding of leaders.” Well, you clearly are a leader particularly in terms of the scholarship of leadership and coaching of leaders. I’m wondering if you could begin this interview by telling me about your own inner theater. Who were some of the influential people that have contributed to the development of your inner theater?
KETS DE VRIES: Hopefully for most people are their parents, I would think. So my parents certainly influenced me, and my grandfather from my mother’s side. I guess you have to realize I was born during the war, and it was a very difficult period in Holland. That’s probably why my interest in leadership is related to that because I’ve written initially in the first part of my career quite a bit on the darker side of leadership. I was the pathologist of organization.
SCARPINO: I was going to ask you about that later on. I noticed that.
KETS DE VRIES: Basically I remember my—I still have a very vivid memory of my grandfather at the little radio listening to what he said about the Nuremberg trials. My grandfather was—we lived in a small village outside Amsterdam, and he had something like 20 people under—you know, it was called [inaudible] in the Dutch language, but they were hidden there and …
SCARPINO: He was hiding Jews.
KETS DE VRIES: ….Hiding Jews. It was very risky business. He was a good carpenter so he had built double walls and things like that. So my mother, it was in a way paradoxically the best time of her life because she felt really, really useful, because, you know, how to feed all those people, how to get food for them, and also how to protect them in one way or another. If you think about it—you probably have read the book of Anne Frank, to be locked up and locked up and locked up. It’s a serious sense of claustrophobia, so how to calm those people down. I guess I must have been quite the focus of attention because I was a young baby, so they probably played with me and things like that. I have no memories of that. I have some dreams; dream fragments. You don’t know how clear that is. So my grandfather, he would give his shirt away to anybody. There is a story of two children, one was 17 and one was I think 14, had walked all the way from Poland. That’s a long hike. That’s a long hike. The girl asked if my grandfather, she had heard about him, if he could take the boy, and so he did. He’s still alive, the boy is. He went to Israel. I guess a little bit of tragic life, but that’s the person he was. Of course, later on, you had other people influence me. I mean, I was influenced by my brother who is younger than me. We were very close because my parents ironically divorced after the war. My father is Jewish, so my mother in a way saved him in many ways because in the initial period, when you had mixed marriages, they would not be put into camps. He was put into camps and she got him out one way or another. She spoke fluent German.
SCARPINO: So your father was basically put into a holding camp and then got released?
KETS DE VRIES: Yes, and my mother got him out. My father took quite some risks, but certainly a part of the family ended up in not a nice place and died. So those memories are very important. I think it relates to my interest in leadership. Then I had an incident, I guess my mother shipped her two sons off to a camp every summer, which was I guess she wanted some freedom because I don’t think we were very easy children. We fought a lot. I have a memory. I wrote about it once in one of my introductions in my book. Normally people would stay for 10 days or so; we stayed double that long, so we really out of sight to give her some freedom.
SCARPINO: To give your mother time out. (laughs)
KETS DE VRIES: Exactly. So the new group was coming. We were not very tall. I mean Dutchmen are usually big; we were actually rather small in comparison. There was some kind of bathtub sitting on the land for the cows, the cattle, filled with cold water. So we said, “There’s an old habit here in this particular camp that everybody has to dunk—go under in this bathtub.” There was this whole line of children—you talk about group psychology—and the two little ones, the two little ones, everybody went in there. You talk about how simple it is when you take something little like the Milgram experiment—my Milgram experiment until Frank, the camp leader, saw what we were doing and said, “What the hell are you doing?” So we got into the tub. We were thrown in the tub eventually by him. But it was kind of interesting how people can behave like cattle. Anyhow, to talk about…
SCARPINO: …So this was a large outdoor bathtub with cold water?
KETS DE VRIES: …Yeah, with cold water. You get the image. It’s sitting somewhere in the middle of a meadow. So all this line of 30 children, line up and take off their clothes and then, bang, in the bathtub. So that was probably in—I also have a degree in economics, so I always make the joke, I combined a dismal science with the impossible profession; dismal science came so that Carlyle apparently, I just read recently, and the impossible profession is Freud. But I decided you can always be Freudian. Anyhow, after I finished my economic studies in Holland, I took a freighter, I saw romantic notions of the freighters. So I took the freighter.
SCARPINO: The Norwegian freighters.
KETS DE VRIES: It was a Norwegian freighter, you’re right. It was a Norwegian freighter. I still remember the goat cheese. They had some kind of goat cheese that they had. But it was so boring. And at first, I wanted to get out. It was not this—I had these romantic notions of…
SCARPINO: …So it wasn’t romantic?
KETS DE VRIES: Not at all. Boring, boring. So the first stop was Boston. I got out and I had been at Harvard summer school when I was 17. I was quite—coming from a small village, it was quite an eye opener to me, all those different people. So I walked over to the Harvard Business School and talked myself into a program. It was called the International Teachers Program, ITP. It still exists, not with Harvard.
SCARPINO: I saw that on your resume. I wondered how that got there.
KETS DE VRIES: It was Harvard’s attempt to, you know, they were focused on the case method, and so to make some propaganda for the case method all over the world. It was a free studies program. Then at that time, one of the advisers said, “Listen, there’s this funny course by a man called Abraham Zaleznik; it’s called Psychoanalytic Psychology and Management Theory.” And as an economist, that’s going to be interesting. So I still remember it very clearly because the first assignment was to read a historical, Jones’ biography of Freud. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it. It’s very big, and my English was not very good. So I spent the whole week reading that book. It was actually two volumes. Nobody had read it of course except me; I was too naïve. But I also had to read The Ratman, The Wolfman and The Psychotic Dr. Schreber, which is very different from reading economics. So I got fascinated. It was a man called Abraham Zaleznik. He was a professor at the Harvard Business School, and as a non-medical doctor who was going through psychoanalytic training, which was fairly unusual at the time. So I got fascinated by that, and so it was an interesting role model to combine those two. It’s kind of ironic, I saw him a few days ago while I was in Boston. Obviously his mind is no longer there, but he was very important at the time as some kind of mentor. I became his assistant and I did an MBA and a DBA while—and I worked for a short while for him. So those are important. Then, of course, I had two psychoanalysts. To be a neuro-psychoanalyst, you have to go through psychoanalysis. First, I had a woman in Paris, and she is very famous. She just died. It was just in The Guardian. She was a Kiwi, but she is Joyce McDougall, who has written—she has a very nuanced way of—as opposed to most psychoanalysts, she was very elegant, very elegant dressed lady. She made the best presentations. Most presentations by psychoanalysts are totally boring. Boring. She wasn’t. When she would make a presentation, it was a packed house, it was exciting. I had her as my analyst.
SCARPINO: You said it was Joyce McDougall?
KETS DE VRIES: Joyce McDougall, yeah. She was just recently in The Guardian, there was an article about her. She wrote about inner theater also, which was the influence of the inner theater, and she also talked about neosexuality, trying to be not perversions, you know, but basically—I always say the interesting people in life are a little bit crazy, the normopaths, psychopaths and sociopaths, whatever, but normopaths can also be a problem when you’re too normal. So she influenced me, and actually I went in analysis with her when I was at my first appointment at INSEAD. Then after two years I got fired. I had a rather big mouth I think.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you about that later on. (laughs)
KETS DE VRIES: I got fired but they wanted me to come back the next year, so I basically said, “Screw it.” So I went—I was at Harvard at the time and went to—Henry Mintzberg really hired me, which was kind of funny. There were two candidates; one candidate was giving a presentation on monkey behavior. Henry Mintzberg was in the nature of managerial work, what the hell do monkeys do? So I got the job. But there I had another analyst…
SCARPINO: …That was at McGill University?
KETS DE VRIES: McGill, yeah. There I had another analyst who was the head of psychiatry and the head of the Allan Memorial Institute. It was the big mental health think tank in Canada. He also has been influential. Also, both of them are not—that’s my rebellious attitude—not traditional psychoanalysts because I can’t stand those. I say, “They’ll do anything that works.” Psychoanalysts have been their own worst enemies in many ways, in the way they have—you know, bald men fighting for a comb, I always say. You know, they are so inward-looking. [inaudible] There’s a whole world out there how business works and do something about it. In that respect, Zaleznik was a pioneer. There was another person at the time at the Harvard Business School and the School of Public Health. Harry Levinson was there. Then you had some people here in London at the Tavistock Institute. So those are—and of course I learned—and of course I had a crazy supervisor, Clifford Scott. He was quite a man. He was the founder and he was the editor of the International Psychoanalytic Journal and [inaudible] a possible association I have.
SCARPINO: He must have been a distinguished man then. (laughs)
KETS DE VRIES: He was a Kleinian, if you know what that is. Klein usually has groups in psychoanalysis and it was very difficult. I remember when I was in training at the Allan Memorial, we had the patient of the week. It was the most interesting thing actually. The patient of the week was interviewed by the psychiatrist, psychoanalyst in closed circuit television. There was a whole group looking at it, and then you got to discuss it and it was open. It was very real because the patient of the week was a patient; they wanted to know what to do with the patient. The patient had given permission for this whole thing that was being filmed. I found it fascinating to see the different style of the interviewers and then the discussion around it. One day it was Clifford Scott. So I saw him interviewing. I said, “My God, what is he doing, what is he doing?” So I rushed off to the couch, you know, I had my sessions on the couch, and started to complain to Dongier, Maurice, complaining about this crazy guy, the way he was interviewing. He said, “Give him a chance.” And since they don’t say that much, you know, you’d pay attention to the few words that are being said. So he became my first supervisor and he was the longest supervisor. He was very original, I mean, very well-read and original, and so I learned quite a bit from him. But also, he always managed to get me into a knot. So when I came out of his session there, I was wondering what hit me. And I still have that. You know, I’m derailing you probably a little bit, but I’ve been running since 21 years a CEO seminar. I do it together with a psychoanalyst, anthropologist, novelist from India who was actually also trained in Germany and also at Harvard.
SCARPINO: His name is?
KETS DE VRIES: Sudhir Kakar, who also has been quite influential to me as a kind of older brother, the older brother role. He’s very famous in India. Any time there is something about a cultural historical thing, the newspaper calls him. He’s written many books. His last book was burned, which is very good for book selling.
SCARPINO: Yes, it is.
KETS DE VRIES: He wrote about Gumby and this English lady, which was really a platonic relationship. Gumby’s sexual habits were sometimes quite strange. So he was quite influential. Actually my last book which just is coming out I think soon, The Hedgehog Effect, I’ve dedicated to him. After you have done your father, your mother, your brother, your children, your wife, and so it’s time for him in many ways. So he was at the time working with Erik Erikson.
SCARPINO: At Harvard.
KETS DE VRIES: At Harvard, yeah, for a year, actually it was a year there. He wrote a book at the time about Frederick Taylor.
SCARPINO: The management theorist.
KETS DE VRIES: Yes, he wrote a book about Frederick Taylor. It was a project actually, which was initiated by Zaleznik. They were going to do it together, but Zaleznik didn’t do anything, so he said, “It’s your book,” which was gracious of him. So that was his first book. But I’m derailing you.
SCARPINO: I want to actually go back…
KETS DE VRIES: …You asked for influences over the years, so you got some influences.
SCARPINO: No, no, I asked for that. You started by talking about your mother and your paternal grandparents and their effort…
KETS DE VRIES: …Maternal, maternal.
SCARPINO: Maternal, I’m sorry, yes—to save Jewish people during World War II when you were quite small. I understand that your mother and your grandparents were both named righteous gentiles.
KETS DE VRIES: Yes.
SCARPINO: So they were rather significant in their efforts. Most of what you know about that, though, is what people have told you?
KETS DE VRIES: Yes, I was too young.
SCARPINO: What kind of an impact do you think that knowing about that had on you?
KETS DE VRIES: I think very strong, because of my emotional reactions when I talk about it. I think it’s—I guess it’s a pattern when you think about your life that—things which are not right. I think the whole issue of fair process and, of course, people doing horrible things to other people. I was just reading the review about a book of Pinker— I forgot the title but basically he said that humans have become nicer over the centuries. Did you read the book?
KETS DE VRIES: It just came out. Pinker is a professor at Harvard and it’s fairly interesting. It’s a significant book about even though in spite of the Holocaust and things like that. But of course, this whole issue of the Holocaust and—but my mother, you know, was an element of—what do you call it—it was such a traumatic experience that she would tell the stories over and over—talk about oral history, over and over again, so my brother and I couldn’t stand it anymore. You know, we got so tired of those stories; stories like the Grüne Polizei, which is the Green Police, which is I think probably some kind of SS corps, would enter the house. I was there playing, but underneath, you know, there were all those people and small children. You know, you’d get very anxious that you would say the wrong thing. So the anxiety, the level of anxiety was very high about that. Then of course, the horrible things that happened; people got shot. I mean my grandparents are buried in the small village and just behind it is this kind of a big tombstone of a bunch of people who got shot by the Germans at the time.
SCARPINO: Mass graves.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah. A lot of them are not really mass graves, something like they shot six or seven people.
SCARPINO: I talked to several of your colleagues who told me that based upon what you heard about that experience that you spent most of the rest of your life trying to deal with bullies and unfairness and inequity. Is that a reasonable conclusion?
KETS DE VRIES: Not necessarily consciously, but I have always been—even in the professorial profession, I’ve seen also a lot of abuse of professors abusing students and things like that in many ways. So I always believed in—like I felt it was Zaleznik at the time made a generous gesture to Sudhir, “That’s your book,” things like that. I think people are expropriating. I’ve seen it too many times. So I pride myself that the people who have worked with me have really developed. I’m really in the development business. I’ve probably been the most successful at my institution in that respect I think, developing people and get the best out of them and giving them—I’m not a micromanager. On the contrary, I’m very much a manager in orbit, but given a long rope. I got an Honorary Doctorate last week in Slovenia and I gave a speech. I should have sent you the speech.
SCARPINO: I would like to see it.
KETS DE VRIES: It’s actually a little reflective speech. The next day Ed Schein also got an Honorary Doctorate. You might know about him. He’s at MIT. He was talking about me and my life, and he was talking about the experience with Douglas McGregor. He was the head of the area, the department chairman. He was going to teach a course that was given by a man called Bavalos. You may have also read of him, but he was a teacher. I read a book of him. I never met the man, nor did I ever meet Douglas McGregor; I was too young probably. So he wanted the teaching notes of Bavalos, and Douglas said, “No, do it yourself.” And he said it was a real good experience. “He gave me a long rope, I have to find my own way and do it.” And so it’s—some certain things happen. I think to some extent I believe in that myself. I will help people, but sometimes they don’t know how good they are. You know, they have to manage their own anxiety, so let them run, let them run with it.
SCARPINO: I talked to one of your colleagues, and I’m sure that I’m going to mispronounce her last name, Elizabeth Florent.
KETS DE VRIES: Florent, yeah. She’s American actually.
SCARPINO: She told me…
KETS DE VRIES: …She’s here.
SCARPINO: Is she?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, she’s here.
SCARPINO: Well, I look forward to meeting her. She told me that you had talked to her about something that your mother probably told you. That was, when you were about 11 years old in Holland, you wandered off with a friend, your mother panicked, she was looking for you…
KETS DE VRIES: Oh that. (laughs)
SCARPINO: …the townspeople were looking for you, and they found you tossing stones at a bull.
KETS DE VRIES: I was seven years old.
SCARPINO: Seven years old, well…
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, much younger.
SCARPINO: I feel better about this then; an 11-year-old ought to know better.
KETS DE VRIES: I think I was five or six or seven.
SCARPINO: She said what was interesting about this story is that she couldn’t—that your mother couldn’t decide whether you were trying to scare the bull off or antagonize it. She thought maybe that sort of encapsulated your character a little bit. I wonder if you might reflect on that.
KETS DE VRIES: That’s actually a very—it’s a good metaphor. I must be around—I think I was five years old. I lived in a village. I was born in a village called Huizen which is not a very original name; it means houses. It was a place where on Sunday everybody would walk around in native dress. The men wore like clothes in black and the women had these enormous caps. There was a permeation of sin, you know, life was all sinful. You have to—you go to church a number of times. So, not a good atmosphere; it’s now changed. When you come there, now you don’t recognize it anymore, no more native dresses. They would take the vending machine away for cigarettes on Sunday; it was sinful. You weren’t allowed to ride a bicycle on Sunday; it was sinful. I can’t believe it. So it was basically a fishermen and farming community [inaudible] at the time. They had this big area where they would have the cattle. So my brother and I—not my brother—it was my cousin who became actually a very famous journalist in Holland. He also was very much influenced by my grandfather. He’s dead now. I guess he drank too much. Too many cigars and too much gin. He got throat cancer. He wrote about it last year. Actually we had an off and on relationship, being that we were both in different continents, but I tried to—we exchanged books, and also his books were much more for a larger public. But he also had one thing like I have, this element of injustice which was there, but he [inaudible]. He was a year older than I was and he was crying his head off while I was happily throwing stones at the bull. My mother, you know—talk about the Golden Sigi Syndrome, to quote Freud, you know, you’re the favorite of your mother, which I was, to the—not very good for my brother. She tells about the story with a sense of indignation and pride. You know, he was a little, little nothing, you know, and it was dangerous, but there was a little ditch between the bull and us. So the farmer found us there with the screaming. You have to realize also, you may get the image, in that village when there was something special happening you got rattled—what do you call it?
SCARPINO: Rattled, yeah.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, rattled. So the village got rattled, so that had done that and everybody was looking for these two kids, what happened to them. So the farmer found us and so my mother saw this bicycle and the farmer coming with the two kids, and still alive. It was a great relief. But it’s an image which has to do with my—I think somewhat it is probably my rebellious nature, I guess. I’ve never been very good with authority figures. It’s probably another reason I became a professor. Of course I deal all the time with authority figures in my role in INSEAD, all over the place.
SCARPINO: Your father worked well into his 90s.
KETS DE VRIES: Yes, it’s also ridiculous in certain ways, but maybe it’s a role model for me, too. I’m going to his birthday tomorrow. Tomorrow he is 99.
SCARPINO: Oh my goodness.
KETS DE VRIES: But the last three years, he’s off and on as far as his short term memory is concerned. Unfortunately, I see him too late. In the middle of the day he’s okay, but he gets tired in the evenings. I don’t know what I’m going to see, but I mean I have to be at his 99th birthday, so I’ll fly to Holland and see him there. My father was—you know, my parents divorced when I was five. My father—which is ironic because my mother saved his life. Anyhow, and he was the love of the love of her life, my father was to her. She never remarried. And if he—he did a lot business trips in Eastern Europe, in particular Czechoslovakia at the time. He met a woman there and he got her pregnant. He actually got two women pregnant. My mother was pregnant and she was pregnant. And so my mother was too righteous; it was not just her, it was my grandmother, her mother. She said, “Let that be, you know, that happens sometimes, you know,” evolutionary psychology, whatever excuse you might make. But it was not proper and so my grandmother felt she should divorce, which was in hindsight a terrible idea, to be honest. Anyway, he got divorced. I think he was at a period in time when he was very confused. He didn’t know what to do with the two women, they’re both pregnant, both pulling at him—not pulling him—my mother pushing him away and the other one pulling at him, living in the Eastern Bloc. So he married her and he brought her to Holland. It has been—he’s got two children with her and it has always been a very difficult relationship. She never settled in in this—in the Dutch environment. My father was an entrepreneur. He was—although he was not the owner, but he was the entrepreneur. There’s a story about he started as a clerk in an office in Amsterdam and then he—and during the war he moved to Huizen, said it was safer. [inaudible] because of Russia’s programs, whatever you might call it. Then the owner of the office died. But before the death, he had my father promise to take care of his children and his wife, and he did. He made [inaudible] But he built up that place and so he was one of the big employers in the village. There were some other factories there. He was quite the man with the big cars, you know, those kind of things. And there was a fantasy about it, to be a businessman, to be an entrepreneur. So he had an important role, but he was an absent father, totally absent. He took care of us financially, but he was an absent father.
SCARPINO: Did his life as a businessman have any influence on your career?
KETS DE VRIES: No, I mean, he made a comment which I had a hard time dealing with at the time. He once asked me what I wanted to be. And I said to him, “I want to become like you.” He said, “You’re not a businessman. Your brother is a businessman.” That was quite a blow I felt, my God. Actually, ironically I became in a way a businessman because I have the Center, built the—made it the second largest in the world. So I made an academic business. But that was something that I—that he doesn’t think I’m that kind of person. And I think he was wrong. He was wrong. And he was not a good businessman. He’s a very good businessman [inaudible] patriarch but he never—he never could make the next step. I mean, I wrote my dissertation on entrepreneurs, surprisingly. I was lucky that my first patient in psychoanalysis was an entrepreneur, which is unheard of because they don’t want to go into analysis; they’re too busy doing things. So I know a lot about the mindset of the entrepreneurs and over the term my brother became an entrepreneur. But he could have built it up to the next level, but he never did. He was finally pushed out by the sons-in-law of the—you know, there were two girls and one boy in that family, and he was 65 years old, because they wanted also to become CEO—because my father never left. So he didn’t use himself, so he started a business alone and built it up and actually from a financial point of view made more money.
SCARPINO: What was his business?
KETS DE VRIES: Same business. But he was in the manmade fiber business, so that was his business. But, you know, you look at some paradigm shifts in the world, they didn’t deal with it. They didn’t deal with it properly, but maybe he was too long at the same business. It taught me something about the element of—when you’re riding a dead horse, the best thing you can do is to dismount. That’s what I do with my executives. Sometimes you have to dismount and do something, you know, think out of the box because maybe the business there is no longer effective.
SCARPINO: It actually sounds like your father did have an influence.
KETS DE VRIES: No, he—he was the absent father sitting there, sitting in my head. So he’s this towering figure, the person with the big cars, and every two weeks he was probably allowed by his wife to take us out. So he would pick us up in one of his big cars because we—my mother we lived a very modest circumstance at the beach, my mother’s fantasy, at the beach—apartment at the beach. It’s nice in the summer sometimes. In the winter it’s blowing sand. It’s called Zandvoort, and it means: zand is sand, and voort is blow. Blown sand; that’s exactly what it is. Anyhow, but it was a good place for using your fantasy life, the dunes. I wrote a book which is not out yet called “Talking to the Shaman,” which is when I was—I broke my back, somebody must have told you that, so I was lying flat and I was probably high on morphine.
SCARPINO: On a hunting trip.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, in a hunting trip, bear hunting. It’s not—the issue is not the killing; it’s the wild place and to be totally out of my depth, that’s I think an important part because usually I go to conferences and people know me and I talk. But there I’m totally the idiot in the operation, and also I’m a closet anthropologist and biologist. I would have been—when I was in high school, I was so good in biology that if they would have—if the teacher would have a normalized distribution and the highest grade is 10, they’d probably have to give me a 14 because otherwise the whole class would fail. So really, I should probably have been a biologist/anthropologist, but in a way I’m that anyhow, I’m observing people. Well, I wrote this book, “Talking to the Shaman,” in which you get a sense of the kind of interactions you have when your lives are with different people. It was the reaction of my editors, “Stop writing; start knitting.” It was over-productive. So I don’t knit, so that’s the reason I wrote that book. It was a difficult book.
SCARPINO: I’m going to ask you one more question based on that 1994 article and then move on. Just for the benefit of somebody who’s going to listen to this…
KETS DE VRIES: Who’s going to listen? (laughs)
SCARPINO: You’d be surprised actually. You would be surprised. “Describing some of the behavioral patterns and traits that make for effective leadership is one thing, but to explain how they evolve we have to go beyond the obvious and ask deeper questions. Where does this vision and sense of mission come from? What is the source of charisma? How do these various traits develop?” Then you sort of answer those questions and then you wrap it up by saying—or actually I want to ask you a question, which is: How is psychotherapy and your related clinical approach different from or similar to other disciplines that look at leadership?
KETS DE VRIES: No, I think there’s some difference. You know, I’m not—I hate ideologies, so I get quite excited—when you think about psychotherapy, there have been so many different schools from behavior to existential, whatever it might be. I just came from this conference at Harvard. They have all these positive psychologists [inaudible] and I’ll do anything that works. I mean I’m easy about it. I hate dogma because dogma—you see it with religions, you know, all the misery it very often brings to the world. So that being said, I just like to give people an extra lens. I was interviewed this morning for a magazine and the next interview would be Henry Mintzberg. He hired me actually at McGill and we had a great relationship. He has a different, you know, way of looking at things but it’s [inaudible]). I sometimes say, “To use yourself as an instrument is an additional advantage when you do organizational consultation.” Ed Schein of course, he was quite exposed to a sensitivity training coach and things like that, but he never had the clinical training as a social psychologist. I once remember walking with him in Fontainebleau through the forest, and he said—he had written a review about my book, The Neurotic Organization, at the time. He said, “Too old to learn.” I said, “You’re never too old to learn.” He said “Too old to learn some of this.” I think that’s not right. I mean, I’ve been reading evolutionary psychology quite extensively lately because I think it’s interesting to add to my repertoire. So when you think about the courses I’ve been running at INSEAD for a while, one is Consulting and Coaching to Change, but now it’s a Master’s degree. That took me eight years, by the way, because the nerds had a hard time.
SCARPINO: Eight years to get the Master’s degree accepted.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, because I had—it was a joint venture with the best French business school, HEC, they had a Master’s. Then I de-hired them. It had nothing to do with the faculty; it had to do with the facility, and they all rushed off to Oxford to do a joint venture. And we had a little brand confusion, so we have two degrees, a Ph.D. and MBA. Now, only because I had the faculty start to line up to be in the course, and they actually convinced—the nerds convinced the other nerds that it was worth having a Master’s degree. But it got automatic eventually—it’s interesting, the light system in these rooms are quite out of this world.
SCARPINO: I’m going to stand up and turn the lights back on. So the recorder is still running.
KETS DE VRIES: I lost my thoughts somehow. Where was I?
SCARPINO: You were talking about the degree, that it took eight…
KETS DE VRIES: …Yeah, but that’s not what—yeah, but what I’m saying is that underneath most courses, you know, there’s a lot of content but also there is actually an immersion in short-term psychotherapy. Everybody there, like it or not, they would be dragged and they cannot escape. It’s part of the course, the way it is designed. Even though it is not completely explicitly stated—because they do it, I don’t do it. It just happened because of the nature of the group work, the questions being asked and also the literature they read to get involved. So when you think about brands, and at the moment coaching is a fad, you know, everybody is a coach, everybody and the kitchen sink, everybody in their career, confusion. And it is also partially because of financial reasons, which is worrisome. So what I developed is that I want my coaches to know when they’re out of their depth and it may be time to have them—have the person see somebody else. So but also the—in consulting, very often the questions ask material questions. I mean, I’ve done a little work with [inaudible] McKinsey, probably have “dealt with half of them” or something like that. And why did they come to me? It had to do again to be better in asking questions and getting all the ideas implemented, because very often as you know there is great frustration; you do all the analysis and then it’s sitting there on a shelf. Of course, many companies use them as a kind of pushing, you know, getting certain things through. McKinsey said this and we should do this, you know, they’re kind of dealing with their own insecurity. So that’s the only thing I try to do. But it becomes very powerful because nothing is—we’re such narcissists, like I’m talking about myself. People love to talk about themselves. They love it. You know that as an historian. You know, you just push the button, off they go.
SCARPINO: That’s true. (laughs)
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, I mean, it’s the metaphor of the elephant, you know, when you think about character as an elephant, the elephant is a narcissist. You know, you see everything through your perspective, and it’s very hard to help people learn that people may think differently, particularly those in cross-cultural contexts where I operate very much. Yeah, an elephant is also somewhat paranoid. What is in the bushes? Is that a strawberry or is it a sabre tooth tiger, you know, evolutionary psychology. The elephant is into tit for tat. When you do something [inaudible] work very well. Do something to you and you do something back. And the elephant is lazy. It doesn’t want to move very much. It likes where it is. So all those things make up your character.
SCARPINO: How were you able to persuade business executives that a man who bases his leadership analysis and training on psychotherapy was someone that they should talk to?
KETS DE VRIES: Talked their language. It’s very simple. When you deal with patients, you don’t engage in psychobabble or whatever. Even management babble is—I think always pride myself that I read relatively clearly compared to many other people in the field, which I learned actually in a period I was in—I wrote a column in a newspaper. It was in the Dutchman’s paper, so a large circulation. So I had to write simple messages. Not particularly exciting, but it was very good practice. So, speak their language is important. And I never actually use my—many people know now, but I never mention the word I’m a psychoanalyst. Basically, I’m a consultant or a management professor. I guess now, for example, group coaching as an intervention technique has become quite popular, so people know what they’re buying. I just came from—I was in the U.K. not too long ago and did an intervention for a new CEO who wanted his team up and running. I always say, “Give a mic and a neurotic team, not crazy.” I’ll make something out of it in a few days. I will go to Australia in a few months and do the same thing. I don’t do it too many times, but it’s fascinating to—a little bit, you know, how to codify, which has been my obsession over the last years, the knowledge of my coaches because the coaches are doers and they don’t stand still and say, “What am I doing?” So we have the whole series of books that got forced on them actually, Coach and Couch, The Coaching Kaleidoscope, and now, Tricky Coaching. And then I wrote a book called The Hedgehog Effect, using the metaphor of Schopenhauer, of the two hedgehogs in the winter trying to get close, but how close can you get before you hurt each other? So that’s really a metaphor for the human condition. But all those four books were really an attempt on my part to codify a little bit what I call the clinical approach, which is actually a euphemism for some psychodynamic approach. But again, when you talk about psychoanalytic, psychodynamic, people have too much a sense of this bearded gentleman in Vienna with a heavy, like my accent, whatever language I speak, is a heavy Germanic accent. Since I feel that psychoanalysts have been their own worst enemies very often, I don’t want to completely identify with them.
SCARPINO: Is part of the way you approach things in business is, number one, to speak their language; number two, keep it simple?
KETS DE VRIES: I keep it very simple. That’s partially probably the Dutch. Actually in some of my classes, they have an expression now, “We are going Dutch now,” which means you’re going to keep it—no bullshit, straight. Because the Dutch is a very low complex—low complex country. They’re very—actually my wife, who is not Dutch, who is Swedish, sometimes too boorish. The Dutch love my institution, so large numbers come there. I think percentagewise, it’s the largest group of people coming to INSEAD out of all over the world. But they are not easy. They don’t bullshit, you know, they tell you they don’t like things. Bam, they hit you over the head. I think I have become—I give my students tools that work. One is the Hippocratic oath; do no harm. The other one is striving to [inaudible phrase]. It’s two words people don’t hear. They don’t hear—they basically—all the defenses go out.
SCARPINO: I talked to one of your colleagues, Katharina Balazs.
KETS DE VRIES: Katharina Balazs, yeah.
SCARPINO: I asked her what kinds of questions I could ask you to get you to talk about yourself. She said, “Ask him the same question that he so effectively asks others.” This is the question. She said, “What makes you mad, bad, sad and glad?”
KETS DE VRIES: Actually I have to—explaining what I do is not easy. I have too many experiences when I run my CEO seminar that the first thing people say is, “I didn’t sign up for this, but I like it whatever it is.” So I finally made a video and I wrote a script so I can show people my style of intervention, which is actually quite in your face compared to—you know, you have the CCL, Center for Creative Leadership, which is the McDonald’s of leadership coaching. I’m more a boutique approach, you know, the more boutique approach. I want people to be aware of certain things, but otherwise, do your own thing. I’m not a control freak. I’m quite direct in the film, the video, actually you probably saw it. I ask the question, “What gets you mad, sad, bad and glad?” Of course, Darwin had a few more emotions, like disgust and things like that, was also one of the basic emotions. But I ask questions, you know, things like, “What regrets do you have? Describe situations, events that have changed your life in a significant way.” Questions like, “If you could spend the day with a person, dead or alive, who would you spend the day with and why?” “What was the family dinner like?” Maybe they didn’t have a family dinner, they’re watching the television. But questions like, “What’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done? What complaints does your spouse have about you?” Those kinds of questions are different questions to start the dialog. So I do that, I mean, depending on the mood. I also find it’s very useful in my work, taking off on the Bloomsbury group, the crazy group of artistic—Virginia Woolf, etc. They would play games like, you know, imagine that this person is an animal; what animal would you pick? It’s a very nice way to become playful in a group setting, because I have to create what some people describe as a transitional space, so people are willing to play and use more the right side of their brain. So the metaphor; this person is a beaver, he’s always busy, you know, he’s a giraffe, why? His head is above the clouds into there. But it starts to—it becomes a playful atmosphere and people start to, in a group setting, finally deal with the issues that have been sitting there for years. I mean, to me a very interesting example was many years ago I was doing an intervention at a bank in a faraway continent. It was with the top 30 people. It was a new CEO and he wanted the whole thing up and running. We divided the group; investment bank, the retail bank and the board, the executive team. So, one person said at one point, “The two of us having been working for 28 years; I learned more about your strengths, your weaknesses and why you do certain things in two days than in 28 years.” It was one of the saddest comments I could think of because people had never had a real conversation. So what I’m trying to push people towards is that they have courageous conversations, you know, really deal with the issues. When I think about my CEO seminar, very often after the first week, they run home and they have certain things to deal with with their significant others, but also they have some discussions with people at the office. They’ll take a person for lunch and talk more about just the weather and sports and politics. They start to understand the inner theater of the people; how can you get the best out of them, and why do certain people behave the way they do? And I think that’s quite exciting.
SCARPINO: So once they begin to get a sense of what their inner theater is all about, how does that translate into effective leadership?
KETS DE VRIES: Now, if people come to me and say, “I want to become a charismatic leader in one easy lesson,” I tell them…
SCARPINO: (laughs) Do you have a pill?
KETS DE VRIES: I say that, actually. “I don’t have a pill, and anybody who sells you that must believe, will come to me. Anybody who sells snake oil sells many of them. But if you want to learn more about yourself, as you start to act towards your people in a different way, they might act different to you and might affect the whole organization. Yes, this is the right place to go.” So that’s what happens. I mean, the old statement about the Temple of Apollo in ancient Delphi it was written: Know thyself. And that’s still very true. If you really—you are the best instrument yourself. That’s the reason I said, “Using yourself as an instrument,” meaning that’s a nicer way of saying, “What are your countertransference reactions,” to use the clinical terminology. What does the person do to you? You know, as an interviewer, what are you doing to me and how does—you know, what’s going on, what is the dialog? What are you thinking of at the moment? You have this inner voice talking to yourself, all those things, a number of dialogs going on.
SCARPINO: I have to admit I’ve never interviewed anybody before who’s a professional interviewer, so this should be an interesting dynamic.
KETS DE VRIES: It’s a question of, you know, what are the fantasies and how do you deal with those fantasies. Of course, the problem is that you very often deal with cloud issues, I call them cloud issues, like now you have cloud computing. You have cloud interpretations which makes sometimes group sessions very difficult because apart from the one-to-one; first, one person in my technique is put in the limelight, is in “the hot seat,” but I do it very delicately. No bomb shoot ever, do no harm. In that respect, I’m a positive psychologist, you know, appreciative inquiry. People know when they get 360 feedback from everybody around them. They’ve really known it for years, by the way, I mean, before the appraisal session. But I try to create tipping points, and you don’t get it by beating people over the head. I’m quite influenced by motivational interviewing. I don’t know if you know anything about that. It’s a technique of helping people change, particularly drug addicts, alcoholics, people who have to make lifestyle changes like by process of elimination. And people sent by the courts are not the easiest people. It’s a very interesting technique and I believe in every medical school, the medical doctors should have some of that. I’ve been exposed to the medical profession because of my back quite extensively for the last years. But I think it’s getting better, by the way; they’ve started to realize it. But here in France, not in England, but in France sometimes it’s atrocious about, you know, this vertical hierarchical and all the—I don’t want to go there. Sorry.
So I use metaphors, lots of questions to get people to talk; often it’s not needed anymore. They are there. They are in the space and they are going to make a [inaudible] and they start to talk about the real issues. Part of it came—I was working with an investment bank and I was giving—at that time 360 was still a novelty, but now everybody knows 360. So people saw all of the career comments, written comments. But if you come from Greece and you say something, “How the hell did you ever end up in —,” whatever country this is. So people start to tell stories, and that’s an important role of a leader. I mean, you look now, for example, the meltdown of leadership to some extent in Europe. I mean my heroine has been Mrs. Merkel, but she’s not doing a great job lately. She has to be better in storytelling, to telling to the Germans that the European ID is not a cash register. Uh-uh. We have no war for 30 years. We have not been fighting. I mean a whole generation has grown up without war. And of course, and you also have to tell them, “Listen, the Greeks did something funny; you know, you shouldn’t retire at 55 because you use chemicals like the haircutters, you know, coloring material.” Of course, it’s nuts, but there’s something bigger behind it. Anyhow, she’s getting there now. Sorry, I was just…
SCARPINO: …I’m actually going to ask you about that in a few minutes.
KETS DE VRIES: But I see her mucking around, and she’s getting there. But of course, Mrs. Merkel doesn’t have the same problem as Sarkozy, you know, the leftover Charles de Gaulle. So the president has lots of power. Mrs. Merkel has to manage all those states and those parties to keep in power. So it is a very delicate [inaudible] to go there. Sorry, I mean it’s—people tell me, I give lots of speeches, and I’ve been told I spread a perfume; I don’t give a speech. A good presenter says I’ve got to say three things. You say three things and repeat the three things. I’m all over the place, so I always say, “When you’re not confused, you don’t know what’s going on.” So that is your problem as an interviewer, to keep me in line because I always try to escape to make side tours.
SCARPINO: (laughs) I can do that. Do you think one of the qualities of an effective leader is the ability to tell stories that resonate with the followers?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, I mean, leaders, to quote Napoleon, (are) “merchants of hope,” to speak to the collective imagination of the people to create a group identity is an important function. And you don’t have to be charismatic, some of them bureaucrats. A good story—a simple storyteller was, of course, Reagan. He was a very simple storyteller. He was lazy in many ways, but he knew he would pick good people. He picked—he was funny, smart. Obama of course has—you talk about the most powerful person in the world—he’s in a way too nice. He’s too nice. I mean when you have—you’re getting a kneejerk reaction of your Republicans which a bunch of them, they should be a nuthouse, I mean it’s remarkable. I mean, what happened to the role model of the world, the greatest country in the world, as you would like to say in America, and seeing him mucking it out? When he says yes, they say no. I mean, you know, so that is correct, you have to learn from that. Don’t be conflict-avoidant, you know. Bang, he’s learning.
SCARPINO: You think he is?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, he’s learning. He’s learning, but it’s coming at a high price.
SCARPINO: So if you could advise him, what would you tell him?
KETS DE VRIES: I mean I certainly would coach him to be much more assertive about it and not try to be always the harmonizer, because sometimes, you know, let’s face it, most organizations are not democratic institutions, particularly business organizations. You can—I’m a great believer in co-creation, to tap the brain of everybody. Let me give you an anecdote. Many years ago I was interviewing a man called Khodorkovsky. You probably haven’t heard of him, but Khodorkovsky was the richest man in Russia, and he’s now locked up. He’s a symbol of Putin. Putin locked him up. So he was the richest man and he was at the height of his power. So I went to the building there in Moscow, went through all the security, and there he was a little man in a laureate jacket, big television screen in the back with CNN, whatever. And I said to him, “What kind of organization are you trying to build?” He said, “I want,”—at that time BP was still and Oreck was the best; not an easy out, come and go organization. He said, “I want to become like BP.” I said, “How many people do you have in your organization?” He said, “A hundred thousand, but,” he said, “I pay a hundred people to think.” Maybe, you can say, okay, having people think—you don’t want people to be—security is fairly important. I said, “But in BP, they”— but I had just written a case study about the CEO of BP, I said, “They try to have more people think.” I mean it was a big argument about whatever. And so it is important, so that’s a very top-down organization, like many of the organizations there. I like to tap as much people—if there’s one thing that is universal in human beings is they want to be heard. They want to have a voice. But at one point in time you have to make a decision. So Obama has to give—too much voice and not enough decisions, particularly it’s a very—I don’t know how that evolved—very obstinate opposition in his way, to say the least, the Tea Party, which is a bunch of—I mean do you want to privatize the police force, privatize the Army? Why not?
KETS DE VRIES: And of course, health care, which—and you look at him, I mean we are now on politics, but actually for a president in this short time he has done a hell of a lot.
SCARPINO: Yes, he has.
KETS DE VRIES: A hell of a lot. I don’t think any other president has done so much in such a short time.
SCARPINO: When you look at a leader, though, is one of the things you’re looking at is the way they balance the opportunity they give their followers to voice their opinions against their ability to make decisions?
KETS DE VRIES: The problem is, you know, we live in the age of short termism and that’s one of the problems because every day you get: your opinion poll says this. My God, what an—isn’t it like—of course, CEOs, what is their biggest problem? It was, of course, investment analyst. And probably because—but you have to manage that. I mean Nokia has been off and on, but in the beginning when Jorma Ollila was the CEO at the time, he managed that. He said, “You know, maybe you don’t have the expected earnings, but be investing for the future.” You know, this whole managing for economic decline business. And that is, of course—that I feel the problem has been with him. I mean, I’ve met many investment bankers in my life. They make a lot of money in a very short time and of course they say, “I’m mortgaging my life for 10 years to become a multimillionaire and then I will do good works.” In America, they go and they try to buy a Senate seat, like one of the CEOs who got an exit of like $200 million was it? I don’t know. I don’t know whether it was a steep price. Or I do this, become a representative. Or I become a mayor, I mean, Paul Paulsen, you know, I become a… So they mean well consciously, but unconsciously there is—you know, you look at the number of people who come from the investment banking community hovering around there. They can’t help it.
SCARPINO: When I talked to Elizabeth Florent, she said one of your strengths as a scholar and a communicator is that you’re focused on your message. How would you encapsulate your message? What’s the message that you try to get across?
KETS DE VRIES: This message is a very simple one. I get quite horrified that the bankers haven’t learned anything. They have no memory. They have not learned anything. To do my side extension—I’m a visiting distinguished professor in Berlin. There was a conference there and the conference was on one side Mr. Ackermann, who was the CEO of Deutsche Bank, one of the more respected investment bankers. The other side was Mr. Murthy. You probably haven’t heard of him, but he is the chairman and chief mentoring officer of Infosys, the most respected company in Asia. Mr. Ackermann talked about bonuses and how difficult it was to get the right bankers for the bonuses, you know, the story of the world. The other side, Mr. Murthy, said, “I want to be the most value-driven company in the world.” And he is. I mean, he has a very value-driven company, an exciting company. And that was pathetic, I felt. I mean, have they forgotten everything or learned nothing? So the message I’m trying to say is: You should have profit with purpose. Not that you say, okay, I’m now going to screw the world financially and then I’m going to give the money to the Cancer Society. Uh-uh. That’s not good enough for me. That’s my message.
SCARPINO: I want to ask you some questions about writing. I’m going to come back to the message in a minute. Everybody that I talked to about you had something to say about your writing and your relationship with your writing and your sense of the impact of your writing. Elizabeth Florent used a French phrase, which I got her to translate for me, which translated into: I write, therefore I am. Katharina Balazs said that writing is your overriding passion. Roger Lehman said that you were a writing machine. What does the act of writing mean to you?
KETS DE VRIES: I think, of course, the cogito ergo sum, you know, “I think, therefore I am,” is something very true. I realize how important writing is for my mental health. It was not always. I mean, in the beginning I had a very hard time writing. I went from constipation to diarrhea, to use this kind of metaphor. I think it was when I was working with Zaleznik because I realized later on that Zaleznik was not an easy writer; he was a very difficult writer. So I tried to identify with him. I did a book with him called Power and the Corporate Mind. It was my first book, and it was difficult. He would say to me at times, “It’s no good,” but he wouldn’t tell me why. It’s like you get 360 feedback, you’re an idiot. So I mean, what can I do about it, you know, that kind of thing? So it’s, “I don’t like the color of your eyes” or, whatever, “your hair.” So I had a very hard time. But it went—and then I once read something about Sir Bernard Shaw who said, “I only became a good”— he worked in a bank apparently and got good at it. He said, “But I want to write, but I had problems with it, so I finally decided to just write anything.” So my writing, when I really write, I am totally obsessed. I roll out of bed, it can be 4 o’clock in the morning, 3 o’clock in the morning, 5 o’clock. Usually I try to make it 5 o’clock so I get some sleep because I don’t go to bed that early. And I basically, I’m half asleep and I write, with two fingers, by the way. I can’t type. I use two fingers, but it adds up, it adds up. People look at me, surprised. I’ve written something like 35 books I think by now.
SCARPINO: With two fingers?
KETS DE VRIES: Two fingers. No, first it was by longhand. I was probably one of the last people who stopped with longhand, until finally one of my deans in research said I was crazy, to have to retype and retype and retype. You know, time to get yourself in the—so I got one of the machines. So I use two fingers and it is—I feel—it’s like—it’s really important for my mental health, and particularly, most of my writings have been questions. People would ask me questions; I had no idea. A student or whatever would ask me a question. I just had to think about it and think about it and think about it. Like for example, I wrote a paper not too long about the rescuer syndrome. I was thinking about all the people I have in my Consulting and Coaching class, and they try to rescue people. It’s all related to this book Tricky Coaching in which people had to send in problematic cases. I was reading those again and I thought, ‘what are they doing?’ I mean, are there no boundaries? I mean they go far too far. They shouldn’t go there. So you have these people who are these obsessive rescuers. So I started to think about it and look at it. Well, where does this come from? Do a different permutation. So that’s the way it works. Many of my books initially were articles. Very few books were not started as an article. So I wrote one article and another article, and so then some of them became a book. I would like to write a novel. The closest to it really has been the book, my strange book, Sex, Money, Happiness and Death, which is not so strange if you think about it because when you look at my CEOs and you had to talk about sex—actually not sex—we talk about relationships, money, happiness and death, and then put power in there, it’s related. So those are major life issues. And probably my book, [inaudible] was in, but a novel, I would…
SCARPINO: Why would you like to write a novel?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, I—another problem is, I’m not writing a book of—English used to be my third language and so I always feel a sense of insecurity about…
SCARPINO: But you write in English, is that right?
KETS DE VRIES: I write in English. I think in English.
SCARPINO: Dutch, French, English?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, I mean German. German used to be my second language, because my grandmother was German so she spoke quite some German in the house. It was my best language. I was fluent in it. I still understand it perfectly, but speaking I need some time. English I learned later and so it’s never this complete confidence about—I used to write poetry when I was a student, but it was in Dutch. You really can play with language. I did some Haiku in my last book. I wrote a few Haiku. I try to keep it simple, try to experiment in English, English Haiku, sort of experiment with that. But that’s a little bit—so I write, like, you know, relatively boring books sometimes. I will read a book, I read more [inaudible] because most management books are boring.
SCARPINO: I probably shouldn’t say this, but you write very clearly and engagingly. I enjoyed everything that I read. Do you—but why the novel? I mean, is it a different kind of creativity or a new frontier, a new boundary?
KETS DE VRIES: Yes, in a way.
SCARPINO: Are you still throwing stones at the bull?
KETS DE VRIES: Yes, yes. I mean, I’ve basically reinvented myself a number of times. I mean, first I was an economist. I was going to be a banker. I did become a banker. Then I became a professor, a professor of management. Then I became a psychoanalyst, and then I became a manager to run and build the center because I had a dean at the time—he is no longer the dean anymore—I was a cash cow. I was the only center to make money and direct everything else. So I had to get a virtual organization and really get the loyalty of the people for free because I didn’t have the resources. And I got that. It was—they benefitted from it; it’s not that I was taking advantage of it, but I had to get the best out of them and I couldn’t really pay them for that. Now, I’m a little bit—I resigned this year as the director, which I was really overextended. I mean for the last five years I probably was working on three books all the time at the same time, which was too much. Then I was running the center. Then I had to run my courses. I did some consulting. I mean, and then you talk about life/work balance, it was a joke. I’m a total—I’m a little bit of a workaholic, so that’s very true, but I do what I like to do so it’s not like I go to the factory or the salt mine, there we go again. But then it becomes too much. When I talk about reflective states and dealing with lives of people where I have a responsibility for, like my CEOs, and also not to that extent, the people in the other program, you need also some time for yourself. Of course, you’re a garbage can; everybody throws garbage on you and you have to metabolize it. I got an email yesterday which got into the junk file and I know not why. I was thinking about why does this email—because he talks about some of his sexual issues in it, so they say probably it’s pornography so, bang, it’s filtered. That must be the reason. And I think about the poor guy, he sent it 14 days ago, and he sits there, and I don’t react. He said, he was talking about how ashamed he was of himself, you know, whatever he was doing, join the crowd, I guess, going to porno sites and have an adulterous relationship.
SCARPINO: You say it was sitting in the garbage—spam filter.
KETS DE VRIES: Spam filter, yes. So I felt—I still feel about it. I was going through—I had no time, I was traveling too much, so finally—sometimes you find something there, so I went through it. I found his email, it was an attachment, and I read it and I said, “My God.” Now we’re all human. You know, when you do a [inaudible]. So what are the things you really, really don’t want to talk about because you think you’re unique in it? And what are those things? Number one, my CEOs, number one. Number one, there I am running a large organization and I’m just a fake. I wrote once an article, “I’m Feeling Like a Fake.” I’m just a fake, I’m just an imposter and people don’t see it. I’m going to be found out one of these days, that’s one biggie. The second one is, you know, they always seem to have a very good family relationships and things like that, but are relationships with my close ones really that intense? Are they good enough? Do I have a real good relationship with my spouse and my children, or whatever? No, that’s—I doubt it; number two. Number three is your sexual theater. And if you think about sexual theater, how many permeations can you have? So it’s not too glorious. So that’s it. So join the human race. So I wrote him a note and said, “Join the human race.” I mean, calm down, calm down. Of course, it’s not the nicest that he had an affair when his partner was not in very good shape, whatever, well, it was not decent behavior necessarily, but again, join the crowd. When you do look at statistics, most people are not saints. Actually saints—It’s probably good for people sometimes not to be a saint.
SCARPINO: Is that one of the things that you try to get across to your executives, is that nobody’s perfect?
KETS DE VRIES: Usually, yeah, probably that’s right, but I don’t—the sexual dimension, the book is called, Sex, Money, Happiness and Death, I usually don’t—in a plenary session, it’s not a good thing to do. I’ve learned that through hard experience.
SCARPINO: Probably not. (laughs)
KETS DE VRIES: I mean, people regress to when you were a kid. You know, I show mine and you show yours. So when someone has become quite explicit about his sexual theater and he or she expects for the others to reciprocate and they just look at this person, that’s not good. So uh-uh, I do every—in spite of my colleague, Sudhir Kakar, who after Sir Richard Burton, the discoverer of the Nile—he didn’t really discover the Nile—did he undertake a bibliography of Kama Sutra. So he has to—when he was a professor at the University of Chicago, it was a joke always about him. It was in the Department of Religion, by the way.
SCARPINO: Do you find that your approach to leadership and coaching works across cultures?
KETS DE VRIES: Yes, I have no problems with it. I was just telling the—I just came from Malaysia, I was working with the Senior Civil Servants. Yeah, it’s no problem. Actually, what I discovered in spite of—you know, the Americans have a tendency to tiptoe around. I’m at a school which has no national identity. Initially at the school, the biggest groups were the British and the French. Now it is Chinese and the Indians. That’s the nature of the beast. We are in three continents. I have realized that we have much more in common than we are different. But of course, you have books like The Ugly American. On the other hand, you have also this kind of stereotyping of cultures. Culture is so nuance. You say the French are like this, the British are like this. There are, of course, some patterns, but certain patterns are universal. Like I said, people even in the highest power distant culture, like Malaysia, people want to have a voice, want to be heard. And then you need some intellectual curiosity; you know, what is it about other cultures that you are curious about? There are differences. I mean, I’ve been struggling until recently with Abu Dhabi, you know, how to have the right leadership coaches for my Center in the Middle East. Because my experience has been that people with a Muslim background have a much harder time to talk about background in a group situation. One-to-one, fine; it’s not a problem, they talk about anything. But in large group situations, you know, it’s very private and there’s a sort of paranoia about it. So you need other kinds of coaches. Also the element of—what’s also not very useful is that people when they start to talk about their past, you know, start to blame their parents. I mean, you’re now 50 years old, that’s been a few years ago, so it’s time to—and so I say, “Listen, your father might have been a shit, you know, the way he behaved, but you must have—the reason you are here, there must be a reason for that; he must have given you some good things, too.” The Japanese call it Naikan therapy; look at the positives, not like the [inaudible]. “Something he gave you, why don’t you think about that a little bit? What elements did you get from him? Or from her, from your mother?” One thing which is very important I find in my CEO class, it’s not just in business but also what kind of situation do you have in your private life? Are there lots of odds and ends because life is very fragile, and certain opportunities rarely come back. Some people are in a stalemate with their parents or their brother and sister for years. You can change, they cannot change, when you change, they might change a little bit. You know, get out of the box.
SCARPINO: When I talked to Erik Van de Loo, he had an interesting way to describe you. He said, “Manfred Kets de Vries is like a hazzan.”
KETS DE VRIES: Like a?
SCARPINO: Hazzan, H-A-Z-Z-A-N. It’s a singer in a communal service in Judaism, who leads the singing. He said, “He could sing better than the rest of us, he sings something that appeals to us, he also gets to pick the songs. There are not many hazzans of his caliber.”
KETS DE VRIES: (laughs) I see. That’s funny. He’s the one who said I spread around perfume, which I felt was a very good metaphor.
SCARPINO: I had a very interesting conversation with him because we were on long distance and I was having trouble with his accent until I realized he was having trouble with mine, but I enjoyed my conversation with him.
KETS DE VRIES: Erik is very—he’s the one—it was Erik, Roger and myself who set up the CCC program, to engage success, and they are now running it. I give a cameo performance. But I mean, I can’t do—I mean, it’s now two continents and, you know, jetting back and forth. They’re younger, let them do that and I just opened the program in Singapore. He is a clinical psychologist who went through psychoanalytic training in Holland, which is a horror, 10 years. Ten years of being beaten up. I make jokes about it, but he stuck it out. Roger is also a psychoanalyst who was actually working for the American Army in Frankfort and then became a psychoanalyst. Now he is also jetting around the world. So it’s a funny circle of analysts. I was the founder of an organization called International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations, ISPSO, which I always fantasized a very open door policy; no religious—they’ve now actually grown quite a bit and a lot of people are interested in the interface between them. Of course, some of them are totally psychobabble types, far too academic. So they will never be able to relate to any business executive because they have difficulty—I was running this conference last week in Boston and met a psychiatrist. He said, “You know, it’s terrible to be a psychiatrist. People run to you and tell you all the problems they have, or they run away from you because they’re afraid you’ll see their perversions.” So, it’s true. It’s true. It’s difficult. You know, people have to—and I think the media has made it also, you know, “Analyze This,” you know, those kinds of movies.
SCARPINO: When I talked to Erik Van de Loo, he described your work as kind of a light form of going into psychotherapy for those who are receptive and capable of personal transformation. What I’m interested in is, do you see your work—or the point of your work as personal transformation?
KETS DE VRIES: No, I always say that I want things to happen. I want oomph, whatever that might mean. I want to create tipping points. Leadership development is looking at [inaudible] and they have all those leadership programs, but very often nothing happens. I mean, maybe temporarily and then you go back to your work and you go back on automatic pilot. So it also implies that if you want a leadership development activity, it can’t be a one-shot deal because people have a tendency to regress and go back to normal. So they have to be reminded. It’s a lot like behavior modification. I give lots of lectures and maybe sometimes I touch a person. Well, actually I’m pretty good at it and giving an entertaining—you know, the perfume, I spread the perfume, and those kind of images and whatever, and lots of cartoons. So I get people to usually stay quite light because I get so bored with lectures, I get instantly bored, I [inaudible]. So it’s my own problem, although I can sit a very long time writing while playing with ideas in my head, but sitting there and listening to, sometimes the obvious, is not for me. Yeah, I want to have an effect on their lives. That’s one of the—why I’m not a dean. I should have been a dean. I have been many times asked to be a dean. Because deans are bored finance and economics professors who cannot stand anymore for the thirtieth time to do Financial Statistics 101. So they become a dean. And I don’t know, when I enter a classroom with the folks at my CEO seminar, I have certain things, you know, I give a few lectures to give them some security. But I don’t actually want to give a lecture. I don’t know what’s going to happen. And that’s what I talked about, the element of the ability—when I talked about Clifford Scott, my first supervisor, to halt the confusion, it’s sometimes called negative capability after Keats, the poet, to benefit from the class and the person makes a presentation, I say to myself, “What the hell is going on? I don’t understand. I have no sense of what’s going on. I’m completely confused.” But I know that if I’m patient enough, it eventually will come and the class will help me. The class will help me, because my first question is always to the participants. They want to solve the problem. That’s the reason they are CEOs or whatever. I say, “No, no, no, you’ve got to do it in the bar or you’re going to do it at dinnertime, breakfast. You’ve got to solve the problem. You’ll solve it. I want to know, how do you feel? Are you bored? You’re looking outside. I said, “My God, are they looking outside, I then walk outside. Are you getting angry? What is happening to you? You have a crazy fantasy? I want to hear it.” And that’s what—and so then slowly you go through those crazy fantasies and the comments, you get a Gestalt, and you say, okay, those are the issues the person is struggling with underneath what the person says he is struggling with. And that is, you know, the whole issue of using yourself as an instrument, basically practicing and practicing and practicing. And that’s how I hope to affect my students. You can see it, you know, the personal transformations taking place in the program.
SCARPINO: Most of your work has been with corporations, with business. Many of the folks who study leadership tend to focus more on not-for-profits. You’ve been incredibly prolific. Have you ever run into a situation where colleagues become envious of your success or envious of your association with business leaders? If so, how do you deal with that?
KETS DE VRIES: Envy is always there. I mean it’s the suppressed emotion. I mean …uh…I try to de-emphasize it, but I mean envy is an emotion which is always there. It’s a dark emotion, [inaudible] of the world are there. How to manage it? One way, of course, is one-downmanship. That’s what we can do. That’s what you do if you…
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, one-downsmanship. I have a very difficult time with compliments actually, I don’t like it. It was a kind of funny week for me because I got this Award of Excellence in Boston, I got an Honorary Doctorate there, and so then they list all the things I’ve done, like you did a little bit, and it makes me always very itchy. To be very frank about it, it makes me…
SCARPINO: …I noticed you were looking away when I was reading your…
KETS DE VRIES: …it gets quite itchy. On the other hand, you know, we are no strangers to narcissism, and of course academics are the worst characters in—they’re very good in character assassination. I remember when I was at the Harvard Business School. I was on appointment there at the time. I had written a book with Zaleznik so obviously I couldn’t write alone. That was clear. If I would have written the book alone, it would have been said, “He’s not a good colleague, he’s not a collaborator.”
KETS DE VRIES: Whatever you do, you’re damned. It’s very easy. I remember also a time one well-known professor at the school said, “He will never write anything.” Maybe I needed him. I thanked him actually in one of my books. He’s still hanging around there.
KETS DE VRIES: My hero, Jay Lorsch, I still can mention his name. You might have heard of him, yeah. But maybe I have to be thankful to him. He was really saying, “Prove the best is wrong.” But to be more serious about it, as I said earlier, I need—I sort of describe myself as a schizoid individual in the British sense. It means introvert. I’m a fairly private person. I make a pseudo—I’m a pseudo-extrovert. I’ve learned to become an extrovert—actually most CEOs are actually somewhat on the introverted side, but they have learned to become …
SCARPINO: …a cocktail party extrovert.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah. Exactly. So, the pseudo-extrovert. So I need—if you cannot be alone, you will be very lonely. So I need—I’m thinking of those events here, all those people, I need to be by myself. There are very few people I can be alone with, you know, not lonely, you know, that you don’t have to say anything. So that’s important to me. And I think the ability to play with ideas. I get my most productive—I used to live on Boulevard Centro in Paris. Actually my most productive—I was just walking down the boulevard and walking, just playing with ideas, I’d be thinking about it unconsciously.
SCARPINO: Is that what makes your life worth living; the opportunity to play with ideas?
KETS DE VRIES: Yes, I think it’s an important part. I also like nature. We started off saying something about it, but I’m brought up in the country. I could lie on the ground and look at ants moving. I was reading this book, Anthill, by Wilson, which was a bestseller. It’s an autobiographical novel about his fascination with ants. I can very much identify with, you know, looking at the animals, looking at insects and sitting there and just observing.
SCARPINO: You’ve been a hunter since you were a boy, right? In the Netherlands?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah.
SCARPINO: I read that you were the first person to fly fish in Outer Mongolia.
KETS DE VRIES: I’m the World Champion, yeah. (laughs)
SCARPINO: You’re a member of the New York Explorer’s Club?
KETS DE VRIES: Yes.
SCARPINO: I looked up your official biographical statement on the INSEAD faculty profile. It says, “In his spare time, he can be found in the rainforests or savannahs of Central Africa, the Siberian taiga, the Pamir, Australia’s Arnhem Land or within the Arctic Circle.” What does hunting and fishing really mean? Why do you do this?
KETS DE VRIES: No, I mean, I was—it’s partially, you know, one’s inner world. I’m thinking about writers, sometimes; when there are issues in the family, you start to withdraw. I think my mother was, you know, the divorce was very—I was the oldest son…
SCARPINO: One of your colleagues told me that you wrote because when you were working you were able to get away from your mother. As long as you opened the door to that, I’m going to ask you the question.
KETS DE VRIES: That’s a very insightful comment, yeah, because we had a very small apartment and my mother was very engulfing. She was an engulfing mother. She loved me, but she was …
SCARPINO: Mothers get paid to be engulfing so that’s all right.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, she was a very engulfing mother in that respect. I could close the door because “he was studying.” Because I was the designated student in the family. My brother, the poor guy, was not the student in the family, so… but part of it also was then to get out of the house, so to get out—in the beginning we lived actually in a house at the heather. It’s a nature reservation so it was very easy. Then later we lived in an apartment but again not very far from the dunes.
SCARPINO: The heather, you said?
KETS DE VRIES: Heather.
SCARPINO: Oh the heather, okay, all right, I got it.
KETS DE VRIES: Heather and trees and forest.
SCARPINO: I’m just trying to save the transcriber. The heather.
KETS DE VRIES: I’ve always had a fascination for heather. When I see it in the stores and in the—I buy it because it’s associated with my mother, actually, the heather. But, so it was a way of freedom, freedom to get—you know, there was a joke about Erich Fromm, you must have heard of him. He wrote the book, Escape from Freedom, and some people say, “Escape from Frieda.” Frieda Fromm-Reichmann was his wife, his first wife…
SCARPINO: Yes, yes. (laughs)
KETS DE VRIES: So that’s the joke. So maybe it’s the element of being away from—I played a lot. You know, you just crossed the road and you were in the—whatever, the very wild country but you were in the woods, the heather and things like that. So I played there. So that has been—and at the time when people would ask me what I wanted to be, I said I wanted to become an explorer. So I’ve become an explorer of the mind instead because I was not—I didn’t feel like…
SCARPINO: …do you think of yourself as an explorer of the mind?
KETS DE VRIES: A little bit. A little bit. I think my interest in nature is very related to that. I said before, if my parents would have been more academic and had looked at my interests at the time when I graduated from high school, or during high school, they would have probably would have pushed me towards biology. I would be maybe one of those—the one—whose name again, who was a very famous primatologist—I’m having a senior moment, The Inner Ape, and he wrote a number of books. I never met him, actually. Before the Attenberg and who won actually the Nobel Prize. But I would have been in that neighborhood. I would have been a very bad engineer, for sure, because I’m not very handy. So I tried to combine it in a way that on the one side you have my writing and my teaching. On the other side, you have also my—I don’t know that it’s related so much because I had this problem with my back, which now I think I’ve finally dealt with it—but I would be found in—I really like wild places, really wild places.
SCARPINO: What’s the appeal?
KETS DE VRIES: Um…I think it’s not good enough to just look at National Geographic, look at television programs. It’s the smell. I mean, as a child, I dreamt about going to places like the Pamir. I remember reading about Marco Polo sheep, you know, Marco Polo and the big horns. So I went there. I went there many times. It’s a very tough environment but interesting. Mongolia was a serendipity. My father gave me a book which he had bought, saw in a shop in Czechoslovakia, in German about fishing in Outer Mongolia. Nobody went fishing there; you went hunting there, actually. So I read the book and I sent a letter to Hulunbeier to, whatever, the tourist office. I got a telex back, something like, “Please see our embassy in Europe.” Europe is big. I discovered that there was an embassy outside Paris, not actually Paris. There was a young man; it was a very communist time still, I mean—so we studied maps and I made an expedition. It was quite interesting. And I realized that nobody—there was this big trout there, the Hucho taimen, so I became the World Champion Hucho taimen. Not very difficult, by the way, because nobody had done it. But it was interesting, this whole expedition. They were real serious communist times still. And then of course, I really fell in love with Africa because, you know, it’s the smells and the sounds. So those things…
SCARPINO: …you were hunting in the former Soviet Union?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, actually it was not the Soviet Union anymore. It was then—but it was in the Kamchatka Peninsula, which is probably one of the wildest areas in the world.
SCARPINO: You were injured, right?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, I got a very bad—I’m very lucky I can walk because I should be in a wheelchair.
SCARPINO: I understand that you were pretty specific about how you wanted to be evacuated and where you wanted to be treated. You insisted on being hospitalized in France, is that right?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, but I mean, it’s—in Kamchatka you are actually not too far from Japan or Thailand. You can go there, but I don’t know anybody there. So actually it was quite a horror story when you look at it. I got the accident on top of a mountain and I broke my back. I broke my spine. Then I had to get down from the mountain, so I was tied to a sled. When you go down the mountain, pulled by a snowmobile, the snow got softer and softer going down so it was like stuck in the mud, so zoom, zoom. So it was a five-hour trip down the mountain. Finally came to camp, I rolled into my sleeping bag and there were no painkillers about except for a few aspirins. And then I was lucky, haha, “lucky,” it’s the place where the bad weather is born, but the—now whenever—I never have a satellite phone with me. I didn’t have a satellite phone, they had no satellite phone at the camp. So one guy climbed the mountain the next morning and got hold of the swinging radio village of Esso, not Exxo, Esso. And it was decent weather because the helicopter—it was a big Army helicopter, so the next day the Army helicopter came to pick me up, brought me to—flew me to [inaudible]. It was kind of rough, you know, because I was lying on this steel.
SCARPINO: On the floor of the helicopter.
KETS DE VRIES: On the floor of the helicopter. It was steel. It was a very big Army, so those things crash regularly.
SCARPINO: You were in a Chinook then?
KETS DE VRIES: What?
SCARPINO: The things that crash regularly are Chinooks.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah. You know, those old-fashioned, really big, old-fashioned helicopters. I remember once being in a helicopter there in the Pamir. They picked up some sheep—live sheep. They put them in there. Anyhow, when I saw the hospital, it was like [inaudible] 19th century. So that’s not a place to stay; blood on the floor. So I went to a local hotel. My daughter was with me, who is also here actually at the moment. Then I called—I’ve got an insurance company in Denmark and I called the insurance company on the mobile phone, thank you very much. But also one of my students, who was a Russian, Oliver, heard about it. So he was quicker than the insurance company to send the plane, picked me up. It was a Finnish plane. They sent me to France. There they made a lot of mistakes in the operation so that I’ve been—so I knew I learned something about operations. If you have really complex things in France, you have to go a university hospital, not to the American hospital. The American hospital is very efficient with credit cards and things like that. It was the university hospital. So they operated me this year. It was a 12-hour operation, serious operation, and then I got a hospital infection, so I almost died. So I make a joke about—I was giving a speech in Bled in Slovenia about “twice born,” William James, “twice born.” I’m twice born maybe. I had two deadly ones in three years. It was quite—it brings you back to—it was a little bit like the [inaudible]. I mean when I got this award, Lifetime Achievement Award, I mean two people were dead. Warren Bennis came just out of the hospital. He was not in very good shape either. He looked very frail. MacGregor Burns was not really with it anymore. The only one, Frances Hesselbein was the one who was really the life of the party, you know, she was peppy.
SCARPINO: I know Frances.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah. She was so much with it, you know, so much with it. It was quite remarkable. I don’t know, she must around—in her 80s.
SCARPINO: Frances is at least 90.
KETS DE VRIES: Oh, 90? But she’s remarkable.
SCARPINO: I interviewed James MacGregor Burns two years ago, and he was 90 then.
KETS DE VRIES: He was okay when you interviewed him?
KETS DE VRIES: Because when we saw him then, he was not in very good shape.
SCARPINO: Yes, he…
KETS DE VRIES: …he was drifting off.
SCARPINO: He looked fine.
KETS DE VRIES: I see; it’s good to hear because during that ceremony he was somewhere else, a little bit like my father now, tomorrow when I—my prediction of my father.
SCARPINO: Are you planning to go hunting or hiking again?
KETS DE VRIES: I already did.
SCARPINO: Oh. (laughs)
KETS DE VRIES: I already did. I went to Mauritius. I had to go to a conference there so I went hunting there. Yeah, I would like to—I mean I try to—[inaudible] book which I—It’s a dialog about our evolutionary psychology and the hunting instinct. You can talk about it. And what I’m saying, it’s a question, I mean you let children loose in the wild, you see how quickly they regress to the hunting mode and fishing mode. It’s the question of exploration. That’s really for me important. It’s a little bit like the small children’s game, hide and seek. That’s what it is. The killing. (scoffs) That’s not really it. On the other hand, I wish there would be something like fishing, catch and release, but in hunting you don’t have that. It’s a definite—On the other hand, just going to Africa and sitting in a car, they call it safari, I find it very boring. I like to walk. I like to have—to live with the thrill of danger. And if it’s done in a sustainable manner, that’s important. It has to be sustainable because I’m the strongest protectionist of nature. It has to be sustainable. That is, unfortunately—in certain countries it’s sad what’s happening there. That’s what worries me. Actually, ironically again, the “fair chase” hunters, to quote your president, Teddy Roosevelt, are probably the greatest protectionists. They probably spend the most money, also resources, on trying to protect—like I said, self-interest, but better that than nothing, eh? Think about you have Kenya, you have Tanzania. Kenya closed all hunting. The NGOs loved it. No elephants left. They all were killed, because when the animal has no value, they eat it. In Tanzania, actually—if you’re that crazy to shoot an elephant, I think you pay probably, I don’t know, pay $30,000, $40,000 for that. That money goes to the community. So there’s an interest. Why poach when you can get—you can have some kind of—get a school, a new school?
SCARPINO: Financial interest.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, financial interest. So I’ve said my little plea for, you know, the sustainability of it. Of course, now they’ve got Operation Campfire, which the money goes to the local community, and I believe in that.
SCARPINO: You might get some donations off of this.
KETS DE VRIES: I’m not in the business.
SCARPINO: Among your awards and honors, in 2000 you earned a European Case of the Year in the Human Resource Management/Organizational Behavior Category, for a case titled “British Petroleum: Transformational Leadership in a Transnational Organization.”
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah.
SCARPINO: Well, in the spring and summer of 2010, British Petroleum found itself at the center of an environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico south of the U.S.
KETS DE VRIES: But I wrote a case—let me put it this way. It was—what’s the name? It’s Simon. He was two presidents—two CEOs before. And companies [inaudible] as a rationalization and defense. I think they had a very interesting CEO at the time, Lord Simon. Now it’s not Lord Simon. Then you’ve got the person who was his successor who had a little scandal around him, and then things started to change, want to build up the company. But it’s a little like Murdock, you know, the Murdock family, kind of the subtle language you use to say this is allowed, this you can do, cutting corners. I think something of that snuck in, but I don’t know, I didn’t follow it, I became bored.
SCARPINO: Well, I was going to ask you because most people have heard of the Gulf oil spill. If you could move forward a little bit in time and assess the leadership exercised by BP during that Gulf oil crisis, but…
KETS DE VRIES: …I was not—no, no, this was done. It was—one of our more prominent alumni was Sir David Simon. He was the accidental president because he basically got it because his predecessor said he had a bigger head than everybody else, was smarter than everybody else. He was doing a Jack Welch at the time with BP and the people didn’t like it, and so the board kicked him out. So David Simon, who never thought he was going to become the CEO, became the CEO. I’m happy he was our alumni and I was always impressed by the way he could adapt as opposed to some other CEOs. Then I got, by accident got on the same plane with him, private plane. I forgot I was going to England also, and I had a captive audience. He couldn’t escape. So I talked him into writing a case about him and the company. And I remember walking here in London with him, and he said, “You know, see this building?” Nobody there—there was all this bureaucracy, I mean, and you have no one really to help.” And then I saw him operating in a cocktail party and felt it was quite remarkable, how he knew everybody’s name, you know, the secretaries to whatever. So I wrote a case about him. I met his successor, which I’m having a senior moment, who was famous for his ability to suppress that he was gay, which everybody knew, and so what the hell, who cares? But then he got into a scandal about some preferences he gave to a young man, I believe. But apparently the culture started to change, the cutting corners, that was I understand. Of course, his successor Hayward, who was also not so smart about making certain statements to the press.
SCARPINO: He’s the one who said, “I want my life back.”
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, “I want my life back,” yeah. He was sailing also, which was not very good.
SCARPINO: Let’s look at a different current events thing and see if we can get you to comment on that. Yesterday there was a conference of European leaders to deal with the Euro crisis or the European debt zone crisis. I ran the BBC several times to see what they had to say on it. Over and over again, the reporters were talking about leadership and crisis of leadership, or the leaders have to do this. You know, you’ve got a Ph.D. in economics and you’ve got a Ph.D. in management, you’re a leadership scholar. Is this a crisis of economics or a crisis of leadership, or both?
KETS DE VRIES: Philip, you know the answer already. It’s a crisis of leadership, you know that.
SCARPINO: (laughs) But the recorder doesn’t.
KETS DE VRIES: (laughs) It’s a crisis of leadership. I mean, part of the problem has been is you have to—you need to make clear to the naïve public who has been fed on scandal stories by popular journals, like Der Spiegel and things like that, are great examples, that the European ideal is worth it. You have a number—for example, you have a number of leaders, it’s not Greece, which is a problem. It’s really a country like Italy, and you have Berlusconi there who is our hero, which you’ll remember The Economist front page, “the man who screwed the whole country,” which I love this. I wonder what happened when he opened The Economist and looked at himself there. So why—of course, you get the leader you deserve, and he was the ideal role model for the Italians, you can say facetiously, because he cheats on taxes, every Italian does that, and he cheats on his wife, every Italian does that, too. So here he is, our role model. Now you don’t know the alternative, but he has been—certainly it’s very worrisome to have him as a leader. But it really says something about Italian politics where you have the whole—it’s a little bit also like sometimes in other countries about a political class who does nothing else. They’ve never done anything else than being a political animal. Now it is a crisis, but when you think also about the mechanics, when you have 27 countries and you have to build a consensus, it’s tough. It’s tough with all their particular parochial interests. I mean, you had the Poles for a while who had special peeves and you have the—I mean, all this, how to combine it. So I’m not saying this is an easy job. On the other hand, there are a number of big countries who have a big mouth, and of course the biggest one is Germany. In Germany, I mean the Bundeskanzler should have made it very clear how much Germany profits from the European Zone and how much—they may have a surplus and things like that, but it’s thanks to—If they would have a free-floating currency, they would never have the surplus. So she has not done enough storytelling. Because of all that, the whole thing has been costing more and more and more because basically it’s a mass psychosis, what’s going on there. Of course, Germany has been traumatized. You as an historian know that. I heard stories from my grandfather that the moment you got some money, you would spend it immediately because it was already worth less the same day. It’s hyperinflation.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, and that is still hanging around there. Now of course in Greece, you have another tradition. The Greeks were basically terrorized by the Turks, and you certainly don’t pay any taxes to the Turks. So it’s a tradition of no taxes, no taxes, you don’t pay taxes to the government. All those things have to change.
SCARPINO: Do countries have inner theaters as much as people do?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah.
SCARPINO: I mean, is that kind of what’s happening here?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, certainly that’s a very good observation. There’s also—there’s a man, I think he is in Virginia, he’s a psychoanalyst professor, Volkan is his name. Volkan. He talks about this chosen trauma, which is like you have in Kosovo and things like that. Thinking back, you have the license plate, you know, these license plates, “je me souviens,” I remember the Battle of Abraham. How long was that ago? A few years ago. When I was there, it was the middle of the language battle, and it was so ridiculous because coming from Europe and speaking four and a half languages, I mean this province could be the best province of all because they will be bilingual, they could … whatever. Instead they got in the crazy situation that the only one who spoke two languages were the British because the French never learned English anymore. I mean, in a continent where English is important and in a world where English is important, it’s an irony. While in Paris of course went to Harvard, the politicians.
SCARPINO: Actually it’s the Anglophones who are bilingual, yes.
KETS DE VRIES: It’s ironic. It’s those kinds of lack of vision, and that’s the reason when I ask people, “Who is the greatest living leader you can think of, who would I pick?”
SCARPINO: Who would you pick?
KETS DE VRIES: I would pick the same one; it’s Mandela.
SCARPINO: Because of?
KETS DE VRIES: Mandela because he could forgive. He could forgive. But why do people admire him? You have Mandela and Mugabe. I’ve been many times in Zimbabwe and look at the horror at what has happened there. It was such a great country and it has been totally destroyed by this person. You know, power corrupts—absolute power corrupts. Then you look at Mandela, now, he made mistakes. I mean, he’s not—he’s certainly very much for loyalty, so he’s kept on protecting Mugabe, for example, and he even had some nice words to say about Gaddafi because they supported him during the apartheid struggle. But he was able—and it was probably group therapy sessions on Robben Island to say, “Listen, what country do we want to have in the future?” That’s something America can learn from that. When you think about the Democrats and the Republicans, why are you screwing up the country?
SCARPINO: But the key is division.
KETS DE VRIES: The key is division, yeah. So, but he has to go beyond spite and vindictiveness. I sometimes show a picture of a number of leaders and you have people like Akbar the Great, Ashoka the Great, you have Marcus Aurelius, you have Solon. What typified those people? They were inclusive. They went beyond religious boundaries. They were inclusive. And I think—and I think Merkel has very good qualities. I mean, she is—but she probably—she wants to be re-elected and she probably didn’t have the hand of cards to make it possible; needed time to prepare the public for where they are now. I think the public is getting ready there because they see how costly it is to your city and then—now you can ask yourself, which is from a political point of view, can Greece ever make it as part—I mean can Greece go through the structural reforms that are needed; that people change their mindset from the Turks and pay taxes and things like that? It takes time. You know, the elephant is lazy. Talk about a national character, they are even lazier probably than a personal character.
SCARPINO: I’m going to do something that a historian normally would do but that I didn’t start out doing. I’m going to ask you a few questions in sort of chronological order. Then I’m going to ask you the question that I didn’t ask at the beginning, which is when and where were you born?
KETS DE VRIES: I was born in the small village of Huizen at home during the war in 1942. I was a latecomer because Mother still complained that I was hanging in there longer than was needed. I was a big baby apparently. I already told you about the village, which was one of those old villages with its native customs.
SCARPINO: You graduated from high school, which is gymnasium?
KETS DE VRIES: No, I went to a … village school. I had a teacher who thought that I was maybe a little brighter than the other village kids, so he said to my parents that maybe it’s not such a bad idea to send him to a high school. In those days you had all categories. So the lowest form of high school which gives a right to university was the HBSA school. That means hogere burger school, it’s higher citizen school, a little translation. So you have A and B. A is more humanities. B is the sciences. But the real highest one would be gymnasium, but that was too far removed from my parents’ imagination so I never went there. In gymnasium—the vision was that in gymnasium you also had to learn Latin and Greek.
SCARPINO: So you went to just a…
KETS DE VRIES: …I went from a village—from the village school I went to a very simple high school, but it gave the right—I moved halfway from the A to the B, which is the better one, the sciences. So I went from A to B after three years and then I graduated. It was a very mediocre school, basically. Then I went—but it gives you the right to certain university studies at that time. Now there is a whole new type of a very funny system with lotteries.
SCARPINO: Between high school and university, did you go to Harvard?
KETS DE VRIES: I went to Harvard summer school which was…
SCARPINO: …how in the world did a boy from …
KETS DE VRIES: …because my father was, in Dutch standards, not too bad off and he had an office in Boston. So he had friends in Boston. He would come there all the time. He had a sales office in Boston. Harvard is in Boston. Somebody said—one of his friends, their son went to Harvard. So he said, “Maybe you should go to Harvard summer school.” So I went there.
SCARPINO: What did you study?
KETS DE VRIES: I did some statistics and some international business courses, international economics courses.
SCARPINO: What did that experience mean to you?
KETS DE VRIES: The courses, I totally forgot all about them.
SCARPINO: (laughs) That’s all right; my students do that too.
KETS DE VRIES: But the social environment, I remember meeting a crazy guy from Ethiopia who actually became a professor there for a while. He’s now at Princeton. People like that, it was all a different group. I met lots of women. It was a very interesting place for meeting women. They had mixers and things like that. It was very interesting.
SCARPINO: It was very different than what you were used to?
KETS DE VRIES: Very different. I was basically—as a high school student I did play outside, but I was very focused in studying because I’m not brilliant. I’m persistent; I’m not brilliant. So I basically—there are many more people who have a much better brain than I have, but I’m very persistent, you know, persistence will pay off. I’m serious about that.
SCARPINO: (laughs) That seems like a bit of modesty. One of your qualities, though, I mean you’re astonishingly persistent.
KETS DE VRIES: I’m very persistent. I mean I hang in there. I was in a mathematical-oriented school, I’m not good in mathematics. The only course I actually failed in university was statistics. I had to do it over. Now I developed—this is crazy. I’ve developed five tests which is psychometrics. I mean, I can’t believe it, me. Of course I delegated certain things. I hired the best psychometrician in France to help me, and it was a very fruitful collaboration. You can’t know everything. But that’s still not my—that’s never been my greatest element.
SCARPINO: Then you went back to the Netherlands and you enrolled…
KETS DE VRIES: …Yeah, that was actually stupid. I probably could have gotten into Harvard at the time, but I decided I’d first do a degree in Holland and then I’d go back to Harvard. That was my plan.
SCARPINO: You studied economics?
KETS DE VRIES: Seven years of economics.
SCARPINO: And ended up with a doctoral degree?
KETS DE VRIES: No, what you get in Holland is you do a doctoral examination, and then you get a title DRS. If you write a dissertation, you cut the S off.
SCARPINO: So you are the DRS.
KETS DE VRIES: I’m the DR—economic—I also had the right to—I almost became an accountant on top of it. I mean I can teach accountancy, if you can believe it. I’m totally hopeless, accountancy.
SCARPINO: What attracted you to economics?
KETS DE VRIES: It was a negative choice. I went—my father wanted me to become a chemical engineer. I went to Delft, I go to the laboratory and the person who brings me there, he said, “On the average, people stay here 7.8 years.” I was 17 years old. That’s more than half my life. I looked at him and walked straight out. The director of the laboratory said he wanted to meet me because he had never had a person walk in and walk out. So I said, “Oh my God, I hope you don’t call my father. Maybe mechanical engineer but shorter.” That also was not a success. Then finally I decided, okay, negative choice, economics. Because we have options, options. I was not made for a chemical engineer I think. I was good in chemistry. I was very good in chemistry, but not…
SCARPINO: …What do you think the seven years of studying economics has meant to your career trajectory?
KETS DE VRIES: Oh, it’s very simple. The way this—I was doing these studies at the University of Amsterdam. The way that the studies were designed was basically you had a certain pace of the exams. When you pass the exam, you go on a step further and a step further. It was a funnel system. It’s a very stupid system actually. In a funnel you would get as many people in and then slowly kill them off. That’s what you do. I was pretty good, and so I learned there. I went to the lecture room, like you have in France, Sorbonne. It’s a large lecture hall and somebody was reading out certain things or whatever. It was totally boring, totally useless. So I said, I don’t have to sit—I can read the book. So I came for exams, but I spent all my time in cafés. So I learned human behavior by seeing how I could—women was also one of the interests, too. That was actually a very good study in human behavior. That’s where I started my interest in psychology. Practical.
SCARPINO: Did you know it at the time, or you were just watching people walk by on the sidewalk?
KETS DE VRIES: I had some interest in psychology, but I hadn’t read that much. I had read some books, some philosophy. I did pretty well as far as—I knew that everything would be okay as long as I passed the exams. I would be in no problems with the family, with my father. My father was the one who financed the studies. But I realized in hindsight that—there was a café in Amsterdam’s hotel also, Hotel American, American hotel. It had a very big coffee place, also a reading table. So the challenge was there to meet women there. That was the challenge. You had to really make—it was a big group so many people could see what you were doing. So how to talk to them without them pushing you away? It was a public, you know, the rejection. So I became very good at that. But what I realized is that I learned quite a bit about human relations, at the time indirectly, through this kind of interaction. Then, as I told you, I went to Harvard after I did my exam. You know, you have this temporary high. You do your doctoral exam and then you wake up the next morning and say, “What next?”
SCARPINO: What next, yeah. We started to talk at the beginning of our discussion when you were at Harvard this time, along with your Master’s and your doctoral studies, there was Abraham Zaleznik, Erik Erikson, Daniel Levinson. You become acquainted with these scholars…
KETS DE VRIES: …No, only Erikson and Zaleznik, not Daniel Levinson. Harry Levinson.
SCARPINO: Oh Harry, yes.
KETS DE VRIES: Harry. Daniel Levinson was at Yale. Yeah, The Seasons of a Man’s Life, and a woman’s life.
SCARPINO: How on earth did you go from business management to these gentlemen? How did you meet them? How did you end up talking to them and ultimately working with them?
KETS DE VRIES: Zaleznik was simple. It was by again, listening to the career of Ed Schein, me and my career when he was talking there about serendipity. There was an advisor for the International Teachers Program, and I took the traditional courses, you know, which you take; Business Policy, International Business, all those kinds of things. Then there was this funny course, and I was always interested in Freud, and it was Psychoanalytic Psychology. He said, “Why don’t you take that?” So I took that and I fell in love with that kind of area.
SCARPINO: That was Zaleznik’s course?
KETS DE VRIES: That was Zaleznik’s course. I became his assistant. I worked for him. I spent quite some years with him. Not always the easiest person. It was very sad I felt when I invited him the last time to come to the CCC Program, I realized that he was no longer really there. He was losing it. Then when I saw him a few days ago, he thought he was in Florida. He has a house—an apartment in Florida. So it was—it makes you sad. I thought who’s next, you know, in the next generation. Then Erikson I came in contact with through Sudhir. I mentioned Sudhir Kakar who is the person I do the CEO seminar with. Erikson at the time was writing a book on Gandhi’s Truth, which got a National Book Award, I believe, at the time. Sudhir was there. He was at that time a professor at Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. Ahmedabad was a dry state, so I think they drank together. Sudhir was actually an engineer who became a teaching fellow, and so Sudhir I met by accident in Zaleznik’s seminar. We started to talk and so that was the reason I got introduced to Erikson. Levinson I had very little contact with. It had to do with subgroups at the Harvard Business School. Levinson was in the OB Department, Erikson was just O Department. One-man show.
SCARPINO: One-man show.
KETS DE VRIES: One-man show. It’s also stupid; called the Social Psychology of Management. It was such a misnomer, you can’t believe it.
SCARPINO: I want to ask you a question for the benefit of the transcriber. You said the dry state, and the name of it?
KETS DE VRIES: Gujarat is an Indian state, which is where Gandhi stayed. There was also the salt march I believe at the time. Erikson was doing research on Gandhi there, and he stayed in a house with a prominent family. It’s the Sarabhai family, which later I started to know also a little bit. When you read that book, you see the prominence of this family. It’s very dominant. It was at that time the magnus of textile. Actually the daughter is a famous dancer.
SCARPINO: I was actually trying to imagine the transcriber trying to Google the name of that state.
KETS DE VRIES: Gujarat. Gujarat. Ahmedabad, that’s where it was.
SCARPINO: I looked up Zaleznik just to get a little bit of an idea of his background. Something stood out after I had read some of your work. I noticed that he served on several corporate boards, that he did consulting work…
KETS DE VRIES: …He was the chairman of the King Ranch; can you believe it?
SCARPINO: Is that right?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah.
SCARPINO: He wrote an article called “Managers and Leaders: Are They Different?” that won an award. Did his career have any impact on yours?
KETS DE VRIES: Well, sure.
SCARPINO: It sounds a little bit like the direction you were headed.
KETS DE VRIES: No, sure. Zaleznik was—I think he went to the Navy and he got decommissioned, and they had a scholarship at the time, so he went to the Harvard Business School and became a research assistant. Then he went into the field of Operations and Production Management, which was I guess time and motion study interest. Then later on, there was I think a call by the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute to offer some fellowships, and the one who got it was Bales, Freed Bales. Maybe you remember him. He was a famous man at that time at Harvard on group behavior, task groups. There’s a one-way mirror, Freed Bales. Then you had a man called Taguri, who was a professor at the Harvard Business School and Zaleznik, but Zaleznik was the only one who went to the bitter end. Of course again, as a non-psychiatrist medical doctor, you couldn’t practice. But he started to practice. He got dispensation, so he was very proud of that. Of course, the irony became that the American Psychological Association and the American Psychoanalytic Association sued each other; that was an international law. I am a member of two of them, you know, because of the stupidity of what was going on there; this kind of exclusive medical profession because, you know, the really exclusive medical profession. The rest of world has lots of non-medical people in the psychoanalytic profession. Anyhow, he wrote a book, he wrote a number of books, but one book was called Human Dilemmas of Leadership, where he started to apply some of his clinical concepts in a more readable way. But then he wrote the book Power and the Corporate Mind with me, and then I think he got interested in golf. He became a member of the golf club in Belmont. I think he spent so much time there, and of course also consulting, so there was very little—he was a full professor. I didn’t do—he wrote another book, one more, but he didn’t do much anymore.
SCARPINO: You co-authored, as you said, in 1975, Power and the Corporate Mind with Abraham Zaleznik. This was your first book-length project?
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, the next book was Organizational Paradoxes.
SCARPINO: What was this collaboration with him all about?
KETS DE VRIES: You know, the thing is, I should have logically stayed at Harvard Business School, but he got in—you know, the whole history of management—Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger, you remember him?
KETS DE VRIES: He was one of the fathers of organizational behavior. He was at the Harvard Business School and he had two assistants, which was Paul Lawrence, maybe Lawrence [inaudible]; Paul Lawrence and you had Zaleznik. Once I stopped Roethlisberger when he was an old man, like me, on the bridge of, you know, the Harvard Bridge over the Charles River, and I asked him, “You know, what happened?” because they hated each other’s guts because I was—you know, the thing is—the irony was that Paul Lawrence—when I was in the ITP Program, you had sponsors because you were supposed to be a teacher. Paul Lawrence was my sponsor because his wife came from Michigan, I guess, Holland, Michigan.
SCARPINO: I know where Holland, Michigan is.
KETS DE VRIES: I’ve been there. I’ve been there, too. So I had quite a few dinners at their place. Then Zaleznik, he started to foam at the mouth when the mother that brought Paul Lawrence was mentioned. And Roethlisberger said, “You know, two boys fighting for the faith of papa,” a very simplistic interpretation. It was a little bit sad, but I knew that I had to stay. I could not go to—I mean it was ironic they had a big OB Department; I couldn’t go to OB. I could go to Strategy. I could do things in Strategy but not OB; that was high treason. And it was a little bit in hindsight—so I didn’t get the appointment, of course, because OB took care of that. I was Zaleznik’s son, you know, “metaphoric son.”
SCARPINO: Why did you do the collaboration with Zaleznik? What were you trying to accomplish with that?
KETS DE VRIES: He always thought he could help you, doing a book together, things like that. I’ve done it with many of my students, too. Now he got a contract for the—book contract and things like that. So it made some sense. He had written a few articles for the Harvard Business Review so he asked me to rewrite some of those articles. It was difficult, and I wrote some of those things, too. It’s not an easy book to read, I think. Then I did a book called Organizational Paradoxes which was also—it was my first book alone. It was difficult. It was difficult to write. My wife made the comment—well, I lived in Montreal. Then I started to do some books of readings because I wanted to focus on the interface between psychoanalysis and management, so The Irrational Executive, Organizations on the Couch. Then slowly I started to become faster and faster.
SCARPINO: With practice.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, it was practice and practice.
SCARPINO: You were at INSEAD from 1971 to 1973.
KETS DE VRIES: Then I got fired.
SCARPINO: Yes, and I want to do two things. I want to ask you about that, and then I think maybe we ought to take a break because we’ve been talking for two hours. So what happened?
KETS DE VRIES: INSEAD was a young institution. I think they—it was a European idea at the time. It was stimulated by a general, American general, who is French, General Georges Doriot. That’s the history of it. In 1970, they appointed the first dean, Dean Dean Berry. Before that, the school was really owned by a click of—a click of four or five—four people. I got an appointment. The first appointment was two years. I got the appointment and I was complaining about—I was always complaining about things were not as they should be.
SCARPINO: An assistant professor complaining? (laughs)
KETS DE VRIES: And not realizing the political system there. They ran out of money somehow. I was a complainer anyhow, so they said good riddance. They fired three people at the time, all for the wrong reasons. One didn’t want to grade the exams of a more senior professor. The other one, I don’t know what it was, it was the wrong reason. So I remember, I made two contributions to INSEAD—three contributions to INSEAD. One was—the first one was, thanks to me, there is a faculty evaluation committee because after I got fired, I sent—not an email—I put a form in everybody’s mailbox saying, “Today me, tomorrow you.” The way it’s going, there’s a little [inaudible] of old men who think they have all the power and there’s no, you know, no process about it. Because I had—I mean, I was writing a little bit and I had pretty decent ratings as a teacher, so there was not really a good reason. I remember Dean Berry. He was so embarrassed doing it that I only realized I was fired when I walked out of the door. It was just kind of too much—it was like a sandwich approach; too much good news, so he packaged it well. Later—first, his wife apologized. They offered me a job the next year, by the way, to come back. First, his wife apologized, I remember, and then he apologized. He’s dead now. He got set up, basically set up. He was an American who didn’t know all this politicking was going on by the old wise men. So I left, and it was good for me because…
SCARPINO: …Why was it? That’s really the question I want to get at. What did you learn from that? Why was it good for you?
KETS DE VRIES: Well, it was good for me because it gave me the opportunity—I was already starting psychoanalysis in Paris, but it was very hard because I lived in Fontainebleau and had to go to Paris maybe four or five times a week. You lose every time, you know, back in the commute—half a day. It was really not—not sustainable. So as a result, I went—first, I hoped to get an appointment at Harvard. I didn’t get that because of the Zaleznik mentality and of course you can’t do anything to him because he’s a full professor, but at least you don’t want another one hanging around there. And I had built no alliances with the OB Department, so no way I would get an appointment. And he didn’t—I think he didn’t make so much of an effort either, I can see in hindsight. So Henry Mintzberg got me, and my time in Montreal was very good.
SCARPINO: How did you know Mintzberg?
KETS DE VRIES: I didn’t know him. I didn’t know him. He basically knew I was in the market and he gave me a call.
SCARPINO: You said that when you were let go at INSEAD, you were doing psychoanalysis.
KETS DE VRIES: Yeah, I was starting my psychoanalysis in Paris.
SCARPINO: So you had already begun training there?
KETS DE VRIES: Not training.
SCARPINO: You were in psychoanalysis?
KETS DE VRIES: Psychoanalysis, yeah. I was not training. So then I went to Montreal and my big disappointment was—I interviewed there—I was actually accepted that year by the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute, but I had no job. So I went to Montreal. I lived still in Cambridge. I interviewed and then they told me later that I could be accepted as a candidate apart from being in crazy Canada —because usually the clinical psychologist or psychiatrist—because I was not in psychoanalysis in Montreal. It was very difficult. I didn’t live in Montreal. So I felt it was a very silly argument. I remember, I had interviewed three people and I was quite angry about it. Don’t be so—don’t give me this bullshit. So I went to Maurice Dongier. He was then the head of psychiatry and the head of the Allan. I remember he had at that time an enormous office. I mean it was a gigantic office. He was actually—he was a mensch, to use that term. He was a real human being. Then he sent me a year later…
SCARPINO: …It’s a Hebrew term for a decent guy.
KETS DE VRIES: …Yeah, a real decent guy. He sent me two years later—or a year and a half later sent me an email—not an email—sent me a note, he said, “We’re starting a new class, would you be interested?” Nice of him. So the result—I’m not a good politician. But one other person I had interviewed said, you know, “I’m very happy to take you as a patient.” And I didn’t want it, but I asked him if he would be willing to take me, which was, by the way, from a political point of view I realized much later, a fantastic move, because I didn’t get any hassles. Because if you’re the head of psychiatry, and you’re the head of the Allan, and you’re the patient of this person, everybody else leaves you alone.
SCARPINO: He was the head of what now?
KETS DE VRIES: He was the head of psychiatry of McGill and the head of the Allan Memorial Institute, which is the biggest, I think, the psychiatric think tank in Canada.
SCARPINO: So you basically took the tenure track at McGill so that you could be up there to take the psychoanalytic course?
KETS DE VRIES: It was a very good choice because it was not so dogmatic. It was very—like the Boston Psychoanalytic, it was very classical. This was quite—you had a lot of different influences…very flexible, because much of the French influences…
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.