DEVELOPING FROM SILVERBACK GORILLAS TO A BONOBO LEADERSHIP STYLE
An interview with MANFRED KETS DE VRIES by Tjeertje Vlaskamp, &samhoud consultancy
In the last couple of years, the crisis, which started as a financial crisis, has taken many forms. While trust is on a sabbatical leave, the crisis touches leadership. People want new leaders and new leadership. Does leadership really shift from ego centric to authentic? We had the privilege to ask Manfred Kets de Vries. We met with him at &samhoud places in Amsterdam on a sunny afternoon.
Talking with Manfred Kets de Vries about leadership is like riding a roller coaster. Going up, not knowing what it will bring, makes you a bit scared and insecure. When the ride really starts and the carriage accelerates, your mind can’t keep up with the high speed and your world turns upside down. But towards the end you stabilize and you end smoothly, stuffed with adrenaline and completely energized. Fear has left the carriage and perspective has hopped on. Kets de Vries is a master in connecting emotions to the calm calculation of reason, without losing or choosing one of them. They are mutual checks and balances to keep your feet on the ground. And keeping their feet on the ground is a big issue for leaders.
‘Becoming a leader is easier than being a leader. When you become businessman of the year, it’s the beginning of the end,’ Manfred Kets de Vries firmly starts. ‘On their way to the top leaders become more powerful. Fewer people object to the opinion of the leader and the leader focuses more and more on his track record. Deal making is king. The pressure on leaders grows, partly nurtured by the media that influence the public opinion towards the leader. As a consequence, leaders draw back and become isolated and they mainly trust themselves, not others. They cherish their own routine, convinced as they are that’s the best way to go. In times of scarcity they automatically blame others.’
The importance of self reflection
Manfred Kets de Vries studied the origins and effects of dysfunctional leadership. The essence of his work is that leaders, in order to become good leaders, should take time to reflect on themselves. ‘Leaders, especially CEOs, get stuck in habitual patterns. They have to reinvent themselves,’ Kets de Vries continues. ‘They have to find their playground because playing grows innovation. And playing helps to recognize their identity and authenticity. Leaders have to learn to use themselves as an instrument. Disclose themselves. And that is very difficult when there is a lot of negative propaganda around them. Besides, a thing like social media, you can’t control it. Your weaknesses feed media that can’t be controlled. So, you don’t show them. Too dangerous. Consequently, you isolate yourself. Which is very dangerous too. Isolation troubles the self reflection of leaders. It’s a catch 22.’
The breakthrough Kets de Vries created at INSEAD is a method to raise self awareness among leaders. The foundation of his unique approach lies in the design of 360 degrees feedback questionnaires in which he combined psychoanalysis and business. ‘Twelve years ago, I started with leadership group coaching. Ever since, we have helped over 4,000 executives. The tipping point in those 360 questionnaires is when friends or family are asked to fill them out. When your daughter says you do not function well, it hits you harder then when a colleagues says so’, he explains. ‘If you reach the tipping point with leaders, then you can explore a deeper level of their drivers. In my opinion there are three main drivers. The first driver is to create meaning for employees by having a vision on life and business. The second driver is getting the best out of people by stimulating the instinct of workmanship; do something really well and take pride in what you do. The third driver is giving employees autonomy, or freedom.’
From silverback gorillas to bonobos
In studying the essence of leadership, Kets de Vries often refers to nature. ‘It is very important that leaders understand that leadership is teamwork. A leader is part of a team, part of an organization. And the essence is to build a great place to work.’ Kets de Vries calls it authentizotic organizations. Zotic comes from zoticos and means ‘full of life’. ‘Know thyself, that’s what authenticity is about,’ he continues, ‘Modern organizations should be characterized by cooperation, networking and matriarchy. I call it the bonobo style, contrary to the silverback gorilla style we have had for a long time now.’
Change takes time
‘People still have the same motivational drivers as centuries ago and will act the same. Many principles of Alexander the Great are still there. Especially when there is a constant big pressure on short term delivery and deal making, CEOs are like Fred the Shred. People don’t change overnight and neither does leadership. Like in nature, changes take place gradually. That’s why I use the analogy of the apes.
To become bonobo leaders we must take a long term perspective and start with improving education and society. One of the key drivers for this kind of change is playfulness. And playfulness starts in the classroom. The spirit of innovation starts in the classroom. Look at Finland. In the 1970s they realized their tight relationship with the Russians was coming to an end. Finland had to stand on its own feet. Since the country has few resources, they started to invest in high tech and education. With great success. At this moment, Finland is the most innovative country in the world. They have more graduates with less school hours than other countries. But it took them over 25 years to get there. That is vision, that is meaning. That is authenticity as well. Know thyself. Be positive and connect but always give room to the crazy ones. Without preaching to the choir,& samhoud, and slightly crazy Salem Samhoud, are a good example of a long term institutionalization of meaning and entrepreneurship.’
How to stimulate progress on the short term
‘Long term solutions may be a bit disappointing. After all, we want short term solutions. One is reflective inactivity. I think that is a real challenge. To help leaders do nothing. Boredom leads to creativity. That is two. Be authentic, find the playground, and learn. Three is creating a vision to inspire employees; they work for money but die for a cause.
Women could do well too. They are more bonobo then men, so to speak. But to lift women you have to find competent women and change work structures. Organizations are not people friendly. Education will help. The second wind of older women who make a career could be a breakthrough. Older women might be the best leaders you can imagine. With the aging population they work longer and then we might be able to challenge nature after all.’