Public Management

Governance and the effectiveness of leadership

By Theo Camps | March 16, 2017 | 2 min read

Before you start to fill in names I’m not going to talk about Donald Trump, Jacob Zuma, Bashar Al-Assad, Robert Mugabe, Angela Merkel or Marine le Pen. Neither do I refer to the late Steven Jobs, Bill Gates nor to your collegue boardmember or the CEO of your organization. whenever associations come into mind there probably will be a reason for it.

One of my favorite writers on leadership is Manfred Kets de Vries. Probably well known to you as the psycho-therapist/economist. The first time I read one of his books on leadership personalities I was a bit shocked and thought he was exaggerating. Why? He diagnosed and described leaders as people with serious mental diseases. It all sounded very heavy and disturbing. What he shows in ‘Leaders, fools and imposters’ (2003) is ‘that a great potential for distortion exists when leaders try to act out the fantasies of their followers’.

During the last decades I met quite a lot of people who were seen as leaders (in business, government, politics, academic circles and in the art scene). And the more I can compare situations and personalities the more I feel that both Seneca and Manfred Kets de Vries are right: genius does come with a portion of madness and leadership is never for 100% based on rationality; there is always at least a twist of irrationality present. This also translates to the relationship between leadership and followers. There is always a tension between love and hate, admiration and abomination.
The interesting thing is that madness and irrationality are not only negative. There definitely is a positive side to them that brings change, vitality and originality.
The real question is how to balance it in such a way that the country or the organisation involved benefits from the leadership.

Narcissistic leader 

Manfred Kets the Vries presents archetypes of leadership personalities. He states that the narcissistic leader is by far the most common personality. We all are a little bit narcissistic. We simply need a little touch of it to survive as individuals. For a leader a healthy portion of narcissism contributes to performing as an effective leader. But when it runs out of hand it can turn into a lost connection with reality, living in your own fantasies, in egomanic behaviour. It can even result in completely dysfunctional behaviour. Leaders who every-day feel the urge to say: ‘I’m great’, ‘I did a fantastic job’, ‘No one is better than I am’ and who need constant admiration are the ones to watch out for. These leaders tend to develop poisoned relationships with their environment. They are addicted, their drug is admiration and their providers are their followers. Like a real junk they get mad in an irrational way when they don’t get enough of what they need and what they crave for. They’ll shout, they’ll flatter, they’ll please, they’ll threaten, they’ll lie and the’ll cheat; they will do everything to satisfy their need; what they want is endless admiration.  

Can it end or can they survive? When their environment finds the right checks and balances to have the leader/patient behave in an acceptable way effective leadership can be developed. However when the behavior of the junk/leader becomes unbearable and ineffective the very same environment will find a way to end the leadership. Strong institutionalised environments do this in a more or less civilised way, while other cultures tend to turn to rougher methods.

Where does this analysis bring us? 

Analysing leadership from an organizational or institutional perspective is insightful but misses out aspects the individual psychological dimensions. You need to try to understand where behaviour comes from. It is deeply rooted and it is never one-dimensional.

Psycho-analytical insights like from the archetypes of Manfred Kets de Vries are helpful when the behaviour of a leader is difficult to understand or when it seems that the behaviour does not make sense at al.

Why? Because there is always logic in madness and there is always madness in logic.


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