Why did I love Alice in Wonderland as a child and then as an adult? Well, if you want to know, then you must want to understand what it means to disappear down a rabbit hole. If you are so interested, then search Google for the metaphorical messages found in the book, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s outlandish tale of magic cakes and secret doors has never been out of print since its first publication in 1865. Why? I think it’s the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and warbling turtles. Whatever the case, there is an absurd yet captivating character for everyone, such that the story has spawned films, paintings, online games and even a ballet.
However, the most comprehensive outcomes of the story are the alternative readings. For a century and a half, scholars and bloggers alike have sought deeper meaning from the narrative. There has been everything from colonisation to women’s emancipation, the stuffiness of Victorian England and even penis envy. (I kid you not. However, for those engaged in the American egalitarian debate, there might be an angle to consider). And this week, we get to peruse Alice’s ongoing implications for contemporary leadership in the book, Down the Rabbit Hole: Leadership Pathology in Everyday Life.
The book attempts to show that the world is a mad experience. Chapter headings like “Do you want to be led by a dictator?”, “Tumpmania”, “Beyond Coaching BS” and, my personal favourite, “The Ugly American”, help to understand why Kets de Vries chose the well-coined phrase, Down the Rabbit Hole, for the book’s title. However, at the end of the book, I found myself asking the question, “If the world is currently mad, what is that madness compared to?” Unlike Alice, there doesn’t appear to be a dream from which to awaken.
In part one, the author attends to the chaos leaders create within structures. In part two, Kets de Vries examines the psychological dysfunction of ordinary people in those structures. The technical titles for both: psychodynamics and psychopathy. As with Friedman’s Failure of Nerve, Kets de Vries attempts to capture the heart of systemic and personal dysfunction through psychoanalysis. Though Friedman looks to “well-differentiated” leadership as an antidote to the failure of nerve in family and organisational social regression, Kets de Vries looks to narcissism (in all its forms) as the gravitational centre of dysfunction. Though there is only one specific chapter on the subject in part one, it begins to unfold in chapters three and four, “Trumpmania” and “The Ugly American”. Though I liked the latter’s catchy title, the sections felt unwarranted because they both remain little more than opinion pieces with unsubstantiated claims about President Donald Trump. There are only two bibliographic references; one is merely a website and the other a book by J. Comey. The reader either agrees or disagrees with the personal opinion offered, which I found wholly unsatisfactory given the book is supposed to be taken seriously. Also, the narcissistic Trumpian typology continues through the rest of the book as it concentrates on leadership power, individual wealth, security, control and shame; which are all part of the modern human condition; though I’m not sure how modern it really is.
Notwithstanding my general engagement with the book (it’s an easy read), I found myself becoming frustrated with it. The book feels as chaotic as the title implies the world has become. The reader romps from one highly interpreted example to another with little assessment of alternative viewpoints. Though I am sure Kets de Vries is a celebrated expert in leadership, the book is a series of brief, disconnected observations with a somewhat liberal political hermeneutic.
Of all the chapters that caught my attention, I have reflected mostly upon section 15, “The Wise Fool”. I understand that in America Sophomores are second-year college students. It’s an apt title in the sense that they are indeed wise fools (sophos-moros); they know everything and nothing at the same time. Kets de Vries changes the emphasis to the foolish-wise – the truly wise know that they are also fools. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s maxim at the beginning of the chapter is a sentence summary of what follows, “The cleverest of all, in my opinion, is the man who calls himself a fool at least once a month.”  Kets de Vries claims the honest intellectual will have people who can, with humour, reveal the folly of their apparent wisdom. They have the courage to say what others will not. They hold up a mirror to wise, confronting them with their own limitations or disconnects with ordinary reality. Fortunately, in the church, I am surrounded by volunteer fools offering me their ‘take’ on my latest wise offering. It was a good reminder not to take myself or my position too seriously.
The books final two chapters are telling. With the removal of religious insight, society is somewhat lost says the author. We are reinventing ourselves by asking the same questions from centuries past, but without seeking the wisdom of previous answers, narcissism then drives social expectations. Amid that chaotic search for meaning in meaninglessness, we may return to where we left off – God. The final chapter restates the great command of scripture, “treat others as you would like to be treated”. However, as is often the case, it leaves out the primary requirement to love God. Like Alice, society has plunged down the rabbit hole, trying to make sense of the new world without the constraints of religion or divine boundaries. But unlike Alice, Kets de Vries sees no awakening, only a vague new life in the madness. The Christian vision is that one day, all eyes will see clearly as we stir to the kingdom God created, a domain that is already among us.
 For a quick and useful list of such metaphorical associations see, https://www.booksie.com/503042-alice-in-wonderland-study
 Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries, Down the Rabbit Hole of Leadership: Leadership Pathology in Everyday Life, Kindle ed., The Palgrave Kets De Vries Library (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019).
 Edwin H Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, ed. Margaret M Treadwell and Edward W Beal, 10th Anniversary Kindle ed. (New York: Church Publishing, 2017).
 Kets de Vries, Down the Rabbit Hole of Leadership: Leadership Pathology in Everyday Life. loc 812
 Ibid. loc 1764
 Original quote can be found in, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Gambler, Bobok, a Nasty Story, trans. Jesse Coulson (London: Penguin, 1973). 28
 Kets de Vries, Down the Rabbit Hole of Leadership: Leadership Pathology in Everyday Life. loc 2616ff
Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Gambler, Bobok, a Nasty Story. Translated by Jesse Coulson. London: Penguin, 1973.
Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. 10th Anniversary Kindle ed. ed. Margaret M Treadwell, and Edward W Beal. New York: Church Publishing, 2017.
Kets de Vries, Manfred F. R. Down the Rabbit Hole of Leadership: Leadership Pathology in Everyday Life. Kindle ed. The Palgrave Kets De Vries Library, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.