The Leadership Mistique: leading behavior in the human enterprise
By Manfred Kets De Vries
In his book, The Leadership Mystique, Manfred Kets De Vries is concerned with what causes leaders to fail and become corrupt. Why are so many leaders self-destructive? Why don’t leaders get the best out of their people? Why do so many executive teams function so poorly? The author is both fascinated and burdened by the kind of destruction that leaders can create in the world. Most obvious examples are Stalin, Hitler, Putin, Jung Un, and others like them. How does one rise to such heights and attract such masses and then behave as a sociopath who is able to wreak havoc on mass populations?
Of course, Kets De Vries turned to psychology as part of his quest for answers. What does clinical psychology have to teach us about the functionality and health of a leader, and what are the psychological forces that cause leaders to behave in certain ways? This is a monumental task that the author set out to accomplish in a rather concise way. One may critique the book as appearing to be a “jack of all trades and a master of none,” switching from topics like emotional intelligence to global leadership characteristics to succession dynamics to change theory. What do all of these topics – each chapter represented a different but related topic – share in common? The answer is that they all have to do with the psychology of the leader and the psychology of the organization, and emotional intelligence lies at the center of his argument.
Parallels abound between Leadership Mystique and Failure of Nerve, as both share a concern about psychological forces in leadership, both in the organization and in the leader’s own experience. Whereas Friedman stayed close to Bowen’s Family Systems Theory, Kets De Vries took a broader approach.
They would both agree that leadership is a complex process of change between people and systems of relationships. They would agree that self-regulation of the leader is critical in order to navigate the anxiety, grief and loss of change. With interactive activities throughout each chapter, Kets De Vries’ book offered more in the way of facilitation of reflection and practical application of theory.
In chapter 8, the author suggested seven competencies of effective leadership that are worth noting:
- Analytical intelligence
- Emotional intelligence
What may be interesting to the reader are the ways in which each of these characteristics are discussed and evaluated throughout the book. For instance, it’s worth noting that the author is equally concerned about the dangers of analytical intelligence as he is its importance. Elsewhere, he suggests that too much analytical intelligence (most especially when the leader is simultaneously void of emotional intelligence) can result in toxic behaviors:
First, people with a high IQ don’t necessarily make good decisions. In fact, IQ and leadership qualities such as decision making are only weakly correlated. Second, people with a high IQ often fall into the intelligence trap, ‘intellectualizing’ their wrong decisions. Third, people with a high IQ are often so talented at criticizing others that they focus on that rather than on arriving at constructive solutions.
Coming out of the Presbyterian tradition, I have often found myself surrounded by leaders with enormous IQ coupled with a noticeably absent EQ. It’s an interesting observation if you think about it. In the “orchestra” of theological and spiritual traditions, the Presbyterians have been known for high intellection and low emotional expression (whereas the Pentecostals represent the reverse). Not only are Presbyterian clergy taken through the academic ringer, but the polity and liturgy of the Presbyterian tradition seems to attract engineers. Half of the congregation I served in Seattle worked for the airline/space industry, whether as pilots or engineers of many stripes for Boeing. When I did my MDiv at Fuller, I was surrounded by evangelicals, many and perhaps most with high pastoral sensibilities, relational capacity and intuition, and high emotional intelligence. Then I did a ThM at Princeton and found such difficulty among many of the brainy Presbyterian students (and the faculty were often significantly worse) who were there for training for a life of academia or some other kind of social work. The notion of leading a church (which we now know is nothing more than a large dysfunctional family with no biological connection) is terrifying for people with social challenges. Personally, I have found significant difficulty serving alongside high IQ engineers, in contexts with a democratic polity, shared leadership, and low EQ trends. What a recipe for endless conflict that can only be resolved to the capacity of the lowest common denominator in terms of EQ capacity.
The chapter on global leadership effectiveness is an important one for our cohort, and especially for those of us who find ourselves in contexts that require cultural intelligence. The list of global leadership abilities is worth keeping as reference:
- Charismatic qualities
- Teambuilding skills
- An openness to change
- An interest in the socioeconomic and political life of other countries
- An ability to relate well to people from other countries
- Good nonverbal communication skills
- An interest in and understanding of how cultural differences affect the way people function
- A willingness to hear and attempt to understand different views
- Relative fluency in a second language (and an interest in languages generally)
- A desire to travel, learn new things, and try varied cuisines
- A sense of ease in culturally ambiguous situations
- The ability to work well in (an enjoy) multicultural teams
- A willingness to take risks when the potential for payoff is high
- A high tolerance for frustration and ambiguity
- Adaptability to new situations
- An internal orientation (having a perception of control over one’s life)
- A sense of humor
Many of these traits can be summed up, or at least fall within the realm of what I would call “cultural humility.” Underneath each of these traits is a rejection of nationalism, cultural supremacy, and xenophobia. Instead, an openness to see the “other” not as “stranger” and “enemy” but as “friend” and “fellow human” allows one to become interested in languages, foreign cuisine, differing values and relationships to power, time, etc.
The way to develop each of these traits, if one is so inclined to try, is not to simply say, “I want to be more interested in other cultures,” but to first look at the limitations of one’s own culture, and then to look with a genuine curiosity toward others. The abilities of effective global leadership listed above are simply the ways in which leaders function when they have developed the virtue of cultural humility. Take Paul’s Christ Hymn in Phil 2 as the primary text for becoming an effective global leader, and apply it not to individuals and freinds, but to “other” cultures and strangers:
- If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2. then make my joy complete by being like-minded [with the ‘other’], having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose.
- Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit [or cultural insensitivity or white supremacy], but in humility consider others [other cultures and peoples] better than yourselves [and your culture]. 4. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others [and the ‘others’]. 5. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
- Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
- but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross! 9. Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name [and whose culture, which we call the Kingdom of Heaven, that is above every culture], 10. that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11. and every tongue confess [literally every language] that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
While the book was well founded with some of the best research theories, until the practice of virtue (i.e. the virtue of humility) is embraced again, leadership will be little more than an experience in competitive performance.
Kets De Vries, 21-22.