Putting leaders on the couch. A conversation with Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries. Interview by Diane L. Coutu

Harv Bus Rev. 2004 Jan;82(1):64-71, 113.


Much of the business literature on leadership starts with the assumption that leaders are rational beings. But irrationality is integral to human nature, and inner conflict often contributes to the drive to succeed. Although a number of business scholars have explored the psychology of executives, Manfred F.R Kets de Vries has made the analysis of CEOs his life's work. In this article, Kets de Vries, a psychoanalyst, author, and instead professor, draws on three decades of study to describe the psychological profile of successful CEOs. He explores senior executives' vulnerabilities, which are often intensified by followers' attempts to manipulate their leaders. Leaders, he says, have an uncanny ability to awaken transferential processes--in which people transfer the dynamics of past relationships onto present interactions--among their employees and even in themselves. These processes can present themselves in a number of ways, sometimes negatively. What's more, many top executives, being middle-aged, suffer from depression. Mid-life prompts a reappraisal of career identity, and by the time a leader is a CEO, an existential crisis is often imminent. This can happen with anyone, but the probability is higher with CEOs, and senior executives because so many have devoted themselves exclusively to work. Not all CEOs are psychologically unhealthy, of course. Healthy leaders are talented in self-observation and self-analysis, Kets de Vries says. The best are highly motivated to spend time on self-reflection. Their lives are in balance, they can play, they are creative and inventive, and they have the capacity to be nonconformist. "Those who accept the madness in themselves may be the healthiest leaders of all," he concludes.

Publication types

  • Interview

MeSH terms

  • Administrative Personnel / psychology*
  • Anxiety
  • Culture
  • Humans
  • Leadership*
  • Narcissism
  • Parent-Child Relations
  • Personality Assessment
  • Power, Psychological
  • Professional Competence
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Self Concept