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Conference 2013: Kets de Vries abstract. Hubris

“ the senior positions of organisations, hubris can become a contagious disease. Leaders become easily intoxicated by its siren’s call.

Professor Manfred F R Kets de Vries

The moment you are a senior executive, ‘liars’ surround you. Many of the people who report to you are ‘lying,’ to one degree or another – whether consciously (for political reasons) or unconsciously (as a transferential reaction). In hierarchical situations, people have a tendency to tell those above them what they think the superiors want to hear. People who don’t acknowledge this are fooling themselves. Eventually, because candor flees authority, senior executives who aren’t careful will find themselves surrounded by sycophants. And in the senior positions of organisations, hubris can become a contagious disease. Leaders become easily intoxicated by its siren’s call.

Intoxication and intimidation will go hand in hand. At its core is an unholy alliance between disposition and position. Subordinates become intimidated by the power and symbols of the office. And leaders become the vessel of their projected fantasies. Large, impressive office suites, chauffeur-driven cars, private jets, dynamic assistants, and secretaries who fawn and cater all contribute to the awe that surrounds many leaders. Power leads to dependency reactions and even physical illness in others.

Many top executives don’t realise, however, the extent to which people project their fantasies on them; how much subordinates are inclined to tell them what they want to hear as a way of dealing with their own feelings of insecurity and helplessness; how willing subordinates are to attribute special qualities to others simply because of the office they hold. And even those who recognise these tendencies don’t necessarily do anything to counter them. They start to like it. But that failure to recognize what is happening to them – how hubris comes to the fore – can lead a company astray, and destroy it. Guarding against hubris means creating an organisational culture where frank feedback is encouraged; where leaders are prepared to ask themselves whether their own need for recognition is encouraging dishonesty in the ranks.

In my presentation, I will discuss the topic of narcissism, transferential reactions, toxic behaviour, neurotic organisations, and what can be done to prevent it. I will also explore the ingredients that make for transformational leadership, high performance teams, and authentizotic organisations.


About: Professor Manfred Kets de Vries


Manfred Kets de Vries holds the Distinguished Professor of Leadership Development and Organisational Change at INSEAD, France, Singapore, and Abu Dhabi. In addition, he is the chairman of KDVI, a boutique leadership development consulting firm.

He has held professorships at McGill University, the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales, Montreal, the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT), and the Harvard Business School, and he has lectured at management institutions around the world. He is the author, co-author, or editor of 35 books, and more than 350 articles. His books and articles have been translated into 31 languages. Furthermore, he has been the recipient of the International Leadership Association Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to leadership research and development.

The American Psychological Association has honoured him with the Harry and Miriam Levinson Award (Organisational Consultation division) for his contributions to the field of consultation. Furthermore, he has been given the ‘Freud Award’ for his contributions at the interface of management and psychoanalysis. He has also received the ‘Vision of Excellence Award’ from the Harvard Institute of Coaching. In addition, he is the recipient of two honorary doctorates. The Financial Times, Le Capital, Wirtschaftswoche, and The Economist have judged Manfred Kets de Vries one of the leading thinkers on management.

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