To Lie Down on the Couch: Thoughts on psychology, leadership and business schools

This week’s blog by Ricardo Mejía Cano of RMConsultores extends the research and commentary of INSEAD professor Manfred Kets de Vries on the topic of irrational behaviors by leaders in general to the specific challenges of irrational behavior in the family enterprise world. For challenging questions and provocative ideas read “To Lie Down on the Couch: Thoughts on psychology, leadership and business schools.”

Most people have deep respect for psychology – yet in the family enterprise world, especially in the world of family enterprise leadership, proposing that a leader “lie down on the couch” is a suggestion rarely made by advisors and even more rarely addressed in business schools, despite advice from academic leaders to rethink this approach.

For instance, Professor Manfred Kets de Vries, director of leadership development at INSEAD in France, has been studying possible improvements in leadership using psychoanalysis and psychotherapy since 2004.

According to de Vries, the majority of business books about leadership stick to the idea that leaders are rational beings, and in these books readers find tips and suggestions on the motivation, behavior and models of good leaders. Rarely has business literature studied the irrational side of entrepreneurial leaders — to what extent their successes are due to their weaknesses and psychological imbalances. For de Vries, irrationality is an integral part of human nature and psychological conflicts are largely the motivators of a leader. “Leaders need a healthy dose of narcissism in order to survive. It’s the engine that drives leadership. Assertiveness, self-confidence, tenacity, and creativity just can’t exist without it. But once a narcissist gets into a position of leadership, funny things start to happen.”

In my opinion, many entrepreneurs and family enterprise leaders may be in this category and could benefit from resting on the couch – literally — to explore how their personal experiences influence their behavior and to determine their capacity to confront pain, depression and problems in general.

If psychology is the study of the mind from biological and social point of view or, to use another definition, if psychology is an academic and applied discipline that involves the scientific study of mental functions and behaviors, it is unthinkable that schools of business and leadership pay so little attention to this area. If the function of leaders is to lead people, then they must study and understand their own motivations and frustrations as well as those of the people working and living under their influence.

To me, resting on the couch seems like a sensible and needed approach to the understanding of family enterprise leadership. Yet many family business leaders are reluctant to talk about this subject and their advisors are even more reluctant to bring it up. But if you have clients with great imbalances and see no way to succeed in your work, maybe it is time to try to convince them to lay down on a psychiatrist’s couch – preferably one with expertise in leadership.  It might just help them to discover new opportunities!

Ricardo_MejiaRicardo Mejía Cano is a member of the FFI board of directors and founder and CEO of RM Consultores in Medellin, Colombia, consultants in corporate governance. Mr. Mejia teaches corporate governance in the Top Management Program at Universidad de los Andes. You can contact Ricardo at [email protected]

To read more on this topic, see The Family Business on the Couch: A Psychological Perspective by Manfred Kets de Vries & Randel Carlock, with Elizabeth Florent-Treacy (2007) or read de Vries’ blog.

Stay tuned next week for another issue of The Practitioner.

Yours in Practice,

The Practitioner