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Leadership Personalities

March 25, 2014

In the April 2014 edition of the Harvard Business Review there is an interesting article by Manfred Kets de Vries called “Coaching the Toxic Leader”.  The author spans the divergent worlds of clinical psychology and executive coaching, in both academic and practitioner roles. As a psychotherapist, he has a psychoanalytic orientation, which is rarely used in organizational settings due to the time and cost implications. Kets de Vries states that senior executives have the power to create a productive work environment, or to create a toxic dysfunctional one; the way they choose to use their power depends on their own mental health. Kets de Vries specifically mentions executives with narcissistic personality disorders and bi-polar mood disorders, the impact of these pathologies on their organizations, and approaches to coaching these disorders. Perhaps just as interesting is the on-line forum discussing the article on the website, with so many people asking why organizations would keep these individuals in their leadership teams when they are so disruptive to the organization’s health and productivity.

Viewpoint: Although I believe there are many different reasons for retaining executives with disruptive personality and mood disorders, one that seems clear from my experience is that being a CEO is a very difficult job – one that most people would not want to do.  It is not surprising perhaps that individuals with the drive, self-confidence, and resilience to make it to the top of an organization have some personality quirks. Kets de Vries states that a “surprising” number of senior executives have personality disorders. This fact may not be so surprising to most readers of business journals as there have been several books and articles on this topic in the last few years.

Looking at this subject from a more optimistic viewpoint, I am interested in the author’s contention that senior executives have the power to create a productive work environment. They can do this in many ways - through example, and by crafting organizational goals and models that provide employees with engaging work, collaborating towards shared goals.


Kets de Vries, M.F.R. (2014). Coaching the toxic leader. Harvard Business Review92(4).

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