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Executive Education


The Challenge of Leadership: Changing Senior Executives Lives Since 1991

What makes a good leader in the 21st century? Simon Thomson, CEO of Cairn Energy, one of Europe’s leading independent oil and gas exploration companies, and Challenge of Leadership alumnus, doesn’t hesitate with his answer: “Today’s most effective leaders are those who understand themselves, have the confidence to know where they’re strong and weak – and then use that knowledge to build and encourage the right team around them.”

“Sorry, that’s pretty obvious really,” he adds.

It’s all too easy to forget that it wasn’t obvious 25 years ago, when INSEAD professor, Manfred Kets de Vries, launched the Challenge of Leadership, a multi-module programme for very senior managers that unfolds over the course of a year. In those days few people talked about leadership, let alone the importance of emotional intelligence for top executives.

Instead, Executive Education was largely about technical management skills and the unwritten recipe for staying at the top was still “command and control”. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that 1991 was also the year the Internet was born and the Soviet Union died.

“Understand the role that emotions play in business”

Yet to really understand the thinking behind this revolutionary programme, it’s necessary to go back to the mid-1960s. This was when Professor Kets de Vries embarked on his intellectual journey of integrating two different paradigms: management science (the neo-classical economic view of organisations with its emphasis on human rationality) and the psychoanalytic study of human behaviour in all its variations (the clinical orientation). It was a new and highly controversial approach.

“To help sharpen my ideas, I was intrigued by what the interface of psychoanalysis and management science could offer,” reminisces Kets de Vries. “Working on the boundaries – this transitional, creative space – can help you to see what other people can’t see. In my work I often need to play the role of the ‘morosophe’ – the wise fool – to get people to look at life from different perspectives. I wanted people to have a three-dimensional outlook on life. I wanted them to use different lenses. I wanted them to stop being strangers to themselves.” Hence, in due course the birth of the groundbreaking Challenge of Leadership in 1991.

“My first idea was to call the programme ‘Irrational Behaviour in Organisations’,” continues Kets de Vries, “but my colleagues just laughed me down. Nonetheless, the Challenge of Leadership was always an experiment in helping senior managers understand the role that emotions play in business.”

The experiment has now been proven to work by 514 participants over two and a half decades. Simon Thomson, for example, attended the programme in 2010 as part of his company’s long-term succession plan – and by the time he finished the fourth and final five-day module nearly a year later, the press release announcing his appointment as CEO was ready to go out.

More importantly, he insists, the life-changing effects have been long lasting – “an inbuilt alteration of my psyche”.

This comes as no surprise to Kets de Vries. At a recent event, a member of the first Challenge of Leadership class approached him and announced: “You were the man who helped me to be less of a micro-manager, start my own business and make me rich, and get closer to my son.” Hundreds of other alumni have landed their ideal job and found personal happiness. According to Kets de Vries, one even managed to get pregnant after years of trying for a baby! “The participants tell me that the learning is 60% personal and only 40% professional,” he explains. “And the theme of work-life balance runs throughout the entire programme.”

Marina Jigalova-Ozkan is a case in point. Since completing the programme in 2014, she says she makes time to work from home and to see friends, carefully blocking parts of her schedule with non-work activities. And that more relaxed attitude to relationships, albeit combined with a stricter attitude to timing, has also reaped dividends at work. “The programme helped me to understand that my relationships with my team didn’t have to be so formal,” she explains. “To be a good leader you have to be someone people want to work with, rather than for.”

“When you’re at the top, you don’t always get quality feedback at work”

Unlike Thomson, Jigalova-Ozkan was already leading a large organisation when she enrolled. As Managing Director of The Walt Disney Company, Russia, she’d read many of Kets de Vries’s many books on leadership and wasn’t looking for promotion so much as transformation. “When you’re at the top, you don’t get quality feedback at work,” she says. “At INSEAD, Manfred ensures that you get feedback on many levels. It isn’t just an ordinary 360 exercise.”

“In fact, it’s a 720 exercise,” jokes Kets de Vries. “The instruments I’ve created for the Challenge of Leadership draw feedback from family members and friends, as well as colleagues.” In addition, participants have to be prepared to become “live case studies” and explore their major concerns with other senior executives. At the same time, they have to learn to listen, which can be pretty exhausting for someone used to doing all the talking.

“My philosophy is to do anything that works,” explains Kets de Vries. “I don’t like psychological ideologies. But the discussions touch on childhood legacies, using the methods of developmental psychology and group psychotherapy to reach a deeper level of understanding. In a very short time, people discover multiple ways of looking at themselves and their issues.”

The international make-up of the programme is particularly important in multiplying these perspectives. “The diversity of life experiences definitely widened my horizons,” says Thomson. “My class included participants from Australia, Belgium, France, Kazakhstan, Latin America, Russia and South Africa. It was a really good mix… but, thanks to the wine ordered by the Russians when we went out to celebrate my birthday I had the biggest restaurant bill of my life!”

“The twenty-five year experiment continues”

Over the last 25 years, Kets de Vries’s thinking has had a major influence. Psychological, emotional, and social factors have become hot topics that generate great interest in new fields, such as behavioural economics and behavioural finance. Meanwhile, “soft” topics such as organisational behaviour and authentic leadership are continuing to gain ground in management curricula worldwide.

Small wonder that many business schools have copied the methods developed through the Challenge of Leadership, while INSEAD has become the largest practitioner of group coaching in the world – with one of the biggest portfolios of leadership programmes on the Executive Education market. In addition, the Executive Master in Consulting and Coaching for Change that developed out of the Challenge of Leadership programme has been a great success, and is now delivered in both France and in Singapore. Furthermore, some of the techniques pioneered by the Challenge of Leadership are about to be integrated into INSEAD’s number-one-ranked MBA programme.

All in all, since 1991, leadership has changed, 514 participants’ lives have changed and leadership education itself has changed. But what about the programme? “We added a fourth module in Singapore, when INSEAD opened its campus there,” answers Kets de Vries. “It has been a form of ‘quality control’ – a session assessing whether the participants’ good intentions for change are really put into practice. Also, we’re constantly innovating with our 360-degree instruments and experimenting with various ways of communicating between the sessions to keep participants on track.”

Other than that, the basic principles are the same. “But the twenty-five-year experiment continues,” says Kets de Vries. “The Challenge of Leadership is still a very idiosyncratic and experimental programme with a more ‘clinical’ approach than any other.”

Places are more in demand than ever too. After all, the programme runs only once a year for one highly international class of about 21 senior executives, all of whom Kets de Vries interviews personally by phone or videoconference. “My only regret,” he says, “is that there still aren’t enough senior women to make up half the class. And it’s a shame there’s so much self-selection. I don’t think that the people who may really need this programme, the Genghis Khans of this world, apply.”

Somehow, though, you get the feeling that he has these issues covered. Genghis Khan himself would be no match for the indomitable and ever-wise Kets de Vries!