Laura Weis with permission
Source: Laura Weis with permission

There has been a recent interest in why leaders fail and derail. Many of the accounts have been based on psychiatric concepts especially the personality disorders (Dotlich & Cairo, 2003; Furnham, 2015). So how do the Freudians explain leadership failure and derailment?

The most articulate and productive psychoanalytic account of leadership failure has been called the Inner Theatre Approach pioneered by Manfred Kets de Vries (2006ab, 2012, 2013, 2014).  The concept of inner theatres relates to question: ‘what are the things that motivate you?’ or ‘what do you feel most passionately about?’ 

In ‘The Leader on the Couch’, Kets de Vries (2006a ) defines our inner theatre  as “the stage on which the major themes that define the person are played out” (p.12). Kets de Vries argues that to get a better understanding of ourselves, we must explore our inner theatre, and pay attention to our fundamental wishes, desires, and fantasies.

Freud focused on human unconsciousness and how it impacts our perception of reality and the reasons behind our own actions in regards to the tripartite personality. The impact of unconscious drivers on our everyday life is profound, and it has an important role to play in the work environment.

Beyond the “curtain of our inner theatre” is a “vibrant tragicomic play” being acted upon our inner stage, with the key characters representing our loved ones, those we’ve feared, hated, and admired. These internal figures have a strong influence on the development of our values, beliefs, and attitudes which create the foundation of our personality, preferred leadership styles, and actions.

The inner play, it is argued,  has a large impact on how we form friendships, our artistic expressions, and also how we form relationships with our bosses, colleagues, and subordinates as well as how we make decisions.

Kets de Vries suggests that our inner theatres develop through nature-nurture interactions. These patterns are not fixed, but ‘rewiring’ occurs throughout our lifetime in response to developmental factors we are exposed to, especially our early experiences.

His theory goes like this: Motivational needs systems (MNS) determine the uniqueness of our internal theatre; these are the rational forces behind perceivably irrational behaviours. It is the interaction between our MNS and environmental factors (especially human factors) that define our uniqueness, manifesting mental schema that guide our relationships with others. These mental representations of ourselves, others, and relations help us understand all aspects of reality.

MNS are determined by three forces: innate learned response patters, role of significant caretakers, and the extent to which the individual attempts to recreate positive emotional states experienced in infancy/childhood. Mental schema or ‘templates’ emerge through their interactions throughout life. These create symbolic model scenes and are the ‘scripts’ of our inner production.

Two other higher-level systems influence the work situations more profoundly: the attachment/affiliation need system and the exploration/assertion need system:

(a) Need for affiliation/attachment derives from the humanness revealed in seeking relationships. This need for attachment can be extrapolated to groups, where we desire affiliation. Both serve an emotional balancing role and attribute to a person’s self-worth and self-esteem.

(b) The Need for Exploration/assertion is manifested soon after birth where prolonged states of arousal occur in infants with the discovery of novelty and its consequences. This continues into adulthood because striving, competing, and seeking mastery are fundamental characteristics of the human personality.

Whilst the person’s inner script is determined by MNS, the themes of it develop over time and reflect the pre-eminence of our inner wishes that contribute to our unique personality style.

These are known as Core Conflict Relationship Themes (CCRT). CCRT develop over time with our MSN and take a prominent role inside us. They make a vital contribution to who we are and how we respond to others. Our basic wishes are reflected in our life scripts, and the CCRT adds the nuances and shading to make us unique. We bring our rose-tinted glasses, shaded by the CCRT, to work which govern our reactions and expectations, which can differ from reality.

Our basic wishes influence our scripts which shape our relationships and  determine the way we believe others will respond to us and how we should respond to others. These wishes include being loved, noticed, understood etc. We take these wishes to our workplace and project them onto others, then anticipate their reactions. In turn, we react to the perceived reaction, not the actual one. A leader’s dominant style derives from his primary CCRT. The life-scripts drawn as children are not applicable to adults and thus cause a dizzying merry-go-round that takes affected leaders into a self-destructive cycle of repetition.

By exploring the inner theatre, the leader can revisit the past and draw parallels between past relationships and current behaviour. This gives way to ‘relational confusion’ between time and place. Transferential patterns are when we use behaviours of the past to solve problems of the present. This can provide insight into way some executives act and react the way they do to given situations.

Through interactions with family, teachers, and other authority figures, behaviour patterns develop that become, in effect, the manifestation of a cognitive-behavioural ‘software’ for our computer-like minds. When we are reminded (or cued) of a trigger to a behavioural pattern, i.e. meeting someone who acts like our nagging auntie, we will (without awareness) react as if this person was our nagging auntie. It is the act of displacing earlier thoughts, ideas, or fantasies onto another individual. Transference can erase the psychological boundary between past and present, causing our scripts of the past to replay and govern how we act today.

The leader, he argues, who embraces introspection is one that will be more successful. The journey into the dark of your inner theatre and be frightening, but it will reveal where they want to go, what they want to achieve, and (most likely) how they wish to proceed.

By using a 360° feedback instrument, executives can answer the important, unanswered questions of ‘what are your strengths and weaknesses?’ However, without exploring the inner theatre, without an understanding of the dramas and script that play continually, it is impossible to understand behaviour and character traits holistically, let alone how these impact on leadership style and how to change them.

Whilst everyone has an inner theatre, the books, research, and literature on this topic are generally concerned with the theatre of the executives due to the power and influence they wield. Dysfunctional behaviour thus occurs when we try to keep the curtain closed; yet the show must go on after all.

To be an effective leader, you need to know what you are doing and what you are all about: what are you good and bad at? If you are not good at something, how can you work on that or find someone who can complement or help you?

We live in an age of ‘post-heroic leadership’ where we look to individuals to make all the correct changes; we are waiting for a messiah to come and save us. Change is not made by individuals; real change is driven by teams of people.

It is generally understood that a certain degree of narcissism is necessary for leadership success. Therefore to understand life in organisations, it is essential to understand narcissism.

Basic group assumptions, social defences, and toxic organisational ideals don’t materialise from nowhere: they have a history. Repetition of phenomena such as neurotic organisations imply the existence of shared scripts in the inner theatre of power holders.

Organisations tend to reflect their leaders as they externalise and act out their production on the stage that is the organisation. These inner dramas develop into corporate culture, structures, and specific patterns of decision-making. Through this, they ‘institutionalise’ their inner theatre, allowing it to play out even after they’re gone.

Kets de Vries (2012, 2013) has written many interesting papers about specific issues and syndromes. In all his work he stresses the importance of self-knowledge and insight. For instance in a paper entitled “What do executives want out of life?” he suggests people ask themselves some searching questions:

What do you want out of life? What does success actually mean to you? Do you have an idea where this desire to be successful comes from? List what you perceive as important to feeling successful in order of priority. What do you need to do in order to be successful? Do you feel that you have to pay a price in order to be successful? What would you be willing to give up in pursuing what you have defined as success? How far are you prepared to go to acquire wealth? Would you be prepared to do things you hate in order to make tons of money? Would you be prepared to sacrifice your health and/or your principles in order to be successful? Do you need an audience to recognize your success? Who would that audience be? What would you do in life if you couldn’t fail?

The Freudian account of human behaviour is always interesting and different. The objections to the psychoanalytic ideas are well known but, whatever their scientific status, always makes one stop to reflect and ponder.


Dotlich, D & Cairo, P. (2003). Why CEOs Fail. New York: Jossey Bass

Furnham, A. (2015). Backstabbers and Bullies. London: Bloomsbury.

Furnham, A., Richards, S., & Paulhus, D. (2013). The Dark Triad: A 10 year review. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 7, 199-216

Kets de Vries, M. (2006a). The Leader on the Couch: A Clinical Approach to Changing People and Organizations. John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Kets de Vries, M. (2006b). The Spirit of Despotism. Human Relations, 59, 195-220.

Kets de Vries (2012) Star Performers: Paradoxes wrapped up in Enigmas. Organisational Dynamics, 41, 143-182.

Kets de Vries, M.F.R. (2013). Are you a mentor, a helper or a rescuer? Organisational Dynamics, 42(4), 239 – 247

Kets de Vries, M.F.R. (2014). The psycho-path to disaster coping with SOB executives. Organisational Dynamics, 43, 17 - 26


About the Author

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D.

Adrian Furnham, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at University College London and the Norwegian Business School.

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