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:: By Carrie M. Golus, AB’91, AM’93

:: Photography by Dan Dry

:: Syllabus

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Investigations ::

Behind every leader: an ego

In Theories of Leadership, Marvin Zonis reminds GSB students that whatever their leadership style, it’s personal.

photo: Marvin Zonis

Marvin Zonis

With its comfortable executive chairs and muted walls—green and pink, or perhaps sage and salmon—the classroom could be anywhere in Corporate America. According to a sign outside the doors, it’s the Goldman Sachs Lecture Hall. According to the University time schedules, it’s Room 325 at the Graduate School of Business Hyde Park Center, where Marvin Zonis is about to begin a Theories of Leadership class. Zonis, a professor emeritus of business administration who has run executive training programs on leadership at major corporations, has also served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of State and the National Security Council.  

“Don’t forget your name tags,” Zonis says into a well-concealed microphone. The sound quality is so good, after a few minutes the artificial amplification is unnoticeable.

By 1:35 about 60 students have sunk into the ergonomic chairs; two-thirds display their GSB–issued name tags on the table in front of them. The dress code is not quite up to business casual: one student wears a sweater with a torn collar, another a gray University of Chicago hoodie. There’s only one suit in the room—dark blue with a red power tie—but it’s not the professor’s: Zonis wears gray pants and a black blazer over a black shirt.

Today’s topic is narcissism. “What we’re doing in these three weeks,” he explains, “is the three ways leaders inject emotions into the workplace. You can’t have leadership and followership without powerful emotions. That’s the central argument of the course. What are the appropriate emotions, and how do you get them into the workplace?”

First Zonis reviews charisma. Last week he showed a video on Mary Kay Ash, founder of Mary Kay cosmetics. “If she can be perceived as charismatic, anybody can be perceived as charismatic,” he says. The class laughs. “She was not charismatic because she was beautiful, charming, or spoke well. But for the people for whom she wanted to be charismatic,” the legion of saleswomen who aspired to pink Cadillacs, “she was perfect.”

Zonis, not short on charisma himself, has the attention of every student in the room. “Charisma is not universal,” he says. “The question is not ‘Is someone charismatic?’ It’s ‘Is she perceived as charismatic, or attributed charisma?’ Each of you can be perceived as charismatic by your followers—a magic leader, someone who is perceived as special in some way.”

“What are the sources of charisma?” he asks rhetorically. With black marker, he sketches out Freud’s model of the mind on the white board: “id—aggression, sex,” “superego—morality, justice,” and “ego—rationality, dependence.” Zonis, a trained psychoanalyst, cites the article “Charisma: Its Varieties, Preconditions and Consequences” by sociologist Charles Camic, AM’75, PhD’79, which argues that certain people symbolically satisfy each of these needs.

“Who symbolically satisfies our sexual impulses?” he asks, nonrhetorically. The class is silent. Zonis turns to a dark-haired man in a white button-down. “Yo, Jody, who is it?”

“Um, our parents?” he guesses. The other students chortle.

“I was thinking of Marilyn Monroe,” Zonis says. “For me.”

“I must have misunderstood the question,” Jody says. They chortle again, harder.

Zonis runs through the white-board list, taking suggestions: aggression—Osama bin Laden, football players; rationality—Milton Friedman; dependency—George W. Bush; justice—Pope John Paul II, Bobby Kennedy. “People who satisfy others’ needs, actually or symbolically, are perceived as charismatic,” he says. “If you are in a position of leadership, you’re in the position of satisfying other people’s needs, not just in reality, but maybe more importantly, symbolically.

“People have lots of symbolic needs. They don’t go to work just to make money. There are a lot of other gratifications that people want out of work, which you have to satisfy if you are wise as a leader.”

At 2:45 the class takes a 15-minute break. Zonis returns sans jacket, uncovering the microphone pinned to his shirtfront.

Now he turns to the central text of the day: The Separate Developmental Lines of Narcissism and Object Love by Heinz Kohut, who is, he says, “more useful than Freud.”  According to Kohut, Zonis explains, people are born whole, with a strong sense of self-esteem, but that confidence is inevitably eroded during childhood.

“A narcissistic wound,” he says, defining a key term. “I love that expression. A narcissistic wound—a wound to your narcissism. Can anybody think of the last narcissistic wound they experienced?” He pauses. “And could they share that with us?”

His comic timing elicits a laugh but no volunteers. Then the man in the sharp suit makes a misstep: he turns to whisper to a friend in the row behind. In a flash, Zonis calls on him: “Get busy, think of one now.”

Zonis’s victim turns the same salmon color as the walls. “I don’t have to think hard. I had a few in the last week.”

“I think since you’re wearing a suit, I know what you’re talking about,” Zonis says. The other students laugh knowingly; as second-years, many of them also had recent job interviews.

Zonis stops to choose a personal story that isn’t too revealing and finally settles on a rude e-mail he’d received that day from a former student. “I was furious,” he says. “Every narcissistic wound, according to Kohut, is followed by rage.” Zonis turns back to the man in the suit, calling him “the angriest guy in the room right now, because he’s had more than one this week.” The student’s face, which had just about regained its normal pallor, turns salmon again.

“What’s any of this got to do with leadership?” Zonis asks. “Number one, as I said to you before, the workplace is where we do achievement and mastery. You have to recruit people who care about achievement and mastery. That has to be their self-object”—Kohut’s term for something adults identify with to rebuild their self-esteem. If a worker doesn’t care, Zonis emphasizes, “there’s nothing you can do to help him out. You gotta get people who really care.”

Aaron, a floppy-haired man in a blue button-down, wants to know, “How do you instill that emotion?”

“The first thing to do is take stock.” Zonis quickly draws a chart, which he credits to Jack Welch, former CEO of General Electric. Across the top he writes “with the program” and “not with the program,” and along the side “high performer” and “low performer.”

“Low performers who are not with the program, they’re out tomorrow,” he says. “High performers who are with the program, you promote. Low performers who are with the program, you give them three strikes” before they’re out.

Zonis then points to the trickiest combination: high performers who are not with the program. “One strike,” he says. “These guys are the most important to get out. Because everybody gets the idea that you’ll be handsomely rewarded whether you’re with the program or not, as long as you’re a high performer. This is what kills companies.”

He strides back to the center of the room. “The second thing is, you gotta help people create meaningful work—either by creating work which is meaningful or helping people see the meaning in the work they do,” he says. “This is really hard.

“And that’s why I told you the story of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” earlier in the quarter. The point of that book,” he says, “was that taking care of a motorcycle is as meaningful as painting the Mona Lisa, worshipping the Lord, getting a PhD—whatever you guys think is meaningful. You read it, and you’re convinced! And once you’re convinced by that, then you know that sweeping a floor can be meaningful.”

“Can I talk to Aaron’s point?” asks Tato in a soft Spanish accent, returning to getting employees to care. Over the summer, he explains, he worked at a consulting firm that analyzed cold callers. “Companies that tried to motivate their employees via big bonuses didn’t get the best performance,” he says. “The best-performing companies convinced their employees that by picking up the phone, they were truly helping the other person, thanks to the product or service they were selling.”

“That’s a great example,” Zonis says. “Has anybody here ever done sales that was cold call?” Three or four students, including Aaron and the narcissistically wounded man in the suit, admit to it. “I could never do it,” Zonis says. “I get so hurt when I get rejected.” Once again, the students snicker. “I’m serious,” he insists. “Even though—see, Tato’s point is really important—even if I were convinced that I were doing them a great favor, that I really believe in this product, I couldn’t do it.”

“Try doing it at WorldCom,” jokes the wounded man. This time, having exposed his wound himself, he’s only slightly salmon.


Marvin Zonis’s syllabus for Theories of Leadership begins with a 6th-century quote from Sun Tzu: “So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know your enemies but do know yourself, you will win one and lose one; if you do not know your enemies nor yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”

Weekly themes for the course have titles like “Political Leadership: the Shah of Iran, “Political Leadership: Adolf Hitler,” “The ‘Feminization’ of Leadership,” and “Are leaders necessary? How would we know?” The reading list includes Zonis’s own Majestic Failure: The Fall of the Shah of Iran (University of Chicago Press, 1991), Walter C. Langer’s The Mind of Adolf Hitler (Basic Books, 1972), Freud’s Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, and numerous articles from business publications.

Theories of Leadership meets Fridays from 1:30 to 4:30 on campus, and Saturdays from 1 to 4 at the Gleacher Center. Grades for the course are based primarily on the take-home midterm exam (40 percent) and a final paper analyzing a specific leader’s style (45 percent). In addition, students must write three one-page essays on specific readings (15 percent).