Ships in the Night: How to Unite Warring Executives - Ideas for Leaders
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Ships in the Night: How to Unite Warring Executives

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Executives often flounder, unable to execute a strategic vision and lead their people as they battle other executives over conflicting goals and priorities. Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries shows how group coaching instills a team culture among executives that breaks the deadlock, creates alignment, and helps them fulfill their roles as leaders.


Many executives struggle to accomplish their mandate as executives: aligning the people from top to bottom in the organization behind the goals and actions that ensure the company’s success. The problem is that executives are often like ships in the night, pursuing their own individual agendas that often conflict with the agendas and priorities of other executives. The result is chaos and ineffectiveness, which ripples throughout the entire organization. 

Using a case study from the petroleum industry, INSEAD professor Manfred Kets de Vries demonstrates how the group coaching methodology can instil a team culture that unites executives and helps them put the company first. 

A global energy company developed a strategy to transform the company in light of changes in the industry that were hurting its performance. However, the executives of the company, who distrusted each other and were focused more on turf fights for resources than working together, were failing badly in implementing the strategy. 

These divisions among executives were exacerbated by the arrival of Jim as new Chief Knowledge Officer and John, the new Vice President of Technology, Products and Services. Jim, a brilliant professor, proved to be difficult to work with and very disorganized; John was on loan from a major shareholder and was distrusted as a potential spy for the shareholder. 

The CEO of the company turned to the group coaching methodology to try to bring order to the chaos. Over a series of sessions, a group coach used a variety of techniques to helped the executives gain awareness of how others saw them (a surprise to many), how they contributed to the chaos and ineffectiveness through their action, and how they were misinterpreting the attitudes and objectives of other executives. For example, the coach began the sessions by asking the executives to create a self-portrait that would convey to the group who they were in terms of what was in their heads and their heart and in terms of their past, present, work, and leisure. Each executive then sat in the “hot seat” to explain the self-portrait to the groups and get constructive feedback as well. Eventually, the executives would put together post-session action plans to apply the learnings of the sessions to their behaviour.

Based on observations of thousands of executives in group coaching interventions, Kets de Vries identifies eight psychological processes that induce “tipping points for change.” These forces for change are:

  1. Cathartic experiences. In group interventions, executives have an opportunity to surface to the other executives in the organization their repressed feelings and fears.
  2. Mutual identification. Listening to the life stories of others, executives realize they are not alone in facing challenges and confusion.
  3. Psychodynamic lens. Executives learn to see the psychological reasoning that explains why they do what they do—for example, they might act based on what worked in the past even if such actions are no longer appropriate or effective.
  4. Willingness to experiment. With greater self-understanding and insight, and buoyed by the encouragement of others in the group, executives are more prepared to try new things, to change in ways they had never anticipated.
  5. Vicarious learning. As they listen to the challenges and triumphs of others, executives are given role models and behaviors that you want to emulate.
  6. Real community. Sharing emotional experiences brings people together, giving them a sense of belonging that serves as both catalyst and support for change.
  7. Collective learning. Group coaches avoid lecturing, facilitating instead a group discussion through which everyone offers and accept advice from others.
  8. Altruistic motive. In the group coaching session, executives help each other for the sake of helping—which is selfless and yet boosts their own sense of self-respect and well-being.


One-on-one coaching is not as effective as group coaching to help executives or members of any kind of team better understand what they are doing wrong, how others see them, and how they mistakenly see others. People are less likely to learn how to work together by dispersing into individual training sessions. To fully benefit from the group coaching methodology, however, the following steps are recommended:

  • Begin by interviewing all the executives. Surface the issues, gauge their willingness to change, measure their authentic interest in making the organization a better place to work. Identify the resisters, and those more likely to model progress.
  • Make a follow-up ‘contract’. Describe what individuals will work on after the sessions to turn the lessons of the intervention into behavioral change. Schedule follow-up sessions to ensure executives are fulfilling their commitments. 
  • Use two facilitators. Two facilitators will have a more complete view of what is happening in the group, and also gives facilitators the opportunity to slip in and out of two roles: active participant and passive observer.   
  • Engage the participants in a ‘life’ case study. In addition to ice-breakers such as the self-portrait exercise, all executives must spend time on the “hot seat,” revealing their life story and experiences to the group. Feedback instruments, such as instruments for 360-degree feedback, gird this self-revelation process.

From expertly facilitated group session, once divided executives emerge as members of a unified learning community, helping each other break destructive behavior patterns and laying the foundation for implementing and executing the corporate strategy in their charge. 



  Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries’ profile at INSEAD
  INSEAD Executive Education profile at IEDP


Vision without Action is a Hallucination: Group Coaching and Strategy Implementation. Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries. Organizational Dynamics (January – March 2015). 

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Idea conceived

March 1, 2015

Idea posted

Sep 2020
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