Death and the Executive: Encounters with the 'Stealth' Motivator

29 Pages Posted: 1 Feb 2014

See all articles by Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries

INSEAD - Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise

Date Written: January 30, 2014


Death anxiety is a primary motivational force that drives much of our behavior. It puts our defenses on high alert, and we make strenuous efforts to repress or deny the unwelcome truth of our inevitable end. The way each of us denies death not only affects life in its broadest sense but also influences the way we behave in organizations. Death anxiety underlies much executive behavior and action. However, traditional motivational theories do not acknowledge the influence of death anxiety on our behavior. Although they attempt to help us better understand employee motivation, they are not sufficiently inclusive. This article takes a clinical lens to explore death anxiety as a motivational force, how it affects behavior in organizations, and how we metabolize the feelings death evokes. In addition, I examine the various ways we deal with our knowledge of death. Some of us go into overdrive in trying to suppress it, while others fall into a state of resignation and depression. To deal with the ultimate narcissistic injury that death represents, we resort to a variety of immortality strategies to create permanent or enduring meaning. Furthermore, from an organizational perspective, three maladaptive responses to death anxiety are explored: the manic defense, succession issues, and the edifice complex.

Keywords: Death Anxiety, Motivation, Stealth Motivator, Narcissistic Injury, Immortality Strategies, Manic Defense, Succession Issues, Edifice Complex

Suggested Citation

Kets de Vries, Manfred F.R., Death and the Executive: Encounters with the 'Stealth' Motivator (January 30, 2014). INSEAD Working Paper No. 2014/11/EFE, Available at SSRN: or

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries (Contact Author)

INSEAD - Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise ( email )

Fontainebleau Cedex, F-77305

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