The Bivalent Leadership Style

14 Pages Posted: 3 Mar 2015

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

Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries

INSEAD - Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise

Date Written: March 3, 2015


Starting with a case example, this article introduces the notion of the bivalent leadership style, illustrating the behavior of people who live in a world where everything is either “good” or “bad.” It is suggested that this particular Weltanschauung will harm relationships and limit a person’s understanding of the world. In addition, such “splitting” behavior can be highly contagious in that people who possess this leadership style will create intense strife and polarized thinking, possibly driving the people they are in contact with crazy. The article also suggests that splitting is a common human behavior pattern. As a defense mechanism, it will always be present in human nature. The suggestion is made that splitting originates in childhood and can be attributed to the way parents deal with their children. The bivalent leadership style will be related to insecure or disrupted attachment behavior patterns — bearing in mind that attachment behavior is the template of all human relationships. This all-or-nothing thinking can be viewed as a developmental failure of a person’s mental apparatus to integrate the positive and negative qualities of the self and others. The proposition is made that people will resort to this way of thinking when they do not possess customary coping mechanisms and are unable to handle the stress that accompanies highly complex situations. The article also highlights the challenges of coaching people with a bivalent leadership style. Frequently, these individuals will drive their coaches crazy just as they do with their colleagues and direct reports. The challenge is to make them see that the people they deal with possess both good and bad qualities. To enable progress, an executive coach or psychotherapist needs to handle the transference and counter-transference patterns between the client and coach.

Keywords: Bivalent Leadership Style, Splitting, Binary Thinking, Defense Mechanism, Contagious Behavior, Tolerating Ambiguity, Transference, Counter-transference

Suggested Citation

Kets de Vries, Manfred F.R., The Bivalent Leadership Style (March 3, 2015). INSEAD Working Paper No. 2015/20/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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