From Know Thyself to Be Thyself. Proust Questionnaire first step to enlightenment

April 29, 2015

By: Rachel Catanach​​​​​​

Every CEO should have a go at answering the Proust Questionnaire. You know the one. It forms the basis of Vanity Fair’s inside back page and has questions like: What is your greatest fear? Which words or phrases do you most overuse? Which talent would you most like to have? What is your motto? What is your greatest regret? Which historical figure do you most identify with? If you weren’t a CEO, what would you want to be?

The story goes that Proust was given the questionnaire by his friend Antoinette, daughter of the future French President Felix Faure. Apparently, at the time it was a popular device used by English families to understand better the character and aspirations of the taker.

So why should CEOs take the test? Great CEOs are multi-dimensional. Their stories are rich tapestries that include both the tribulations and the trials they have experienced along the ladder of success. At the same time, great CEOs are absolutely clear about what they stand for. Their personal equity can often be summarized in one word.

Take Alibaba’s Jack Ma for example. Often heralded as a role model for the new breed of CEOs, Jack Ma is a great story-teller. He combines self-deprecation with an authenticity that is both disarming and engaging.

While not everyone can be Jack Ma, completing the Proust Questionnaire is a simple way for CEOs to start thinking about what they really stand for and what makes them tick. Far from being the CEO equivalent of the Cosmo quiz, the questionnaire is a first step for CEOs to understand their own personality better and how it may be impacting their company’s culture and performance. Of course, it doesn’t replace rigorous psychological testing but the diverse set of questions does allow a broader characterization to be gleaned than the traditional leadership survey.

A new study by Stanford University’s Charles A. O’Reilly III and his colleagues found that an organization’s culture tends to reflect the personality of its CEO and has a significant impact on firm-wide performance. The study, which used data from respondents in 32 high-technology companies, showed that culture is subsequently related to a broad set of organizational outcomes including a firm’s financial performance, reputation, analysts’ stock recommendations, and employee attitudes.

“Know thyself” is one of the tenets on which Western philosophy is founded. But knowing thyself is only half the story. Oscar Wilde was very prescient when he said, “Know thyself was written over the portal of the antique world. Over the portal of the new world, ‘Be thyself’ shall be written.”

In the Internet Age, the ability to “Be thyself”, to be authentic, has never been more important. For CEOs, authenticity is critical. It is the way they earn trust with their stakeholders, particularly their employees. Being thyself is difficult without knowing thyself.

Given this, taking an hour out to complete the Proust questionnaire and reflect on what their motto is and what they would be doing if they weren’t a CEO, seems like a great investment for CEOs. If nothing else, it at least provides their Corporate Comms team with some great content fodder for executive profiling!

Rachel Catanach is the senior partner, senior vice president and managing director of FleishmanHillard Hong Kong. You can reach her at Rachel.Catanach@fleishman.com.