NEWS14 March 2017

Oliver James on what chief executives can learn from David Bowie

Behavioural science Impact 2017 News UK

UK – Psychologist and author Oliver James urged the audience at the MRS annual conference, Impact 2017, to embrace their multiple personas, just as the late David Bowie did. 


We all have multiple personas, said James (pictured) – and that doesn't just mean that we adjust when we meet different people, but that we actually have a number of different versions of ourselves. "To a degree we all have multiple personality disorder – it shouldn't be called a disorder," he said.

He argued that there is no genome for our psychology – that is, our intelligence or personality – but that we are shaped by patterns of nurture. 

He used the example of David Bowie and his numerous stage personas (which includes David Bowie himself, since Bowie was a creation of David Jones) to illustrate this. Bowie used personas such as Ziggy Stardust to cope with his various fears – both on stage and in real life – and on occasion, James explained, this persona came to the fore to such an extent that Bowie would only respond if he was addressed as Ziggy Stardust. 

James also used the example of his young son taking part in a football academy trial to illustrate the power of adopting a different personality to approach a challenge. James’ son simultaneously pretended that it was ‘just a normal game', but also adopted a ruthless ‘Vlad the Impaler’ personality to expose the weaknesses of his rivals, James said. 

This approach is useful in the business world, he explained. 

"Some of my clients are chief executives and they have to perform as part of their role, but they may not be suited to it," he said. He explained that he advises them to find real experiences – through interrogating their past personas from childhood – and transmute these across to their current challenge. 

"Our personas have roots in childhood experiences," he said. "They relate to your position in your family – were you the youngest? The oldest? What role did you adopt to compete with your siblings for love and material resources?"

He urged the audience to ask themselves who they were being at any one time, and whether they had a choice in that; and to be mindful of the fact that they are surrounded by other people who also have multiple personalities. 

"If the ‘genes' story isn't actually true then we may have far greater potential to influence our stories than we thought," he said.