A new series of TV interviews conducted by clinical psychologist Oliver James reveals Peter Mandelson as a human being. It also lends thumping weight to the notion that high achievers are made by their miserable childhoods . By Jack O'Sullivan
If you want to understand what creates high achievers, then Jesus Christ would make a good case study. He has a background with which many male leaders would identify. An ineffectual father (Joseph) or a largely absent one (God) and a strong-willed, steely mother, who lived through his successes. Bill Clinton, whose father died before he was born and whose mother was a feisty, horse race-loving heroine, a proletarian Queen Mother, would recognise the image. So would Peter Mandelson, one of the subjects in a series of seven interviews with famous individuals, which begin tonight on BBC2. The Chair, produced by the clinical psychologist Oliver James, explores the influence of childhood on the subjects' adult lives. And it is clear from Peter Mandelson's much trailed interview that rejection of his "unambitious" father and his leftist politics, in favour of his tough-minded mother and her father, the Labour moderate, Herbert Morrison, are driving forces in his life.

George Graham, one of the most successful football managers and another of Oliver James's interviewees, is another chip off the Clinton block. The youngest of seven, he was a baby when his father died of TB and he was raised by his mother and older brother, Andy, who worked to keep the family together. From the traumas of childhood (Graham cannot remember getting birthday presents) was born a fierce hunger for success.

Indeed, it is becoming increasingly clear that the foundation of much success in adult life, envied by so many, is often an experience of misery and loss in childhood. It is this that produces drive and it is often an early experience of triumph over adversity, or of survival, that produces the crucial "bounce back" qualities of successful people. Failure does not seem to be part of their vocabulary.

Take, for example, Sir Winston Churchill, perhaps Britain's most respected leader this century. He saw little of his father, the politician Randolph Churchill, who died when he was quite young. And his mother was a distant figure. "He had a horrible time," the writer and psychiatrist Anthony Storr says. "They bundled him off to boarding school at an early age. He wrote pathetic letters home and yet from this experience he gained enough ambition to be a courageous leader."

One in three presidents and prime ministers lost a parent by the age of 14, according to Oliver James. That is far higher than for the general population. A similar figure was found for entrepreneurs during a study published in Business Elites, co-authored by Cary Cooper, Professor of Organisational Psychology at the University of Manchester.

There are also many instances when a parent does not die, but is still, to all intents and purposes, lost, Professor Cooper says. "It may be that a child has been rejected by a parent or separated or the child has had some other significant, loss-related event." Tony Blair would be one such example, says John Adair, author of The Effective Leader Master Class (Picador). "He experienced the trauma of his father having a stroke when he was very young. Here is a case of someone who looks like he has had an easy life, when in fact he has lived through traumatic experiences."

So how do such people go on to be so successful? "They often want to be in control," Oliver James says. "They want to snatch the power over their destiny from perfidious fate. They want never again to be in a situation where they can be vulnerable, powerless and at the mercy of unpredictable events. They want to become the authority figure."

Professor Cooper adds: "These people are not necessarily interested in having power over others. A lot of them are not interested in money. After all, if money was the driving force, many of them could have afforded to retire long ago. These are people who feel they need to keep proving themselves."

The reason, he says, is that many higher achievers, for all their brash self-confidence, are low in self-esteem. "If you are self-content there is no driver." It is a view that recalls the hope once expressed by Paula Yates that her children would all be "happy blobs". It also recalls Anthony Storr's comment that if all the high-achievers were given Prozac, so that their angst-driven ambition disappeared, no one would be left in Parliament, since only someone who was pretty disturbed would put themselves through the required deprivations.

All of this produces a pretty dismal image of achievement, certainly not what most parents would wish for their children. There is a danger that the issue of personal success will fall foul of the psychoanalysts' tendency to pathologise everything and regard every trait as revealing a skeleton in the cupboard. There is, obviously, more to success than childhood trauma.

Manfred Kets de Vries, one of the world's leading experts in the field, distinguishes between two types of achieving adults, those who spring from a happy childhood (constructive narcissists) and those who had a traumatic youth (reactive narcissists). Richard Branson fits the first type, says Dr Kets de Vries, a psychoanalyst based at Insead, the global business school outside Paris. "He is typical of someone loved by parents who trust their children and encourage them." Like so many successful men, a strong mother stood behind him. "She set very high standards. She would tell people when he was a child that Richard was going to be Prime Minister. When he was four, his mother pushed him out of the car and told him to find his own way home. His father was the warm, cuddly one. And Richard had other advantages. His grandfather was a High Court judge. Scott of the Antarctic was a distant relative, giving him a sense of David against Goliath."

Oliver James would place the actress Julie Walters in a similar category. She has achieved well, not as a way of coping with past distress but because she happens to enjoy doing what many people value. "I had the feeling that she was not a 'me me' person," James says. "She had very good relationships with her parents and was not pushed or driven to do what she does."

In contrast to those individuals, Dr Kets de Vries contrasts the "reactive narcissists". Pierre Cardin is an example. "His parents were Italian immigrants to France, not a favoured group. So he was known as a little macaroni. As a result he has spent his whole life trying to prove himself as a big macaroni."

There are also cases of the "Montecristo syndrome", after The Count of Montecristo, Alexandre Dumas' tale of obsessive revenge. "Hitler fits this category. He had a very abusive father, a petty bureaucrat, and a young mother who was constantly beaten up by his father. Hitler could not prevent this. So he got angry but couldn't do anything about it, an impotence that drove his ambition. He ended up finding scapegoats and dividing the world into two kinds - the good and the bad."

Most of the research into achievers, Dr Kets de Vries acknowledges, has been focused on men, partly because women are only now breaking into big business, where most studies are conducted. But some models are emerging. Just as a strong mother often lies behind a successful man, so a strong father may explain a trail-blazing woman. "Margaret Thatcher is an example," he says. "She speaks so much about her father, but her mother is almost never mentioned." But successful women are not as easy to categorise as men. "Take Coco Chanel, for example. Her father was a most unreliable father, who liked women. And her mother was a doormat. So little Coco decided that she did not want to be like her mother and that she could not rely on men. She had to make a success of life for herself."

Dr Kets de Vries is hopeful that women may, in future, offer models for achievement that are healthier than those of most of their male counterparts. The message from the shrinks at the moment is that high achievement may be a cause of envy, but should not be mistaken for a happy souln

The first person in 'The Chair' is Vanessa Feltz of 'The Big Breakfast', on BBC2 tonight at 7.10.