Leadership, Projections and Power: Psychoanalytic insights


I have just been elected to a new leadership role, ‘President-Elect’ of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations (www.ispso.org).  Whilst delighted and honoured, this also raises issues about taking up this public leadership role. It made me revisit some earlier work I have done on how leaders project onto others, and how ‘followers’ project on to leaders. Having an understanding of these psycho-social dynamics and constantly reworking them is the essential work for any leader.   This blog is an extract, from the chapter I wrote on ‘Leadership and Diversity’ in my book ‘Leadership a critical text’, and it reflects on my leadership role when Director of Coaching at Lancaster University Management School.

To cite this work: Western, S. (2013). Leadership: A critical text. Sage. pgs 92-100

I write as a white, heterosexual, English male. I carry with me the history, social and cultural meanings, stereotypes, power and privileges and disadvantages, associated with this position. I had ‘working-class’ school education that offered a very poor education.   I dropped out of school and didn’t get to university. I accessed higher education in my thirties and now have a two Masters and PhD, which now adds to my privileged status. This experience gives me a heightened awareness and sensitivity to issues of class, the elitism of education, and less personal experience of issues such as disability.   When working as Director of Coaching at Lancaster University Management School, taking on a role and the title; ‘Dr Simon Western’, I had a heightened awareness of the powerful unconscious projections I received. By projection(s), I use the term in relation to the object relation’s school of psychoanalysis. Projection occurs when powerful feelings are located in another person. It refers to Melanie Klein’s (1959) original work on splitting, projection and introjection. Powerful feelings (often unwanted feelings) are split off from the conscious mind, and can be located in another person. These can be feelings of love, idealisation, or perhaps hatred or envy. For example parents often project their unfulfilled ambitions on their children. An angry boss may project his anger onto his personal assistant, making him/her angry. The boss retains a safe distance from his own rage, and the assistant (if they introject or take in the projection), acts out this anger.

These projections towards an ‘academic’ clashed with the internalised sense of ‘uneducated’ self I had grown up with. These projections arise because of what I represent to others, in my body, personality and role.   Depending on the personal emotional and developmental histories and social location of others, will depend on how they respond to me. This is a two way process a dynamic that is both conscious and unconscious. I have observed that these projections are triggered through five key sources, which I believe are also applicable to leaders working in other contexts

Sources that stimulate Projective Responses’ in leaders

1.     The Institution and Context: In my case this is the University, which carries with it the history of academia and elite knowledge, which I represent in the ‘here and now’ when standing in front of a lecture theatre.   Each leader will have a specific context that ‘speaks through them’

2.     ‘Embodied and Cultural Self’: For example, my whiteness, my sexuality, being British, my accent denoting working class and my region, my maleness,   age, ‘able-body’; each individual carries in their embodied self, a cultural self that stimulates reactions in others.

3.     Personality:   Personality traits, ‘charisma’, quietness, calmness intellectual capability, elements that make us distinctive. Each personality will trigger some people’s feelings in powerful ways,   positive and negative and in others they will have a bland reaction.

4.     Expertise:   I teach Coaching at Masters Level drawing on my psychoanalytic and systemic background. Coaching and therapy can carry the mystique of the ‘shrink’ or of a secular priesthood and with it the fear/curiosity of being able to read the hidden unconscious or people will expect me to be a caring holding figure for them.   The expertise signifies meanings, a physics or maths lecturer will stimulate different reactions, an engineer or nurse different reactions again.

5.     Role Power As Course Director I have the power and authority to assess students, and position power and influence in the lecture theatre, my voice may be given more weight than others. Leaders must recognise power relations, if they are to overcome bias discussions or worse work in ‘silent organizations’ i.e. organizations with employees who speak but say nothing in public of importance or dissent.


Leadership lessons

Leaders and followers should reflect on these five areas when in role at work, to begin to understand what they carry with them, how they use it, what biases they have, and how others react to them.

Coaching lessons

When coaching leaders, try and help them see how the ‘social speaks through us’. How they and their teams, will carry assumptions, perceptions and emotions pending on their personal and social experiences, and project these on others, and introject these from others. Try and raise awareness of this as you coach the leader, in particular with relation to power dynamics.

An extended version of this can be found on Simon Western Academia.edu   http://bit.ly/1EXXscU

and the full version in Leadership a critical text Western S,  Sage 2013,