The High Dream of Leadership

Conflict  is a natural part of the life of groups and within this it seems inevitable that leaders will be attacked. I know that I have attacked the leader of groups and organisations I have been part of; and as a leader, I have been attacked myself. It  goes with the territory and it has been said that attacks on the leader are to be welcomed as a sign of life in the group – if the leader isn’t being attacked then people really don’t care much about the group. What is at the deepest level of these attacks? I believe it has to do with, what Arnold Mindell calls, the high dream.

The most interesting theories on leadership attack come from the field of psychodynamics. They suggest that attacks arise from the processes of introjection, and projection. Kets de Vries suggests that followers “project their fantasies onto their leader, interpret everything leaders do in the light of their self-created image of them, and fatally seduce leaders into believing that they are in fact the illusory creatures the followers made them”. This sets up a dynamic where the followers are expecting the leader to fulfil their dream image; the leader starts to believe that they are this dream figure; and both leader and follower are in fact living a dream and not a reality. Arnold Mindell has described this as a process of being “dreamed up”.

There is also a tendency these days with the whole cult of leadership in management circles to over identify with the what are seen as the good qualities of leadership, such as vision, inspiration and charisma. Those in leadership positions who are not seen as being “good” leaders tend to be disowned as leaders altogether, being described instead as tyrants and despots. This is a phenomenon that Barbara Kellerman has termed “Hitler’s ghost”.

Among the qualities that are expected of an ideal leader are:

  • The ability to inspire through vision, charisma and setting an example
  • Integrity displayed through being trustworthy and authentic
  • Drive and determination to see things through
  • The ability to build community and maintain it
  • Being self-aware, centred and reflective
  • Being supportive of the development of their followers
  • Having a desirable ideology and values

A pretty tall order, I think you will agree. Although it may be possible to fulfil these expectations, some of the time or some of them for considerable periods, there are going to be disappointments. At some point, the leader is going to show their human side (as distinct from the super-human expectations) and the dream is going to become tarnished. Once that starts to happen, the search begins for the other qualities that were there all along and that did not fit with the dream image of the ideal leader.

At the same time, the leader is conscious that they are no longer fulfilling this ideal and begins to have doubts and self-criticisms. They isolate themselves and, are in turn, isolated by their erstwhile followers. The dream that they had internalised is no longer true and resentment sets in. Drive and determination start to be seen as being autocratic and controlling; charisma is seen as narcissism; when the leader takes time to be reflective, they are seen as self-interested.

This occurs as a natural consequence of placing all of a groups dreams and expectations on the shoulders of one individual. In a way they are being set up to fail and it is only a matter of time before the attack comes. A group that is prepared to look at the dynamic of the relationship between the dream of the leader and the reality of fulfilling the dream can have far more realistic expectations of their leader and can share the responsibility of leadership more widely.

Tim Spalding

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