Psychoanalysis of leadership: not just for Freud’s couch

empty sofa

By Dr. Jan Lüdert

Psychoanalytical theory has been overlooked when it comes to thinking about leadership. In this post, I invite you to consider the role psychoanalysis can play in understanding leaders and leadership.

There are three basic pillars of psychoanalytical theory that speak to questions of leadership: All individuals, whether considered leaders or not, are unconsciously motivated, their early experiences shape their psychology, and their functioning reflects how they integrate aptitudes, life circumstances and experiences from childhood into adulthood.

Observing a leader’s character

Unconscious motivation, early experiences and functioning are not hidden away, but show up in a person’s everyday behavior and character patterns. For instance, how an individual’s ideals and values guide their life and offers them a framework for action (the domain of character integrity), consider the level and means by which they pursue life goals (the domain of ambition), and how a person forms and sustains relationships with others (the domain of relatedness) (Renshon 2014).

By considering these character domains, it becomes clear how psychoanalytical thinking brings us closer to understanding how leaders use their authority and power, what the basis and underlying purpose of their initiatives are, and how their ambition to lead relates to their identity.

It’s worth asking whether a leader would have pursued a plan of action with vigor if not for having been modeled such grit by parental figures. It’s reasonable to ask why another leader in reverts to rigid thinking in interpersonal interactions, and specifically how his/her life circumstances may have contributed to undeveloped defense mechanisms.

In essence, leadership traits do not spring out of nowhere: they are founded, and have effects, long before an individual seeks a leadership role. And it is psychoanalytical theory that can help make sense (if necessarily incomplete and tentative) of a leader’s developmental and motivational patterns.

Uncovering a leader’s choices

Whether or not an individual is aware, their decisions for one leadership style over another is a reflection of their unconscious motivations, past relationships (often with primary attachment figures), and developmental factors.

In this way, psychoanalysis can unearth a leader’s personal genealogy. It is to relate a leader’s present choices to past archaeological findings – those emotional roots – emerging from their speech, their actions and engagement with others.

The Goldwater Rule: a cautionary tale

While there is much to glean from psychoanalytical theory, it is important to err on the side of caution when drawing on its strength. Indeed, since 1964 the American Psychiatric Association forbids its members – highly trained psychiatrists and psychologists – to publicly comment on the psyches of living social and political leadership figures and whom they have not personally examined.

Known as the “the Goldwater rule,” a petition of a thousand psychiatrist had declared presidential nominee Barry Goldwater “unfit” to be US President.

In short, psychoanalytic theory is not be confused with armchair psychology at a distance. It requires careful consideration and deep learning. Psychoanalysis indeed can be both a useful tool for gaining deeper personal insight as well as useful looking glass.

Erik Erikson, a pioneer of psychoanalysis, said it best: “The more you know yourself, the more patience you have for what you see in others.”

Analyze your leadership style and see if you are reaching your pinnacle. Visit the School of Applied Leadership to learn more. A new world awaits!





Published June 5, 2017



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