Think Piece - Leadership Of Thinking: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Think Piece - Leadership Of Thinking: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

30th November 2015

How Can Psychoanalysis And Systems Theory Contribute To The Leadership Of Thinking In The UK FE And Skills Sector?

Working Well FETL Grant Project Think Piece


This was the second strategic seminar in the Working Well project. The conceptual thinking and themes about love and leadership are from Gabriella Braun’s forthcoming book: What have love, aggression, Oedipus and all that got to do with leadership?

She suggests that there is an essential link between love and leadership:

  • Loving people requires the same qualities as leading people
  • Love is part of our constructive side as people and helps us to keep our destructiveness at bay
  • Resisting destructiveness is a vital part of leadership

Love supports our human instinct for life, rather than our opposing anti-life, destructive instinct. Loving people in a healthy way – without trying to control, possess or live vicariously through them – and leading people both require:

  • Caring deeply for someone else
  • Being committed to them
  • Respect and appreciation
  • Enjoying doing things together
  • Generosity
  • Self esteem – love for self
  • The capacity to struggle with difficulties and disagreements and use ‘tough love’ (as for example, parents saying no to children and leaders holding staff to account).

Love in relation to leadership doesn’t mean literally loving your staff. It’s normal of course to dislike some of them. But it means having feelings towards staff that come from the capacity for love – care, compassion, concern, gratitude and appreciation. Love and leadership refers to the relational aspect of leadership, as well as the crucial aspects of loving your work and your organisation.

Emerging Themes

Many of the examples from our work with organisations that we used to illustrate psychoanalytic theory, resonated with the participants; with their work as a leader, their childhood, experiences from school and the family they grew up in as well as their families now. It was noticeable how readily people offered personal reflections and connections. Discussion around these themes seemed to release a different quality of conversation.

It was more possible to recognise and work with differences between us. There was far more challenge between participants, including from different constituent parts within FE and Skills. Participants were able to be more differentiated from one another and open to alternative perspectives.

In part this could be explained by the fact that this was the second seminar so the group knew each other better, and we did some activities that encouraged lively debate. But we wondered whether the seminar topic itself made a difference. That by creating a reflective space that links to the constructiveness of love and the process of individual development, it was more possible to acknowledge how things can get split, seen in a rather black and white way and played out across the different components within the sector and/or its various stake holders. And in acknowledging this and one’s own complicity in it, it was then possible to work with the multi-dimensional, complexity of reality in a more creative way.

The drive for life

This term comes from Freud who thought that we all have both a constructive side, which is on the side of life and a destructive side, which is anti-life. Love is part of the former and hate – its partner – is part of our destructiveness. Hate takes us away from generativity and the drive to enrich and develop life. It takes us away from liveliness. Just as individuals inevitably get pulled at times towards destructiveness, so do workplaces. In our view, a key part of leadership in FE and Skills is to keep the drive for life going.

In this sector life and death in the form of organisational survival are always on the horizon. Mergers and acquisitions are a constant. What does the drive for life mean in relation to how that is responded to and led? Participants pointed to examples of leaders who took great care in helping staff to join a new merged organisation, and other leaders who were bullish and uncaring about it. Either way a considerable number of staff from the closed organisation left. So does being caring make any difference?

The focus however, on how staff from the closing organisation are taken in and integrated into the remaining, merged organisation may miss something that might make a difference. That is allowing the closing organisation a good enough ending: one that acknowledges the collective pain and reality of its death, while helping staff to separate individually so that they can move on in a lively way and flourish afterwards. That involves mourning.

The approach to merger also impacts on the culture of the new organisation. It signals the leadership’s intention for the organisation to be caring and on the side of life and liveliness, or uncaring and ruthless in its attitude to its staff – and by default – to its learners.

Implications for the leadership of thinking

The drive for life can inform and focus the primary purpose of the sector and of individual organisations. It can also be used to think about mergers and acquisitions; whether they should take place and how they are handled. Keeping the drive for life in mind means paying attention to the death of a closing organisation and allowing appropriate mourning so that individuals leaving it can move on. And so that the new organisation can continue and develop in a lively, life enhancing, way.

Resistance to change

Participants questioned whether the sector is too opposed to mergers. A resistance that drives “predatory behaviour” and is to do with “loving our institutions too much and so resisting change.” They suggested that the drive for life could help organisations be more open to change and genuine collaboration. That would include acknowledging and responding to what the community needs, how you therefore position your organisation (e.g. as part of the education system rather than the FE and Skills sector), the skills other’s have and that you don’t.

Resistance to change increases, rather than decreases, threat in the sector, particularly for colleges. Rather than being proactive they often wait for destruction at the hands of government. As a participant from the Skills part of the sector said: “I’m struck by the fear you feel in your part of the system. If you’re so fearful you’ll be paralysed and won’t be able to build a more cohesive structure across the Sector.”

Implications for the leadership of thinking

The current understandable preoccupation with survival in the sector increases resistance to change, which in turn is likely to increase the chance of invidual organisations being closed. Leading the sector and its organisations from and towards the constructiveness of love and its drive for life, might be a way of reconceiving aspects of change and the way it’s led.

Gratitude and appreciation

Psychoanalysis links gratitude and love – they importantly build and reinforce one another. We wonder if both of these are difficult in FE and Skills. Participants commented on the conversations between leaders in the sector that commonly includes disparaging, rather than appreciating, their staff. There seems to be little energy for thinking about how to get the best from people. Instead there is a preoccupation with grievances. Participants commented on the links between employee wellbeing and customer service that are insufficiently recognised in the sector. As one participant asked: “Are we mean spirited? Could goodwill be a new narrative for the sector?”

Implications for the leadership of thinking

The current narrative in the sector seems plagued by deprivation and despair about the negative images it repeatedly attracts, its place in the education sector and the constant interference by governments. Does the necessary focus on survival, reduce leadership to a defensive battle ground? A place that reinforces deprivation and despair because it’s so hard to find much liveliness there? If so, there’s a major leadership task to stop the viscious circle of psychological deprivation and enable a shift towards life. To a new narrative, a new place from which to be inspired, to inspire and lead. To do that the capacity for gratitude and appreciation has to be developed throughout the sector. Otherwise the destructive pull, rather than the pull towards life, will inevitably dominate.

Self esteem

In our first Think Piece we asked whether the sector is wedded to an identity as the under-dog. The issue of self-esteem seems key to us. This may link to the disparaging comments leaders make about their staff: perhaps the low self esteem and negative images about the sector are unconsciously projected from leaders to their staff. So unconsciously staff become imbued by their leaders (and perhaps in their own minds) with much of the negativity.

One aspect of the discussion about self-esteem highlighted what we interpreted as a worry about the narcissism of fakery. An anxiety that self-esteem might lead to arrogance, or means believing you’re good at everything, rather than having a realistic sense of your capabilities and worth. The worry might be an expression of a fragile and often low self-esteem in the sector – perhaps from learners (for whom developing self-esteem must be a vital part of their FE and Skills experience) as well as staff and leaders.

The lack of self-esteem suggests that the negative images about the sector, its place in the education, social and economic class system, and its treatment at the hands of governments, have been internalised. Psychologically this is a normal process, but it’s very damaging. We suspect it contributes to the passivity in the sector that participants talked about. In a lively and enlivening discussion about the future one participant asked: “Why aren’t we taking control back from the ‘grandees’? Why do I do nothing though I’ve many ideas to contribute?”

Implications for the leadership of thinking

The internalised identity within the sector which seems to believe itself – whether consciously or unconsciously – to be second class and perhaps second rate, will stall healthy development. A key and urgent task for the leadership of thinking is therefore to explore identity and self esteem issues both systemically and psychoanalytically so that the sector can be released from the imprisoned and imprisoning place it occupies.

Systemically this means understanding what the sector’s place represents, why it’s so powerful in the UK education system and how that relates to social cohesion, class, identity, economics and politics. Psychoanalytically, it involves exploring the unconscious as well as conscious impact of identity and the way it’s keeping things stuck.

Moving forward

Participants were clear that now is the time for creating the future and that a new type of leadership is needed. Complaining about Government is insufficient and inadequate.

So what about love? As one participant asked: “Does love matter?” “You can have a cohesive organisation without much love, so what difference does love make?”

Our answer is that love does matter. A lot. But we would say that wouldn’t we! Bringing the capacities of love to the leadership of thinking can support creative, enlivened development. That has to include lively, robust, debate – as exemplified by the different type of conversation in the seminar. The question of whether or not love matters, whether you can achieve cohesion without love – in some shape or form – and the implications for a new type of leadership, is an important part of the dialogue that needs to take place.

Implications for the leadership of thinking

Leading the sector forward in the context of the current environment, requires the robustness of love which is at the heart of our constructiveness and drive for life. Not a superficial or narcissitic love, but real and mature love that acknolwedges faults, weaknesses, hatred, destructiveness. That has sufficient self esteem and can invest energy in supporting people to be at their best. Bringing the qualities of love to the leadership of thinking can open up agency, different conversations and the possibility of imagining different futures for the sector. The capacity it involves would in itself begin to transform the sector and its leaders so that they can move it forward differently.

Gabriella Braun, Project Director and David Armstrong, Project Consultant, Working Well

An earlier think piece from this project, ‘Using systems theory in leadership’ can be read here.

One thought on “Think Piece – Leadership Of Thinking: What’s Love Got To Do With It?”

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