Think Piece: Leadership of Thinking: What's Oedipus Got To Do With It

Think Piece: Leadership of Thinking: What's Oedipus Got To Do With It

08th July 2016

Working Well FETL Project

How can psychoanalysis and systems theory contribute to the leadership of thinking in the UK FE and Skills sector?



The Oedipus complex is central to psychoanalysis. Freud named it after Oedipus Rex as he thought that Sophocles had captured a universal truth in this play. That truth is not about sleeping with your mother and murdering your father as we commonly think, but the psychological reasons behind these events. At the heart of these is our difficulty with triangular relationships. For must of us our first experience of a triangle is as a child with our parents. It applies equally to single parent families as the child is still aware that at some point there was a couple that produced them. Although the triangle relates most obviously to the nuclear family, psychoanalytic anthropology has found that the issue is still present in other family structures. From this primary struggle follow issues that we suggest are common in the workplace: the difficulty in holding onto reality at times; exclusion; difference; turning a blind eye and succession.[1]

These were the areas we covered in the seminar. The participants were surprised at the strong resonance to their personal and professional experiences; they had not expected this to emerge from Oedipus. We were struck by the speed and energy with which they made connections to the themes and picked up Oedipal references in their own life situations. It was harder however, for participants to relate some of the discussions back to the story of Oedipus itself or to move from the personal to the organisational and systemic.

At the end of the seminar we wondered whether we would be able to write a Think Piece. Indeed it’s proved a challenge since something of the Oedipal dynamic seemed to occur in the seminar. In Oedipus boundaries go horribly wrong: children aren’t meant to witness the intimacy of the sexual relationship between their parents, let alone replace one parent and sleep with the other. In the seminar many stories recounted by participants were deeply personal and intimate. In an Oedipal sense, they were stories from the private bedroom of the seminar, not things that should be shared or seen by others.


  • Triangular relationships and exclusion
  • Turning a blind eye
  • Succession


2.1) Triangular relationships and exclusion

Participants were immediately struck by the idea of triangles being problematic. They commented on how common it is to have a triangular senior leadership team – Principal and two Vice Principals – in colleges and how common it also is for these to be problematic. Three people inevitably means that at times two people will pair; the other one can then easily be excluded or, even when the pair don’t intend this, can easily feel excluded. Exclusion is something we all find painful and difficult. When it’s from a threesome it unconsciously triggers our oedipal issues: as a child the awareness, however unconscious, of being excluded from aspects of our parents’ relationship, while at the same time being totally dependent on them for our survival, is extremely difficult.

As well as pain, exclusion can provoke rivalry and envy. We may or may not be conscious of these feelings or the depth of them. When we’re unaware and our feelings are uncontained, they can be harmful and poisonous. The participants talked about some painful experiences of exclusion, both in their private and professional lives. One of them for example, had carefully been excluded from meetings as a new leader. Another had been viciously excluded as a young Head of Department. The Principal worsened the situation by publically holding him up as an example of excellent performance and shaming the older staff. Leaders’ actions can significantly help or fuel them the dynamics of exclusion and rivalry.

This exclusion by peers was a powerful instance of sibling rivalry. Getting rid of a rival from a sibling relationship is one aspect of the complications of both Oedipal dynamics and sibling rivalry. Participants gave examples of sibling rivalry in the family and the vengeful measures that had been taken. The link between exclusion and persecution was clear. Although the ordinariness of sibling rivalry is recognised in the family, we don’t think about it at work. Yet these dynamics are very common and ordinary in the workplace too.

Implications for the leadership of thinking
Feeling excluded at times is ordinary, painful and inevitable. Leaders need to be aware of how this might be affecting interpersonal relationships, team work and organisational dynamics or indeed a result of them. Leaders also need to take sibling rivalry into account in the way they lead. Ways of reducing and responding to issues of exclusion and sibling rivalry in order to promote workplace wellbeing and success need to be part of the regular concerns of leadership.

Awareness of the problems associated with triangles does not necessarily mean avoiding them. Depending on the circumstances, a triangle can provide a stronger structure than a pair, since a twosome can get entangled and overly close, impeding their ability to see clearly or consider alternative perspectives. But having triangles does mean considering where and how triangles are used, and working hard to counter and contain the problems they are susceptible to. In the seminar we discussed the key triangle in organisations in the sector: students, teachers and leadership/management.

Implications for the leadership of thinking
It would be helpful for the leadership of to consider the implications of the triangle of students, teachers and leadership/management: for learning and development, student success, organisational development and wellbeing, and for the development of the sector. What does this mean for supporting constructive development rather than, as in Oedipus’ case, halted or perverted development?

Psychoanalysis shows us that in the early triangular situation of parents and child, there are two pairs: the parents as a couple and, initially, the mother and baby. It’s complicated and difficult for fathers to find their place in this very early stage of their child’s life. They have to manage the exclusion from the mother/baby pair. A very important part of the father’s role, is to intercept the pair, thereby helping mother and child to being the process of separation. Fathers, or the person regardless of gender taking the paternal role, have to judge when to do this; too soon is unhelpful but so is too late as the mother and baby can become too rigidly merged which hinders the child’s development.

Connected to this is the paternal function of holding onto reality. Not just the reality that mother and child, while necessarily starting the child’s life in a merged state, cannot stay there, but more broadly, the reality of the external world. We wonder whether governing bodies or trustees perform part of the paternal function in the sector. That’s to say they support the maternal function of nourishing the organisation, while bringing in the outside world, keeping close to, and ensuring that reality is not lost sight of.

Implications for the leadership of thinking
The leadership of thinking can strengthen leadership in and of the sector by exploring how the paternal and maternal leadership aspects function and work together. This includes considering the respective roles of governance and senior leadership. It also involves exploring the way paternal and maternal function are both utilised with a role – of leadership, management, teaching, caretaking and so on.

2.2) Turning a blind eye

In Sophocles’ play everyone turns a blind eye: there were many clues that Oedipus was the abandoned son of the widowed Queen Jocasta whom he married and had children with. What is avoided and turned about from is truth and reality. Oedipus didn’t knowingly murder his father or sleep with his mother but he closed his eyes to the possibility of knoweldge. When he opened them the pain was unbearable and he blinded himself. Similarly, when we cannot bear the pain and complexity of oedipal dynamics we may turn away rather than face them. Not only does that impair our sight, it also impairs our curiosity and capacity to learn.

Participants immediately recognised the dynamic of turning a blind eye and sited times when they or others do this. Sometimes, they thought, it’s helpful to turn a blind eye; you need to choose your battles. But this is a conscious turning a blind eye, whereas it’s often unconscious as in the play. Participants also commented on the link between turning a blind eye and the wish to avoid conflict and so, for instance, ignoring performance issues (discussed in the Think Piece on Aggression).

Implications for the leadership of thinking
Turning a blind eye consciously is necessary from time to time but when it’s a perpetual unconscious state, a turning away from truth and reality and ignoring critical damage, it’s dangerous. The leadership of thinking should support leaders in organisations and in leading the sector, to develop self awareness and ensure they have enough people around them who will not collude when they inevitably close their eyes and cannot or will not see.


2.3) Succession

Succession is a big issue throughout the sector and for many of the participants. Oedipus became King through murder and incest. While these aren’t normally literal routes to succession, metaphorically they are not at all unusual. Succession can be gruesome, destructive and damaging. The sector may at times incline towards tribalism and ‘incest’, which is likely to relate unconsciously to oedipal struggles. These struggles will rear their head at times of succession and mergers.

Participants talked about generational succession in society and in the sector. Succession involves both giving and receiving and how generations can work together to allow this to be healthy.

Implications for the leadership of thinking
How does the leadership of thinking influence and encourage healthy rather than destructive, damanging succession? Succession that recognises the changing world of the sector and society and the need for integrity and positive identity alongside adaptation. Succession that maintains a focus on learning, development and inclusion.


2.4) Moving forward

In this, the last seminar, participants had hoped for a resolution of the many complicated theories from the seminars and how they applied to their roles and organisations. Oedipal issues too have to be resolved and the way they are has a signficiant impact on our personalities. But resolution is not the end; these complex issues and undercurrents continue throughout our lives and will come to the fore at particular junctures. We have to continue to try to be alert to them and work with them. The same is true for the seminars; there was no neat way of drawing everything together. Using psychoanalytic and systemic thinking in leadership is continuous process. It’s complex, hard work and tiring. We believe that the gains more than make up for the pain and effort. Oedipus shows us the risk of not being curious or paying attention to the impact our psychic lives can have on our actions.

Implications for the leadership of thinking
Like the human psyche, FE and Skills has strengths, limits, possiblities and frailties. The leadership of thinking needs to encourage a climate in which curiosity, learning and the struggle involved in development, take precedence over turning a blind eye. One that pays attention to the interplay between the internal and external world of its organisations, its people, its dynamics. This means allowing space for reflection, connecting thinking with feeling, and giving space for creativity and imagination. Including the imagination to envisage and lead towards a different, successful future for the sector in a new and evolving reality.

Gabriella Braun, Project Director and David Armstrong, Project Consultant,
Working Well, July 2016.

[1] The conceptual thinking and theory for this Think Piece are from Gabriella Braun’s forthcoming book: ‘Leadership: What’s Love got To Do With It?’

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