Think Piece - Leadership of thinking: What's persecution got to do with it?

Think Piece - Leadership of thinking: What's persecution got to do with it?

02nd April 2016

Working Well FETL project

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


Leadership of thinking: What’s persecution got to do with it?


We usually associate persecution as something that happens to minority groups, rather than with leadership. But widespread systematic oppression, bullying at work, a persecuted state of mind all stem from the same psychological phenomenon: our tendency to feel persecuted and to be persecuting. Neurologically this is part of our hard-wired fear system designed to help us survive. Psychologically it’s part of our conscience, as well as being one of our mechanisms for dealing with overwhelming anxiety. There are two key psychoanalytic theories that explain persecution: Klein’s concept of the paranoid-schizoid position and Freud’s notion of the superego. We can’t do without some persecution in our minds; we’d be too gullible to manage life or leadership. But too much is unhealthy and damaging.[1]

The paranoid-schizoid position has been explored in earlier Think Pieces but a word about the superego: Freud thought that it includes our conscience and is the place of laws. That is psychological laws and prohibitions, e.g. against incest, as well as social laws. We have, as it were, an internal judge that deals with our transgressions. Our superego can be relatively benign or it can be harshly critical of us.


  • Persecution and the leader
  • Persecution and staff
  • Persecution and the sector

2.1 – Persecution and the leader

What makes leaders feel persecuted or become persecutory? The key triggers participants identified were mainly to do with external demands, staff issues and criticism and blame:

  • “It’s the things I can’t control that hurt me, like funding cuts. I’ll kick in a solution but worry to death.”
  • Ofsted “making things up”, as well as Councils and Schools.
  • “The latest huge cut means another restructuring. It’s the human cost of that that persecutes me.”
  • “Staff’s expectations of me that I’ll fix things.”
  • “It’s the impossible stuff we’re berated for – Maths and English – how we get blamed for the Skills gap, not employers.”
  • “It’s criticism that makes me feel persecuted. It’s getting better and easier than it used to be but it’s still there. It just goes with the role.”
  • “I feel persecuted when misunderstood, like an underdog and not part of the mainstream.”
  • “When I’m undermined or sniped at.”

There may be gender differences in the way that persecution is experienced. While external factors were important for both the men and women in the group, the women also identified internal issues such as feeling criticised, misunderstood or undermined.

Staff performance was identified as the overriding issue that makes participants feel or become persecutory:

  • “When others don’t do things right and don’t anticipate the consequences.”
  • “People not improving fast enough and taking responsibility for it; resistance to change and complacency.”
  • “I have difficulty holding people to account. I want to take responsibility for everything and get irritated that people don’t want to take it. But it’s an own goal, coming from my need to control.”
  • “It’s about performance management; that people don’t realise they’re doing badly.”
  • “When people score an own goal, like taking OFSTED to see a bad teacher. Why? It was in their gift to choose, so why did they do that?”

Implications for the leadership of thinking

The far reaching change and particularly difficult environment that the sector is facing with cuts, mergers and closures, exacerbate persecutory feelings. These hinder and distort thinking, close down development and can be extremely damaging. The leadership of thinking therefore needs to address the root causes of persecutory feelings and look at ways of creating a more benign environment: one in which leaders can manage their own feelings of persecution and reduce the tendency to persecute others.  

2.2 – Persecution and Staff

There is a clear link between feeling persecuted, attachment and containment. When leaders act in ways that arouse insecure attachment (discussed in a previous Think Piece), staff are more liable to feeling persecuted. Proximity between the leader and staff can help attachment. Conversely, participants commented that staff can feel abandoned if the leader moves their office to another campus or location. With abandonment goes insecurity. Leaders shouldn’t necessarily avoid moving, but they need to be mindful of the effect on some staff and put in place additional mechanisms for containment at those moments.

Participants wondered if there is also a link between the interest and attention paid to staff and persecution: is disinterest experienced as a form of persecution? Might leaders unintentionally persecute some staff by a lack of attention and apparent disinterest?

Change increases anxiety and participants thought that the constancy and level of change in the sector has increased persecutory feelings. The frequent failure of change processes also takes its toll. HR for instance, rather than dealing with opportunity and growth, is constantly dealing with the fall out of this.

The way that leaders communicate to staff is key to increasing or decreasing persecutory feelings. Communication about change and performance that helps staff not to feeling misunderstood and unsupported is crucial.

The stress in – and on – the sector is likely to amplify the common tendency in organisations to unconsciously make one function or department the receptacle for negativity. This is not necessarily a bad thing as if one function absorbs the negative feelings – and HR often fulfils this function – others can keep the more positive feelings that enable their work. Feelings of being persecuted or being the persecutor can also move around with different departments/functions holding these at different times. This needs to be recognised and dealt with as a systemic issue.

Implications for the leadership of thinking

Leaders need to think about their behaviour and the organisational culture in relation to staff’s persecutory feelings. Paying particular attention to ways of promoting security, attachment and containment at times when persecutory feelings will be triggered is very important. This includes ensuring that sufficient attention is paid to all staff, including those on the margins of the organisation.

2.3 – Persecution and the sector

Just as different departments or functions can be the persecuted or persecutor in an organisation, so can different parts of the sector. And just as these can change in individual organisations, so they can sector wide. Thus leaders in the sector need to constantly ask questions about the changing meaning of the map of the sector, and the impact this has on relationships between its parts and on persecutory feelings.

We wonder whether feelings of persecution may also sometimes mask another feeling, which is impotence. The degree to which leaders in the sector have choice and autonomy is a theme that has emerged throughout the seminars. On the one hand, participants talk about the very high level of autonomy and freedom they have as leaders; on the other hand there is a sense of being constantly at the beck and call of government, dealing with unreasonable or impossible demands that, if they are not met, have punitive consequences. So while there are persecutory elements in the environment, and they evoke feelings of persecution, we wonder whether something else is also at play here: is one aspect of the sense of persecution in the sector a response to, or defence against, feelings of impotence? Might persecutory feelings in fact conceal the sense of impotence and the frustration and perhaps shame that goes with it?

Implications for the leadership of thinking

Leadership in the sector may be hampered by a lack of clarity about the reality and specifity of autonomy and freedom. Exploring whether feelings of impotence get tangled up with, and underlie, some aspects up persecutory feelings and behaviour will help to disentangle this. This needs to include diagnosing if such feelings stem from a lack of autonomy and/or from unresolved wishes and confusion about the precise nature of autonomy leaders in the sector can have.

2.4 – Moving forward

The step change required in the sector will be impossible if persecutory feelings with their toxic affects are allowed to flourish. Furthermore, if persecution dominates in the sector, it will have a detrimental effect on learners. Supporting tranformative and effective change, mitigating against deprivation and enhancing success for learners, means addressing persecution.

Participants asked whether persecution is a wilful act. We think it undoubtedly sometimes is – wilful and conscious. But it’s also frequently unconscious and therefore not wilful. And it’s often a mix of wilful and conscious, which is supported and driven by the unconscious. This makes identifying persecutory feelings and issues complex and difficult.

Implications for the leadership of thinking

Leaders need to be able to distinguish between feelings of persecution and actually being persecuted. Both are serious, both are real, both need addressing. But the way to address them differs. A key issue for the leadership of thinking is to help leaders work with themselves and with others to monitor the point at which actual persecution, caused by external circumstances and constraints, flips into and feeds persecutory states of mind. And to help leaders identify the impact of these states of mind on learning and learners.

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

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

One thought on “Think Piece – Leadership of thinking: What’s persecution got to do with it?”

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