The Meaning of Trump



This blog is the beginning of a longer journey to try to understand ‘The Meaning of Trump’.  This is not an attempt to give meaning to Donald Trump the individual, for Trump himself is not a very compelling or interesting person.  I regard him as a savvy opportunist and populist, prepared to go to any lengths to dominate media interest, and delve to any depths to exploit political vulnerabilities without concern for individuals or groups beyond his own success.

What does interest me is to look at Trump as a social object to which so many people have coalesced around and to ask what specific psycho-social and political dynamics produced this ‘Trump object’ that so many people identified with, to enable him to win the Presidency.   I am not denigrating his personality or ability, as a scholar of leadership I can see how it takes someone who is smart and with some charisma (however much we may dislike them) to pull this off.  However, it is only when certain conditions are in play that any individual can harness and utilise the energy, anger, frustration and zeitgeist change to take advantage of these conditions.

Another way of asking what is the Meaning of Trump, is to think of him as a social symptom (a sinthome in Lacan’s terms) and to discern what Trump is a symptom of, and what this symptom signifies and reflects back to wider society.  Trump in this sense is like a mirror reflecting back to ‘civilization its discontents’ to play with Freud’s book title.

I am currently working on a paper to explore these themes, and invite any thoughts and reflections from this blog.

Taking Trump as a social object and a symptom, I am exploring 3 possible meanings of Trump:

Firstly, that the meaning of Trump is:

  1. A New Authoritarian Settlement

By this I mean that the election of a ‘democratic-authoritarian’ to the White house, the high temple and global symbol of the ‘idea of Western democracy today,’  signifies a rupture in the political system in the west.

The authoritarian settlement is more complex than Trump and the other European right-wing populists and nationalists.  They are a symptom of a wider authoritarian settlement that mostly goes unrecognized.  His success is a product of two other strands of ‘soft’ authoritarianism that are implicit and hidden.

The first soft-form is liberal-progressive authoritarianism, that operates through a culture control that is most easily identified and seen in politically correct cultures.  These are the people who supported Clinton, and hide their authoritarian tendencies under the rhetoric of equality and diversity.  There is a genuine need to fight for progressive politics (which I personally identify with)  but this fight can and has become distorted.  This creates a perverse situation whereby the liberal-progressives at one level to fight for a fairer, more democratic and inclusive society, yet at the same time they impose an excessive level of culture control on many excluded others they look down upon.   Clinton’s slip in the election to call these people ‘the deplorables’ revealed the true feelings towards those who experience this oppressive exclusion.    Fighting for a better more equal society is progressive, using discourse, language and power to humiliate, bully and oppress those who aren’t in your ‘tribe’ is regressive and authoritarian.  These PC ‘illiberal-liberal’ cultures impose their will on many who feel silenced, coerced and controlled. Free-speech has become limited, you are only free to speak if you know the coded language of the politically correct elites who impose their authoritarian culture control across college campuses and civic spaces.  In a previous paper published before the election I pointed to the New Authoritarians (Western 2016) claiming that both Clinton and Trump were different leadership faces representing this new authoritarian settlement.  Trump delights in being politically-incorrect, as he instantly  emotional connects with and attracts the support of so many who feel oppressed under the weight of what he calls the ‘liberal elite’.

The second form of soft authoritarianism is a totalizing and hidden form that is imposed by neo-liberalism and the excessive rise of corporate power.  The Regan-Thatcher political-economic project imposed Chicago school of economics has finally come to a shuddering halt.  It has failed miserably.   Their promised land of economic and civic wealth, that they believed would arrive through ‘free-trade, de-regulated markets and flexible working’ has finally been exposed as a complete failure.  Global corporate power is authoritarian power, it imposes its neo-liberal will on the masses without any accountability or regard for the communities it exploits.  Flexible working and the loss of so many skilled jobs to automation (that is only just beginning) means today’s work is precarious work for the majority of people. This means that employees always feel insecure, vulnerable and are therefore compliant to the culture control exerted by their companies.   Catherine Casey (xxxxxx) describes these corporate employees as ‘capitulated selves’, unaware of their own subjugation. In my working life I coach and consult to leaders in many diverse sectors including international banks and corporations. My experience is that the global corporates, public sector and international aid organizations are filled with people who have been formed and conformed.  We live in an amazing time where the potential for knowledge is learning is unlimited, where the discourse of free-thinking and free speech is dominant, yet  we also live in very conformist times.  What the Trump election signifies is that TINA is dead, i.e. the Thatcherite mantra ‘there is no alternative’ referencing that only neo-liberalism can deliver progress is over. Fukuyama’s famous essay ‘the end of history’ (xxxxx) claiming that after the cold war was won by the West and that history of ideas was finished as capitalism had triumphed, has itself found itself in the bin of history.

Trump is a product of this Authoritarian settlement and he is a symptom playing back to society its malaise.  In many ways his form of angry authoritarianism, is a way of making the hidden authoritarianism of the liberals and corporates explicit.

One way of understanding the meaning of Trump is that he is a ‘return of the repressed’.  He is returning a harsh and explicit form of democratic-authoritarianism to counter the hidden forms of authoritarianism that has oppressed so many for so long.   Sadly, replacing soft authoritarianism with a harsher form does nothing to improve things in the short term.  In the longer term, we can hope that by making the implicit explicit, the authoritarianism of Trump will create activists to challenge this and also to wake up and challenge the other forms that exist in their own tribes too.

  1. Libidinal politics have displaced rational-emotional politics

Trump is a product of libidinal politics triumphing over rational politics.  Today’s ‘networked society is a disruptive society’. Digitalisation, new technologies and social media disrupt huge businesses, it has disrupted dictators in the Arab Spring, digital finance disrupted the whole finance system leading to the 2008 crash, and now it has disrupted normative politics in the USA.   When 40% of Americans gain their news from Facebook, the rules of the game have changed.  The huge financial advantage and mobilisation of activists in the Clinton machine couldn’t overturn the power of social media that favoured Trump’s approach.  Trump is a product of libidinal politics – his campaign fed off the libidinal energy that flowed from those who loved him and from those who railed against him.   Every time he pressed the libidinal button he triggered responses in mainstream and new media. Love admiration, aggression, anger and hatred flowed to him and energised his campaign.   Those who hated him and got angry, and at the same time took great pleasure in their hatred and rage and self-righteousness.  Lacan the French psychoanalyst theorises ‘jouissance’ which is a particular form of unconscious enjoyment that derives pleasure from displeasure.  The Guardian and New York Times delighted in expressing their displeasure of Trump, educated liberals enjoyed their highbrow stance looking down on the deplorables – and Trump fed of their libidinal energy just as much as he did off his admiring supporters.  Their excessive enjoyment (plus de jouir in Lacanian terms) was surplus to the task of defeating Trump.  When people ‘enjoy too much’ they move to regressive positions and get distracted from the real work and underpinning values they fight for.

The meaning of Trump in this context is that libidinal politics wins over rational politics in today’s network society.  This changes the political landscape for years to come.  Tapping into emotions in politics is not new, but the network society changes the co-ordinates of how emotions go viral, and how people feed each other’s passions that by-pass reason and ‘truth politics’. Facebook became renamed as fakebook as the algorithms  entrapped people in ways of thinking that provided excessive pleasure to reinforce their mindsets.  If you looked up Trump, you got more and more Trump, which reinforced your initial thinking.     Libidinal politics don’t have to be base or regressive as used by Trump, but they cannot be ignored, or pushed into second place,  as the Democrats found out. All the rules have changed.

  1. The Triumph of melancholia, and the failure to mourn the loss of empire

Freud’s famous paper mourning and melancholia shows how melancholia occurs when a lost object is not properly mourned.  He writes: “in mourning, time is needed for the command of reality-testing to be carried out in detail…when this work has been accomplished the ego will have succeeded in freeing its libido from the lost object.”

Without mourning, the ego cannot free itself from the lost object and continues to over-identify with it.  Melancholy describes this state and Trump’s identification with the lost object – ‘The American Dream’ – and his constant references to making America Great again, was a classic melancholic response to the end of empire. Freud goes on to observe the way melancholia has a manic side to it, which is another way to avoid facing the reality of the lost object, and I think this describes Trump’s rallies  very aptly.

When a great nation is so divided internally, when it imprisons so many of its young black men, when whole regions are inflicted with unemployment and endemic drug abuse, when healthcare and basic welfare is severely limited or withdrawn,  and when it has a military might that massively overpowers any other nation, yet it loses all its recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Putin dominates the agenda in Syria and Ukraine, one can clearly point to the demise of empire.   To renew and regenerate, the nation needs first to face the reality principle and mourn the loss of the American Dream and the empire it had.  Without this mourning,  melancholia will dominate the political agenda: Democrats claiming things are not so bad and there is a bright future, Trump claiming he can magically cure all ills.  Together they both create the imaginary fantasy that recovering what has been lost is possible.  This undermines the potential of discovering something new and building a different way forward.

Trump’s campaign was one of ‘paranoid nolstagia’ i.e. paranoid about the ‘bad other’ stealing the America’s enjoyment and nostalgic about recreating a fantasy utopian past where industrial jobs can return on mass, globalisation can be reversed, and walls can be built to exclude the bad other (Mexican’s and Muslims).


The Meaning of Trump is that his election signifies that the world has radically changed. To draw again on Lacan, Trump is a point-de-capiton (a quilting point).   This quilting point fixes things just enough for action to be taken, when all is in flux.   Trump is a quilting point that held together the multiple and fluid causes of the discontents.   He outed the authoritarianism of the liberal elites, and of the global powers – and offered instead surplus authority in their place.  He championed melancholia, and manically laughed in the face of mourning, refusing to face the loss of the American Dream and its empire.  He offered the people a fantasy instead, and many liked it.  And he adapted quicker than all those around him to the new reality that it is libidinal politics that wins elections in the 21st century. The Meaning of Trump is that he is a symptom of these social and political changes, he plays back to society it’s excess.  His politics, are the politics of excess. He offers surplus authority, excessive libidinal energy, and surplus enjoyment (melancholic mania) in the face of great loss.

About the Author

CEO of Analytic-Network Coaching

Dr Simon Western is President-Elect at the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO)

Adjunct Professor at University College Dublin.

He has authored two books with Sage publishers: Leadership a critical text 2nd Ed (Western 2013)

Coaching and Mentoring a critical text, and he regularly blogs and writes on

Contact            Twitter @simonwestern

For further readin

Political Correctness and Political Incorrectness: A psychoanalytictic study of new authoritarians (Western 2016)

Autonomist Leadership in Leaderless Movement

Blog  The Politics of Enjoyment

Other Blogs and on-line Papers




New Leadership For Europe


I wrote this blog when in Granada, Andalusia  a symbol of how differences produce beauty and how different communities – Jews, Christians and Muslims- lived together in peace, tolerance and respect.  A much needed symbol for our times.

Following Brexit, and the implosion of  UK Politics (excepting the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies)  new leadership and new organisational forms are urgently needed both in the UK and in Europe.   For the old ways are passing before us!   The central point  this blog makes is to identify the current Brexit crisis as a symptom of a much bigger problem.  Brexit is  not an isolated case of the UK becoming suddenly inward looking and xenophobic, it presents as a symptom of wider malaise which must be addressed.

The political elites of  Europe, the USA and elsewhere are facing a paradigm change that is producing crisis after crisis, and which they consistently fail to recognise or address (protecting what they have).  Its’ in the same league as climate denial.       Mainstream media and political commentators present the current situation in the UK using what psychoanalysis identifies as splitting. They clamour to present the EU as an imaginary  ‘good object’ and any opposition to it as a ‘bad object’.  Splitting is a psychological process whereby we psychically split off hated parts of ourselves and project them into external others.  Therefore the ‘bad other’ holds all the evil, hatred and pain, and we are left feeling ‘good’.  Clearly racism is based on this analysis where the immigrant ‘other’ is identified as ‘bad’ and the idealised ‘us’ identified as good.  Yet the same process is happening in the liberal and progressive left, when they demonise all leave voters as racists- either explicitly or implicitly- and comfort themselves as being morally superior.   This process however doesn’t allow a mature analysis.  If the problem was an aberrant inward looking UK,  then taking this  seriously the EU should be celebrating now that (self-inflicted) surgery has removed this ‘UK tumour’. Yet this is not the case…. the real anxiety now in the EU is of where the next tumour will appear…  France?  Greece? Spain? Portugal? Poland?  They know that the tumour is not the cancer, but they use the psychic defence of denial to turn-a-blind-eye to this reality;  for to seek a cure for the cancer, means they must address radical change that has far reaching consequences.  Brexit is one symptom of many  being played out throughout Europe and the USA (Podemos, Syriza, Front-National, Polish and Hungarian nationalism, Trump and Sanders in the USA etc). This is not simply a Brit problem.
European Solidarity
I pray that leaving the European Union will offer an opportunity to forge new political and social alliances across Europe, which are not underpinned by the viscous neo-liberal politics that have dominated the EU in recent years leading to a) stealing the democratic rights of so many millions in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Ireland etc and b) imposed austerity measures that have been so punitive and inhuman particularly on the vulnerable and young.
Now is the time to build new solidarity and new community structures both locally and internationally, in Europe and beyond it. Now is the time to devolve power to cities and regions in the UK and across Europe. This will increase democracy, recognize regions as the hub of our democracies and undo some of the damaging nationalist rhetoric and top-down governance that alienates so many in the UK/Europe. Size does matter.  Some say this is fragmenting but they are working within the wrong paradigm, holding onto the 20th century ideals of political elites controlling from the centre (Brussels, London etc).  It is only fragmenting if it happens in a destructive way and the centre fights it.   If it is planned and supported it works…. how can more democracy, trusting more people who are closer to the issues they face be wrong?    The key to success in Europe is connectivity, collaboration, devolution of power and resources and co-operative politics.   Decentralisation and distributing leadership are key to this success.  Global corporations are clamouring to find ways to distribute leadership knowing that their businesses will fail if they don’t manage this task.  For without leadership at the edge how can they know what customers desire in this fast changing world?   For unless they unleash talent throughout their organisations, how can they expect to compete in a global economy? If global corporations are trying to achieve this, why are not our public/political bodies…. success depends on harnessing the talents of all, of trusting people to take leadership, followership and responsibility.  Top-down hierarchy isn’t working anymore in this fast changing networked, globalised, digital society.
Now is the time to forge new political and social settlements, for the old ways are passing. The EU and our local, national and international political systems are not fit for purpose, and rather than grieve what is lost we need to grasp the opportunity this ‘so-called’ crisis provides us. I say ‘so-called’ because don’t forget the real crisis is in Syria and other warzones and millions of displaced and fleeing refugee’s. Worrying about stocks and shares is in a different league to having to choose to put your family in a leaking boat, risking life of your children with no idea of what the future holds.
I was never that fond of the EU. I lent towards the remain campaign only because I didn’t want the ‘little Englander’ anti-immigration politics to win out. But lets make no mistake the EU was a neo-liberal project, the social Europe many of us aspired to was captured by free-market capitalism and enshrined this into it’s constitution. It didn’t begin like that, but it became that…. if in any doubt, just go to Athens and check out how much say they have over their economy and social budgets and how they suffer because of this. And let us not forget the wall around Europe. The liberal left quickly condemn Trump’s idea of a wall protecting the USA, but what about Fortress Europe that excludes it’s neighbours from trade and other benefits on its boundaries. This creates tensions in the north African countries to the south which are now suffering so badly from economic collapse and war and also those to the East. We can easily blame terrorism or dictatorships for the challenges they face, but what part did the EU play in excluding these troubled lands from its wealth?
The EU was not all it was cracked up to be and nor did it adapt and change when it desperately needed to after the financial crisis and economic collapse after 2008. It had a choice, to support the suffering people or support the banks and make the people suffer more…..we saw it’s disgraceful response and we see the consequences now.
The Brexit vote took place and what is done is done. Now is the time to work together to show solidarity with the poor, to the immigrant and to the vulnerable. To support and help mobilize the young whose instincts were more collaborative than their elders. Now is the time to build new creative communities, to strive to support small and medium business success and to tax the thieving multinationals and reduce their influence. Now is the time to silence nationalism and hatred, not by protests but by building together a new political and social settlement, by offering something much better for all. Now is the time to grasp a new future, a more generous future that addresses the new demands of our network society. Now is the time ……

The Network Society is a Disruptive Society


Today’s networked society is a hyper-connected society and one of its main impacts is constant disruption.   The Network Society doesn’t just disrupt business with new technological innovations,  it disrupts almost every aspect of our lives; our politics, how wars are fought, how we parent our children and how we communicate and relate with each other.  Our subjectivity is being disrupted in ways we are discovering as we go. What will be the impact of constant connectedness, of having our children tethered to parents with their mobile technology.   Non-binary is a term being used for the disruption of ‘normative’ gender expectations, it relates to gender-expansive identities that are neither male nor female, and it is no co-incidence that the latest disruptions in computing (Quantum computing) are also about getting beyond the binary limitations of existing computor technology (see   ‘The baker makes the bread and the bread makes the baker’, technology is not just new tools for us to use, new technologies shape us and our societies  and always have done.  Today’s advances are exceptional because of the speed of change that is occurring, and because of the inter-connectedness of change which is emergent, i.e. we don’t know what the connectivity will produce or change, we can only experience it and be vigilant to see it when it happens.     In essence the Network Society is a disruptive society, it disrupts our normative ‘ways-of-being-in-the-world’.   Learning to balance ourselves in the midst of being thrown off-balance in these turbulent times is becoming a vital life-skill.   We are being forced to learn and adapt quickly to navigate through our hyper-change and hyper-choice society, to resist and manage the seductions and coercive pulls in different directions.  We have to walk the high-wire each day, sustaining a sense of balance in order to live emotional, physical and psychological healthy selves.

Leadership in this context is becoming ever-more challenging, and leaders need coaching to support them, and coaching skills to develop their skills and capacity to balance on the daily high-wire of emotional, cognitive and task demands that constantly disrupt their existing ‘normal’ ways of doing things.

What do leaders require to stay balanced gracefully on the high-wire without falling in this turbulent and disruptive environment?  

1) Depth: a depth understanding of the self that grounds them and gives a clear sense of purpose to guide them in turbulent waters.

2) Relationships:  the capacity to build trusting and strong relationships with others- to get the very best from their teams and colleagues and to get the support they need.

3) Leadership: to discover and develop their unique leadership capacity (not to fit to a list of static competencies) and to inspire others to lead, ensuring leadership is distributed widely.

4) Networks:  an understanding how to influence change in the network society. This means identifying and working to influence nodes and clusters (where informal power resides) rather than aim for top-down change initiatives.

5) Strategy:  in the face of short-term demands, to maintain a strategic mindset and be  capable of seeing the big picture and working with emergent.  Doing this under pressure and managing change  ‘in the face of anxiety’ is about managing ones own and others disrupted subjectivity.

Analytic-Network Coaching works with the five frames above to support and develop new leaders for new times. Our experience of working with senior leaders reveals to us the need for coaches and managers to work with individuals in the context of the network society and how it disrupts them and their teams.   They often develop coping mechanisms to get by, which may be healthy but are often costly to themselves, others and to the work they do.   What is important is to help them connect their deep emotional and unconscious responses, to the contexts they work and live in.   Different possibilities and creative responses emerge when these connections are made.

Our next 3 day training programme is in London in September, it is for coaches and managers with coaching roles, to work on the issues raised above.   See the flyer below and contact Simon for any queries.

The Author

Dr Simon Western is

CEO of Analytic-Network Coaching

Adjunct Professor at University College Dublin

President-Elect at the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO)

He has authored two books with Sage publishers and is writing a new book on Global Leadership to be published later this year.

Leadership a critical text 2nd Ed

Coaching and Mentoring a critical text,

Contact            Twitter @simonwestern

What is your desire?


Dr Simon Western

Psychoanalytic approaches to coaching, leadership and culture

This short essay addresses Jacques Lacan’s famous comment “don’t give up on your desire”. The first part discusses the meaning of this statement, and also how it is misread. The second part offers a coaching case study to show a practical application.

“Don’t give up on your desire” is often misunderstood as a social injunction that tells us to strive to get whatever we want….with our consumer culture shaped super-ego’s screaming at us “you deserve it… your entitled to be happy!”   This misreading reflects a growing entitlement culture that underpins how consumer-capitalism works, for unless people are constantly feeling a desire for something they wouldn’t buy goods and services?   However, Lacan was saying was something quite different to this popular misreading of his work. Lacan was exposing two gaps, the first between our unconscious ‘true’ desire and the ‘false’ desire of our ego. As what we consciously think we desire and what we really/unconsciously desire are often very different and competing desires.   This explains why people get such pleasure-out-of-their-displeasure that is they complain about something, but they clearly get an unconscious pleasure as they remain very attached to it and refuse change their relation to this behaviour or action when offered alternatives. In psychoanalytic terms we say they have a libidinal attachments and investments in this way of being.

Lacan was also showing us the gap between our own desire and the desire of the other which may account for why so many of us struggle to find deep contentment in today’s “society of commanded enjoyment” i.e. today there is a social command that it is our duty to be happy, and if we are not happy something is wrong with us and we are failing both ourselves and others. The task of coaching clients in this space is to help them free themselves from the happiness imperative, which paradoxically means not to give up their true desire (see   When we are busy chasing false ‘ego-desires’ and the desire of the other and expecting it to make us happy we are always left feeling a little empty.   We buy the new car or dress and get the face-lift and we feel good for a fleeting moment then get that empty feeling that haunts us in today’s world.  This is because the experience of lack quickly returns- and so we desire some new product or service to fill the space. That’s how consumer capitalism works. If we managed to fulfill our desires we would no-longer buy the stuff, or work like demons to chase our imaginary dreams. The Buddha teaches along these lines but with a difference.  The many variations of Buddhist teaching tell us that desire is the root of our unhappiness, the cause of suffering and evil

The Buddhists teach that to end our suffering is to lose our desire and our ego. This may be one solution to solving the problem of the human condition but let’s be honest, how many of us get anywhere close to this?   And is it really possible or desirable to lose desire and ego? Whilst excess of both can lead to problems having desire and ego are also important drivers of creativity and progressive social (and personal) change, as well as feeding an array of what may be negative effects.    Also there is a strong critique of Buddhism as appropriated by the west, which claims that it becomes distorted and is used instrumentally.   Mindfulness for example, has become the desired corporate training method of the day, as it helps employees with their stress levels and at the same time helps to create a compliant, uncritical and hardworking workforce. Buddhism and it’s derivative Mindfulness can be used instrumentally and out of context, to help produce the perfect corporate worker transforming us from being questioning subjects who resist coercion and strive for the common good, to becoming mindfully pacified, conformist employees.

Our desire is the desire of the other.

Lacan identifies how desire is not something that comes from deep within us but is thrust upon us from early encounters with the other. Our ‘true’ desire is thus found via the unconscious and it is a social desire.  From our infancy our desire is to fulfil the desire of the other (mummy or daddy) and we spend most of our lives repeating whatever patterns we fall into as infants. Put another way, our desire is caused by the others lack (remembering lack causes desire)

What is your Desire? A Key Coaching Question

When coaching senior leaders, I often open with this particular question: “What is your desire?”. On the surface it is a question that provokes an instant response – our ego response – I desire success, I desire happiness, I desire promotion.   This opening question is also purposefully a little unsettling and disruptive.   I am not asking the normal coaching questions such as ‘what are your goals?’ or ‘what would you like to achieve in these coaching sessions?’.   This question about desire opens up a different space, which as a psychoanalytically trained coach I enter with relish.   I coach the leader on a journey, helping them to realize the unconscious and social aspects of their desire.  How they are working to unconsciously please the ‘others’ desire, to fulfill the others lack.  For example, I coached one leader who was striving to achieve at all costs, relentlessly pursuing promotions and personal success at the expense of family and personal happiness and being quite brutal and unforgiving to others making himself unpopular with peers and losing his own self respect. In the process he was facing personal burn-out and began to question his way-of-being-in-the-world. What we discovered through our coaching work was that his driving desire for success, was not his own desire but it was to please his Fathers desire, or more accurately his fathers lack.  His Father wanted his son to achieve what he himself had desired but had failed to achieve i.e. he lacked the social recognition, power and respect he felt he deserved.   The results of this coaching work enabled the leader to slowly to undo his predicament. There is nothing wrong or pathological about this- it can be a good driver for success and pleasure but his paradox was of striving relentlessly for a desire that made both him and those around him uncomfortable and unhappy.   This coaching work helped him to reconfigure his desire and he began a process of shifting his way-of-being-in-the-world. His drive, his way of enjoying, his relationship with himself and others began to change, one small step at a time.   As he began to change, others began to recalibrate their relationships to him.   Small changes led to bigger changes and two years later this leader actually achieved a senior role he had previously thought out of his reach.   This is how psychoanalytic coaching works- the ends are not achieved via a direct and linear goal seeking path. The changes are emergent and are achieved as a by-product of a meandering and depth approach.   What had really shifted for this leader was something that was not easy to name (his relationship to the real).   He had become more humane to others and less self-orientated. His desire shifted from a blinkered focus on success to engage more with his family, colleagues and ultimately himself.   It was this relational approach to others that was previously missing, that then qualified him to become a senior leader.

In this coaching work we discover something new, something potentially life-changing for the individual and for their relationship to others and to their work.  Psychoanalytic coaching takes us beyond targets and goals and works on non-tangibles that can have a huge impact on the individual. Rather than seeking to fulfil goals (desires) the coaching works to undo them, to challenge the underlying logic that drives them.    The leader who engages in this challenging work (and some don’t) begin to see patterns as to how they chase ‘false’ ego-desires and the desire of the other and they get glimpses of ‘the real’, the part of them they cannot put words to but that fuels their libidinal drive and their true desire.   As they work through these issues they are able to get back on track or find new paths and new energy as they (re)discover true aspects of their desire and of themselves.

Dr Simon Western is President-Elect at the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations (ISPSO) CEO of Analytic-Network Coaching and adjunct Professor at University College Dublin.

He has authored two books with Sage publishers: Leadership a critical text 2nd Ed and Coaching and Mentoring a critical text, and he regularly blogs and writes on

Contact            Twitter @simonwestern


1500 years of experience in one room

Little_Sisters_of_the_Poor_810_500_55_s_c1I was deeply moved recently when I stayed with a priest in a retreat centre in Ireland.  He offering mass on Saturday evening at a local convent and I asked to join him.  I was a man amongst 30 elderly nuns with varying levels of frailty.  I looked around the room and wondered about their lives, and how they must feel about the demise of their order due to the lack of the next generation, taking vows and joining them.   What must it be like to devote your life to a way of being that once was very important to society then loses its value.  I discussed this with the priest and he said, these women were ‘lions’ in their day; missionaries working with the poor and dispossessed,  nurses and school teachers….each with at least 50 years of experience and 50 years of giving free-work for their cause.  I reflected on this, 30 nuns with 50 years experience in one room…. 1500 years of experience, 1500 years of work, 1500 years of prayer in the same room as me.    I felt humbled and moved, grateful and also sad.   Looking at these frail women, some clearly who had strokes and in poor health, some with bright eyes and smiles…. a way of life was disappearing before my eyes, 1500 years of experience fading away.   I reflected on the contrast between these nuns lives and our contemporary values and working lives; how we are pre-occupied with our image, brands, self-importance,  speedy results,  material success and the fetish of anything new.    1500 years of a counter-culture looking me in the eye, moved me once again to reflect on our own culture.  There is still time for learning from our elders, for giving, for deepening our common humanity and for prayer.

Free yourself from the happiness imperative.


Free Yourself from the Happiness Imperative

  A counter-cultural new years resolution.

For so many of us, our new years resolutions focus on striving to be happy, becoming fitter, healthier and overcoming our inner blocks and anxieties that create obstacles preventing us from achieving our potential and greater happiness.

Magazine articles, TV and radio talk shows, life coaches, self-help books, blogs and twitter accounts are filled with positive rhetoric demanding that we strive for happiness offering trite slogans “Be your true self” “Love yourself more” “Be kind to yourself” “Follow your dreams and you can achieve anything you desire”.  Striving for happiness may seem like a no-brainer, for how can it be a problem to strive for happiness?   Lets take a step back for a moment and look at what’s really happening here.

We find ourselves living in a “society of commanded enjoyment” (Stavrakakis 2008). A society that demands (at an unconscious level) that we acquiesce to the ‘happiness imperative’ (Beradi 2008), that it is our duty to be happy. So whilst we think we are acting independently to strive for happiness we are simply conforming to a social demand to be positive, strive for happiness and fulfil our potential.  In the past social demands were different, ‘know your place’ ‘Work hard and be humble’ and it would have been wrong to strive for happiness.  Whilst this striving for fulfilling potential has its upsides and liberates us from former constraining forces, constantly having to perform being positive (even to ourselves) and holding high expectations that it is our duty and entitlement to be happy is truly problematic.

This happiness imperative that demands our positivity is not just about individuals wanting to improve and discover true happiness, it’s a social construction closely linked to consumer capitalism that drives us to behave and think in particular ways and limits our ability to think and feel in other ways.   It’s very dysfunctional to both individuals and to society as it blocks our ability to feel what we need to feel, which is a whole range of diverse emotions.

The happiness imperative is an injunction that speaks directly to our super-ego and says to us, “if you are not happy you are not a good person, because you are not fulfilling your potential as you should be ”.  To not be happy (and not to be successful by implication) like those celebrities we see on TV is a fault of our own making.  This of course is very convenient to those in governance positions who say whenever there are social problems ‘its the individuals fault’, or as Margaret Thatcher so famously put it, ‘there is no such thing as society’.   Consumer society is fed by the happiness imperative as mass marketing screams at us, ‘buy this and be happy’ ‘buy this and feel great’ offering consumer goods and services which promise happiness but deliver debt and an ever-increasing circle that feeds not happiness but a lack of meaning in our lives.  Material goods bring temporary relief from feelings of emptiness, or displace sad feelings in our manic buying sprees, but soon the feelings of emptiness and lack return, quickly creating desire for the next round of consumption to take the pain away. Experts in our pervasive therapeutic culture offer an array of wares to help guide us to greater happiness; counselors, coaches, therapists, healers, huggers, spiritual directors, new age physicians, plastic surgeons…. Whatever you want, the experts can deliver with their technique driven solutions. Consume our services and happiness is just around the corner!

Furred (2003) and Beradi (2009) claim that the happiness imperative creates the opposite effect to what is intended, citing the devastating amounts of depression, anxiety and unhappiness since society adopted this stance (a post 1968 phenomena growing out of the counter-culture that celebrated individual freedom and was later assimilated into mainstream consumer society).    Barbara Ehrenreich focusing on the happiness imperative in the USA claims ‘that on a personal level it leads to self-blame and a morbid preoccupation with stamping out ‘negative thoughts…. On a national level, it has brought us an era of irrational optimism resulting in disaster’ (Ehrenreich, 2009).  It is worth noting that in the USA where positive psychology thrives and the happiness imperative  is most prevalent Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States. (Ehrenreich, 2009)

So what to do about it?  Should a new year resolution be to become less happy?

No of course not, but it could be to free yourself from the happiness imperative itself.  To see the double-bind this puts us in. To rid ourselves of this socially perverse demand that encourages us to chase an illusory fantasy of always being happy and positive.   Allowing yourself not to always feel positive begins by telling the super-ego voice in your head to get back in its box!  Then to allow yourself to feel human with all that entails; sadness, grieving, loss, pain, love, hope, joy, contentment, confusion, satisfaction, boredom, frustration, melancholy and the ambivalence of many confusing feelings.  It is all these other feelings, thoughts and emotions that make our lives so rich and so liveable.

So enjoy a rich new year filled with ambivalence, joy, love and melancholy.

Is Creating Company Values Grasping at Straws?

Screen Shot 2015-12-29 at 14.55.51Taking an ethical stance utilizing psychoanalysis

This blog explores how today’s excessive focus on values reveals a lack of ethics and a generic loss of conviction and belief. We see values everywhere in companies, public services, governments and international institutions, plastered across walls and websites, advertising to the world what the company believes in (or what it would like the viewer to believe the company believes in). There seems to be a belief that the more values we see, the more we will believe in them. Sadly the surplus enjoyment (plus du jour) that we get in displaying our values, reveals that this excess is nothing more than a veneer to cover a growing void that exists in our culture around what we really believe in. This in turn leads to a crisis in our ability to take an ethical stance, and to hold to values that are meaningful.   The sad collection of clichéd values we see displayed are more evidence of this lack.

Philosophers often claim that modernism/urbanisation has led to individual alienation and that post-modernism leads to an underlying experience of disenchantment and a crisis of collective identity. The loss of grand narratives and the lack of an identifiable ‘big Other’ (God or trustworthy institutions i.e. church, governments, banks etc) that we can have faith in or to rail against, leaves us disenchanted with our world, and a little paralyzed as to how to take an ethical stance. We are told paradoxical truths, we must value difference, but align company culture! Respect others beliefs but strive for what we believe in…. but what happens when these things are incompatible?

This disenchantment leaves us with a values deficit, that we overcompensate for by continually claiming to be values led. We protest too much.  The over zealous use of values adds to the empty shell of disbelief that exists. Values it seems have become yet another consumer item, a marketing and branding tool, an attempt to get employees and customers to identify with the good company in order to increase employee engagement, productivity and profit. (See

I am not saying that all values-led approaches are wrong or that they are inauthentic. Many leaders and companies try hard to do what is right, and often believe that doing good also helps success, but what they are also doing is unconsciously contributing to the problem they try to solve. Jacques Lacan a famous French psychoanalyst ( helped us to understand how lack creates desire. In simple terms we desire when what we don’t have, and this drives consumer capitalism, and in this instance the lack of belief and values drives the desire for excessive consumption of values.   The problem is that as with consumer goods, the enjoyment or relief we gain is short-lived, and we soon feel another lack for a a better suit, house or car etc. With values we are pleased when we identify them and put them on the website, but the emptiness soon returns. Why? Because the desire to have values, does not fill the real lack. New values wont give us the idea of belief we desire, because belief and faith cannot be concretized in our post-modern age. If we try they become rigid and certain we become fundamentalist and perverse, and as we see this stance is attractive to a growing minority these days.  So our task is to stop shouting so much about our values, and work on what we really believe in, however tenuous, fluid and challenging this may be.

Post-modernism offers an easy way out of taking an ethical position.  It is too easy to  reduce ethics to relativism, claiming we can never know the other, or that everything is subjective so there are no certain truths, and this somehow enables us to not make ethical decisions.   The challenge we face is how to hold an ethical position whilst also valuing difference and acknowledging complex causalities.   For example, we may find it easy to take a clear position on female genital mutilation, but whilst we may believe in democracy, taking a position on pushing forward the democratizing forces in China are more complex.   China is going through the biggest political-social experiment the world has ever seen, over the shortest timeframe. What took the west over 100 years to accomplish in terms of modernizing and urbanizing society the Chinese have done in 20.   It’s fragile and to do anything too quickly may undermine forces that would break up China and leave millions in civil war through regional conflicts and back to starvation.  We need to balance our ideology with the consequences of imposing it on others, but this doesn’t mean not taking an ethical stance. We still must make judgments and press for human rights whilst also acknowledging other realities that can cause greater systemic violence i.e. violence that is endemic and causes terrible pain but is hidden within social norms and structures. Zizek positions this against the subjective violence we can easily identify with displayed on the news or Hollywood movies. (See

Psychoanalytic Insights

So where is the line between taking an ethical position and imposing our cultural norms on others?  Psychoanalysis can really help here, because it teaches us how to work with ambiguity, to acknowledge that we are working with what we know and with what we don’t know (unconscious forces, motivations and our emotional attachments to unconscious ideologies). It teaches us to look much more deeply at our own part in any relationship, be it personal or inter-national. Taking a line is possible but only when we recognize that the line is not linear! There is rarely a black and white, or a clear good and bad, as these are fantasy positions.   Psychoanalysis can help to understand the unconscious forces that sustain fundamentalist religious ideology and concretizing beliefs, revealing the underlying and unconscious dynamics that support these perverse positions. Psychoanalysis also acknowledges the irrationality of rationality, showing how closer to home,  secularist fundamentalists such as Richard Dawkins who turn science-rationality into a new perverse faith, claiming science and rationality to be the new forces of salvation. (

Psychoanalysis helps to identify the shadow side of the enlightenment known as the ‘dark enlightenment’, how instrumental rationalism dehumanizes us all and helps destroys the planet.   Modernity has achieved great advances and also great human and environmental catastrophes.  Let us not forget the last two world wars that killed millions were not religious wars, and that the holocaust was a modern idea using modern science and rationality to justify and achieve its evil ends.  Karen Armstrong writes eloquently on this, and also reveals how the barbaric ‘medieval’ fundamentalist Islamists are also an offshoot of modernity.  (See and

Taking an ethical stance is not an exercise in fundamentalism- be it religious or secular.   It is not about being grandiose and self-righteous but about making judgments taking into account the context and our own unconscious bias and desires that create ideologies that we believe in without realizing they exist! Ideologies of the unconscious!

A psychoanalytic position helps expose this shadow but it also goes further.   It helps us understand how we enjoy, how we desire, how our attachments to pleasure  often lead us to enjoy our displeasure, how we all have perversity within us and that when we point a finger at the perverse other, we often point 3 fingers back at ourselves. It helps us understand and how our desire is the desire of the other, and how we are inextricably created by each other.  It teaches us how we become attached to our symptoms, take pleasure in them and how they sustain our way of being in the world.

To take an ethical stance and to hold values means more than getting the marketing and management team together to choose 3 buzz words that sound comforting.   It is to do the unconscious and conscious work of hard thinking, of bringing our experience and subjectivity to bear on issues, and to allow ourselves to experience doubt, uncertainty and anxiety without projecting it outwardly as quickly as we can onto the bad other in order to save our fragile egos.

To take an ethical stance is to challenge the normative, to take a stance against bland and banal value statements.   It is to bring a hint of the real into the imaginary!

Professor Simon Western is President Elect, International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations,

CEO of Analytic-Network Coaching Ltd

He runs advanced coach training and leadership development programmes and has consulted to senior leaders in international companies with an emphasis on creating new leaders for the network society.  

Simon is author of Leadership a critical text and Coaching and mentoring a critical text


Three Versions of Truth: Hysterical Truth, Psychoanalytic Truth, and Revolutionary Truth

Helpful blog if your struggling with defining the Truth! Not convinced that psychoanalytic truth and Badiou’s Truth are incompatible…

Lacanian Scraps

It seems to me that there are really three versions of Truth on the table today. The first version of Truth is reductive. The second is destructive, and the third is productive. All three are responding to a similar threat: the threat of absolutism/universalism and the equally potent threat of relativism. To begin with, there has been an awkward conflation of universalism with absolutism. For the purposes of this blog, I will avoid the debate. But I will state up front that I do not share the view that universalism is inherently absolutist. Moreover, I do not share the view that universalism, as a position, is necessarily hegemonic or unethical. So, for the purposes of this blog, I prefer to use the word absolutism over universalism.

The reductive position is best exemplified by John D. Caputo. Caputo discusses the shift in the status of Truth from the Enlightenment to Postmodernity…

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Drone warfare reveals psychological tensions of living in the digital age

Unknown images

This blog draws attention to how today’s digital society transforms not only the material world (e.g. how wars are fought), but it also changes our psycho-social world i.e. how people relate emotionally to their inner-selves, to each other, and to the social contexts in which they live and work.

The blog draws on the example of US Air force drone pilots, operating from a home base in the USA, attacking and killing enemies ‘virtually’ then returning to their homes after ‘work’. As reported in a recent NY Times article[1] cited in this blog drone operators are suffering stress on an epidemic scale so that flights are being cut back.

Our emotional state also impacts on the material world, in this case drone flights are reduced due to high stress levels, and perhaps many errors are made (which interestingly are not connected to stress levels in this article) and also families are affected. In particular the blog reveals the problematic of working between the virtual and real world, and how this complicates our emotional and psychological experience of being present and absent.

Drone Operators

Drone pilots are worn down by the unique stresses of their work “We’re at an inflection point right now,” said Col. James Cluff, the commander of the Air Force’s 432nd Wing”

Putting aside the question of whether or not USA drone attacks are ethical, rational or desirable, I want to explore the impact of using computer technologies and operating in the virtual domain, and how easily we make wrong assumptions about the psycho-social dynamics that occur. This recent NY times article challenges 3 assumptions that are made, and two other points are raised by myself.

Point 1.   Assumption  Physical distance from the warzone makes the killing less real, and more easily dealt with for the ‘pilot’

Correction 1. Physical distance doesn’t make any significant difference, in fact it may be worse. In some ways the drone operator is closer to the killing and gore, because unlike an airline pilot who sees the damage from a great height and speed whilst flying over the strike area, the drone operator revisits the site and the video replays are studied in close up detail to assess the strike. Whilst the drone operator is thousands of miles away, emotionally they may be a lot closer to the consequences and violence inflicted on others by their actions. This is particularly horrifying when innocent civilians and children or their own men get killed in error.

Point 2   Assumption . Virtual’ killing mediated through a computer screen is less ‘real’ and therefore less stressful than when in the warzone.

Correction 2. The killing appears to be no-less real in its impact on the operators.

 “A Defense Department study in 2013, the first of its kind, found that drone pilots had experienced mental health problems   like depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder at the same rate as pilots of manned aircraft who were deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan”.

As mentioned in point 1. the close up reviewing of the killing can make it more real, and the assumption that it’s like a fantasy war-game seems to underestimate our human capacity to differentiate between reality and fantasy games.   Perhaps in reverse when a susceptible person plays fantasy war games they may be more vulnerable to shoot up a school, or commit a terrorist act because their real and virtual worlds are blurred, but mature drone operators seem as equally vulnerable to stress as ‘real’ pilots, suggesting that they know the difference at a deep level.

Point 3. Assumption Being close to family and community gives the drone operator more support.

Correction 3. The stress of transitioning on a daily basis between war and Walmart’s, killing at work and the kids school run; seems far too difficult to manage psychologically. The problem is increased a) because whilst air pilots are deployed to a war zone for a limited time period, the drone operators are ‘perpetually deployed’ there is no looking forward to an end or a break, b) because being deployed with ‘a band of brothers/sisters’ in a war zone provides certain rituals and camaraderie that helps contain the stress.

“Having our folks make that mental shift every day, driving into the gate and thinking, ‘All right, I’ve got my war face on, and I’m going to the fight,’ and then driving out of the gate and stopping at Walmart to pick up a carton of milk … and the fact that you can’t talk about most of what you do at home…. “

Point 4. The impact of killing whilst being free from danger oneself

This final point isn’t mentioned in this NYT article, but I hypothesize that it might also be a factor in the drone operator’s stress.  Pilots and soldiers in a warzone put their lives at risk and see colleagues at risk. Drone operators unleash violence upon others (and sometimes on innocent others) when their lives are free from danger. Does this make the killing more difficult to rationalize internally? Even if consciously they believe their killing is an act of a ‘just war’, perhaps unconsciously it is less easy to psychologically adjust to killing from afar. Does killing in rational, clinical circumstances, without the danger and risk, without the adrenalin of being in the warzone, without fear, make those doing the killing more psychologically vulnerable to an unacknowledged guilt, a dissonance between what is believed and what is felt, leading to anxiety, stress and depression?

Point 5. Techno-Utopian War without Casualties

The Drone operators may also be experiencing the fall out from the techno-utopian idea that a clean, digital war can be fought without casualties (‘our’ side) which represses and disavows the reality that war is always ugly and violent.   When something is repressed it always returns, but not in obvious ways. The return of the repressed here may occur in three ways: 1) ‘Friendly fire’ and killing of their own soldiers by error, 2) the unleashing of arbitrary terrorist acts on civilians back home, that are almost impossible to defend against. 3) the repression returns in the form of internalised ‘violence’ i.e. stress, depression, anxiety and other forms of mental illness as seen in the Drone operators. There are always casualties!


Presence and Absence – the psychological confusion of our times

Critics against drone attacks, and those who planned the drone operations believed that drone operators are less psychologically present due to their physical absence, but it seems much more complex than this. Freud writing about melancholia says;   “It must be admitted that a loss has indeed occurred, without it being known what has been lost[2]

Freud theorized that when mourning and grieving doesn’t get fully processed, this leaves the person in a debilitating state of melancholia.  This might help us understand the psycho-social dynamics that occur when we are constantly working between the real and virtual. When working in the virtual domain, loss occurs in many ways sometimes due to physical separation and sometimes due to more nuanced factors.   Whilst we feel the affect of the loss, we rarely recognize what is actually lost in translation between the virtual and physical domain. As Freud says ‘we experience the feeling of a loss but are not sure what has actually been lost’ and therefore we cannot mourn it which leaves us with the experience of melancholia.

Loss can also be enhanced by presence. Just because we are not physically present, doesn’t make us absent.   Physical absence can also enhance our emotional presence, and our virtual presence can evoke an affect of loss. For example the teenager in constant contact with parents or friends on cell phones or facebook, are virtually more present but may experience the loss of autonomy, freedom and personal space to be themselves.   Another example is when skyping my daughter when working abroad. Our live presence on the screen to each other is both a joy, but at the same time it enhances the absence i.e. the loss we feel because we are apart and know it more because of the screen presence. This experience of loss and absence of her physical presence, in turn paradoxically enhances her emotional presence within me. She becomes more present to me and I then experience greater loss of not being able to hug her, and of my absence from the family and home is ever-more present in me. This cyclical reinforcing of emotions that dance between presence and absence, virtual and real is a condition of our digital times.

It seems the Drone operators are also experiencing a loss and melancholia that becomes somatised to depression or other mental health conditions. Perhaps a pilot fighting in the warzone processes their killing and their own personal losses of being absent from family more fully because they have a tangible context to work this i.e. they share an experience of killing, danger and loss of fallen comrades which they collectively mourn (and if they don’t they often suffer when returning to civilian life).

The drone pilots loss is unrecognized and unnamed, they are at home so it’s easier right? I would suggest their loss is of being active with comrades the warzone- the adrenalin, the fear, the danger, the comraderie and the rituals that enable soldiers at war to contextualize the meaning. Also there is the loss of being separate during their ‘war work’, away from family concerns. The absence of the family is tough when deployed, but perhaps the presence of the family is tougher as it raises such inner conflicts and tensions.   The Air Force didn’t account for this in their planning.  The assumption was that their absence from the war zone would make their killing work less stressful, so they planned perpetual deployment, which meant relentlessly flying drones on potential killing operations. It seems the reverse may be true; their absence from the warzone may make the killing more present to them. Finally; the unconscious guilt or dissonance that occurs when killing the other, when not in danger one-self perhaps inflicts another hidden loss. A loss of humanity and of self-esteem at an unconscious level, that cannot be integrated or spoken of, as it breaches the agreed narrative of fighting righteous war.

We have a lot of work to do on understanding the dynamics of our unfolding hi-tech world and its psycho-social meanings and implications. The blurring between the real and the virtual worlds are creating new dynamics that are not easy to read.   Assumptions about our emotional and psychological experience of physical distance and virtual engagement need constantly re-working in this digital age. The meaning of presence and absence are key to our understanding of the fluid boundaries between virtual and real.

Leadership Lessons

What are the implications for working virtually with international or regional teams?

Take time to think through the impacts of virtual work on employees and families, both locally and globally (especially review the wider network of suppliers, contractors etc)

Coaching Lessons

When coaching leaders, test their assumptions when discussing virtual work.

Explore with them their own personal experience of presence, absence and any melancholia/stress in them or the system that needs working with.

Also explore what impacts of virtual – distant work may be hidden or disavowed. For example, what violence is done due to physical absence? E.g are manufacturing workers in Asia violated because they are not present in the USA or Europe….. and if so, in what form does or will this repressed violation return to the home base?


[2] Sigmund Freud, ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, in Collected Papers, Vol. XIV, trans. James Strachey (London: Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psycho-Analysis, 1957) p. 252.

Leadership, Projections and Power: Psychoanalytic insights


I have just been elected to a new leadership role, ‘President-Elect’ of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organisations (  Whilst delighted and honoured, this also raises issues about taking up this public leadership role. It made me revisit some earlier work I have done on how leaders project onto others, and how ‘followers’ project on to leaders. Having an understanding of these psycho-social dynamics and constantly reworking them is the essential work for any leader.   This blog is an extract, from the chapter I wrote on ‘Leadership and Diversity’ in my book ‘Leadership a critical text’, and it reflects on my leadership role when Director of Coaching at Lancaster University Management School.

To cite this work: Western, S. (2013). Leadership: A critical text. Sage. pgs 92-100

I write as a white, heterosexual, English male. I carry with me the history, social and cultural meanings, stereotypes, power and privileges and disadvantages, associated with this position. I had ‘working-class’ school education that offered a very poor education.   I dropped out of school and didn’t get to university. I accessed higher education in my thirties and now have a two Masters and PhD, which now adds to my privileged status. This experience gives me a heightened awareness and sensitivity to issues of class, the elitism of education, and less personal experience of issues such as disability.   When working as Director of Coaching at Lancaster University Management School, taking on a role and the title; ‘Dr Simon Western’, I had a heightened awareness of the powerful unconscious projections I received. By projection(s), I use the term in relation to the object relation’s school of psychoanalysis. Projection occurs when powerful feelings are located in another person. It refers to Melanie Klein’s (1959) original work on splitting, projection and introjection. Powerful feelings (often unwanted feelings) are split off from the conscious mind, and can be located in another person. These can be feelings of love, idealisation, or perhaps hatred or envy. For example parents often project their unfulfilled ambitions on their children. An angry boss may project his anger onto his personal assistant, making him/her angry. The boss retains a safe distance from his own rage, and the assistant (if they introject or take in the projection), acts out this anger.

These projections towards an ‘academic’ clashed with the internalised sense of ‘uneducated’ self I had grown up with. These projections arise because of what I represent to others, in my body, personality and role.   Depending on the personal emotional and developmental histories and social location of others, will depend on how they respond to me. This is a two way process a dynamic that is both conscious and unconscious. I have observed that these projections are triggered through five key sources, which I believe are also applicable to leaders working in other contexts

Sources that stimulate Projective Responses’ in leaders

1.     The Institution and Context: In my case this is the University, which carries with it the history of academia and elite knowledge, which I represent in the ‘here and now’ when standing in front of a lecture theatre.   Each leader will have a specific context that ‘speaks through them’

2.     ‘Embodied and Cultural Self’: For example, my whiteness, my sexuality, being British, my accent denoting working class and my region, my maleness,   age, ‘able-body’; each individual carries in their embodied self, a cultural self that stimulates reactions in others.

3.     Personality:   Personality traits, ‘charisma’, quietness, calmness intellectual capability, elements that make us distinctive. Each personality will trigger some people’s feelings in powerful ways,   positive and negative and in others they will have a bland reaction.

4.     Expertise:   I teach Coaching at Masters Level drawing on my psychoanalytic and systemic background. Coaching and therapy can carry the mystique of the ‘shrink’ or of a secular priesthood and with it the fear/curiosity of being able to read the hidden unconscious or people will expect me to be a caring holding figure for them.   The expertise signifies meanings, a physics or maths lecturer will stimulate different reactions, an engineer or nurse different reactions again.

5.     Role Power As Course Director I have the power and authority to assess students, and position power and influence in the lecture theatre, my voice may be given more weight than others. Leaders must recognise power relations, if they are to overcome bias discussions or worse work in ‘silent organizations’ i.e. organizations with employees who speak but say nothing in public of importance or dissent.


Leadership lessons

Leaders and followers should reflect on these five areas when in role at work, to begin to understand what they carry with them, how they use it, what biases they have, and how others react to them.

Coaching lessons

When coaching leaders, try and help them see how the ‘social speaks through us’. How they and their teams, will carry assumptions, perceptions and emotions pending on their personal and social experiences, and project these on others, and introject these from others. Try and raise awareness of this as you coach the leader, in particular with relation to power dynamics.

An extended version of this can be found on Simon Western

and the full version in Leadership a critical text Western S,  Sage 2013,

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