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Models of leadership behaviour in organisational coaching: a psychoanalytic approach.

November 19th, 2012 by Nicola Caramia | Posted in Psychology | No Comments » | 416 views | Send article | Print this Article |

Nicola Caramia, BSc (Hons) MBA



Most of the research studies on leadership fail to contribute to a satisfactory explanation of the irrational and unconscious behaviour of leaders and groups in organisations. In this paper it is argued that current theories of leadership appear insufficient to predict the effectiveness of a leadership style in the context of organisational coaching. Leadership models have dealt with a narrow focus on the unconscious-irrational behaviour of leaders. A psychoanalytic coaching model is suggested to coach individuals in their leadership role.

Coaching can be defined as a form of personal development and is becoming increasingly popular in organisations that foster a leadership caching culture. Many different types of coaching exist in literature ranging from a special focus on the client such as executive coaching (Hillary, 2003), to neurosemantic coaching (Hall & Duval, 2004). Kampa and White (in Lowman, 2002) defines coaching as a form of consultation, an ongoing relationship between an individual (the client) and a consultant who possesses knowledge of behavioural and psychological change. The underlying process involves the facilitation of change that includes self-awareness, self-esteem and increased quality in communication with peers and employees.

The main areas of study on leadership behaviour are based on the power-influence model (French and Raven, 1968); the trait theory (Stogdill,1948) based on the characteristics of many leaders and is used to predict leadership effectiveness. The main idea is that leaders have certain traits that makes them leaders. However, the problem is that there is no single set of universal traits that are predictable of leadership. For instance the behavioural theory and the situational approach of the contingency theoretical model (Fiedler, 1967) suggest that if we know what leaders do, then it is possible to teach people leadership (Blake and Mouton 1964; Tannenbaum and Schmidt, 1958)

The Power-influence approach of leadership attempts to explain leadership effectiveness in relation to the source of power available to leaders and the way leaders use power with employees. It can be considered an interesting line of research to acquire knowledge on the consequences of using different kind of power. One of the most used approaches to understanding the sources of power derives from the research by French and Raven (1968). These researchers suggested five sources of power acquired in the individual such as legitimate power, reward power, coercive power, expert power and referent power. An interesting conclusion is that leaders are better off if they exercise a limited amount of power. Another conclusion suggests the manner power used may, perhaps, lead to enthusiastic commitment, passive compliance or resistance by followers. This approach seems to have some relevance to our understanding of power used by leaders but it fail to explain how those people in powerful positions perceive power subjectively. For instance if early parental introjections of power experienced in early infancy might have had an impact later in the adult life of a leader. Looking from an organisational coaching context we may consider exploring how power has been internally processed by the leader (the client) thus helping the client to become aware of his/her inner intra-psychic conflicts in relation to power. Also exploring the Oedipus complex of a leader in his/her early infancy may also add insights to help our understanding of the unconscious power struggle in organisations.

The trait approach seems promising in terms of predicting of leadership effectiveness such as managerial skills and motivation as effective leaders possess a high self-esteem, energy, maturity, stress tolerance and favourable attitudes to authority figures. The Big Five Model of personality structure (Hogan, R. Curphy, G.J., and Hogan, J. 1994) seems to provide a wide acceptance. However the trait approach fails to consider that parental authority figures experienced during childhood, which might have an impact on the managerial styles and self-esteem of leaders, although it provides a basis for selecting the right person for leadership managerial positions in organisations. Trait theories assume leaders are born rather than made. However, if there were specific behaviours that identified leaders, then we could coach people in leadership and we could also develop leadership coaching training programs that develop these behavioural patterns in people who desire to be effective leaders.

The behavioural approach attempts to describe behavioural patters between effective and ineffective leaders. The main concern of this approach is to investigate what activities leaders carry out and to identify those activities that may help us understanding differences between effective and ineffective leaders. Like trait theory with its individual characteristics, the behavioural approach suggests that certain role behaviour to be universal and developing leadership effectiveness regardless of the situation. It seems that focus of behavioural approach is on behavioural dimensions such as consideration versus initiation, task orientation versus relationship orientation (Bales, R. F. and Slater, P.E. 1955; Fleishman, E.A., a. B., H, E, 1955; Bales R.F. 1958) and autocratic approach versus democratic approach (Tannenbaum, R. a. S, W 1958; Heller, F. A. a., Y., G 1969). It may be useful as a model within a cognitive based coaching approach to organisational development although is limited in terms of a leader life-cycle development and its influence on his/her personality development.

The situational approach: trait and behavioural approaches to leadership can be complemented within the contingency theoretical model claiming that the emergence of any personal style is contingent on the environmental situation in which the leader uses his or her role. Fiedler’s model of leadership (1967) argued that the effectiveness of a task or relationship-oriented leaders may depend on the favourableness of the situation that is defined by the power of the position, the task structure as well as the quality of the leader-member relationship. Also, if we consider Attribution theory of leadership (Calder, B.J. 1977) it suggests that leadership is a label attributed to behaviour like people’s inferences about reactions to leaders. Certain types of behaviours can be attributed to the leader, thus leadership is a perceptual function of cognition as people infer from observing leaders’ behaviour that is the knowledge of the outcome that causes individuals attribute qualities of a leader. If we consider the symbolic role of leadership (Meindl, J.R., Ehrlich, S. B. et al.1985).it suggests that leaders can play an important role by manipulation of activities as an effective tool of influencing followers.

Those leaderships models/theories do not address the unconscious behaviour of leaders influenced by their childhood life experiences. If we consider which model of leadership may be more effective in organisational coaching it would be useful to investigate the psychoanalytic model of leadership. The aim of the model is helping the client (the leader) acquiring insight as a leader and a person thus affecting positive changes in his/her performance. The coach works from “the inside out” to encourage an honest self-disclosure and examination (Berglas, 2002). Coaches working within this model argue that to be successful the coach must discover much about the client’s personal history including factors like interpersonal relationships, intra-psychic conflicts and the influence of significant personality characteristics (Berglas, 2002; Williams et al., 2002). The psychoanalytic model of coaching may help us to become aware of how narcissism can be used as a superior explanation of the irrational and unconscious behaviour of leaders in organisations. The model provides the coach with a better understanding of why leaders behave the way they do in groups and organisations thus coaching those people in order to achieve effectiveness.

A deductive research approach based on psychoanalytic theory may provide to the client (the leader) awareness of the unconscious defence mechanisms surfacing his/her leadership behaviour. A psychoanalytic approach to leadership coaching in organisations would also help us to understand the unconscious behaviour of leaders in the workplace. It would enrich our knowledge of how unconscious forces and drives might determine the behaviour of leaders in organisations. A psychoanalytic orientation to coaching in organisations may help us to answer questions such as: is the rational and conscious behaviour of leaders in organisations a reflection of repressed unconscious feelings, desires and anxiety? Do early infancy experiences have an impact on the personality types and character formation of leaders in organisations? Can narcissism and neurosis be used as an explanation of individual irrational behaviour? Can Object Relations theories provide a valid explanation explaining the unconscious behaviour of leaders? Can life histories be considered as a valid research approach to explain the irrational behaviour of leaders in organisations?

Do individuals perceive organisations as a construct, which is derived from their unconscious phantasies during infancy development and the Oedipus complex resolution?

Psychoanalysis is only concerned with the subjective life experience of the individual, the “internal reality” with its unconscious phantasies struggling to express themselves through gratification of libidinal impulses. It is true that during the development of the individual character parental figures are also involved as a model or as an object (bad or good object).

If we look closely, the leader subjective experience of organisations aims to fulfil early childhood unconscious wishes and desires. For instance in the context of organisational behaviour, leaders may perceive organisations as the mirror of their inner world and construct unconsciously their own ideal organisation. If we consider organisation as a construct of our “internal reality” then different leaders would perceive a different meaning of what an organisations is, according to their psychological character.

An acceptable approach in coaching for leadership would be of academic valency if it based on psychoanalytic theories, cognitive theory, development psychology and family systems theory. It would help us to have a better understanding of the psychodynamic processes that exists between followers and leaders. Deconstructing the “inner world” of leaders it helps to understand their drives to behaviour. By deconstructing the dynamics of leadership it would provide us with the awareness of the existence of the mental life of leaders consisting of emotion, cognition and behaviour. It would also emphasise the impact of the transfer and counter-transference processes such as “mirroring” and “idealising” processes characterised by confusion of time and place between leader and followers (Kohut, H. 1971; Kets de Vries, M.F. R. 2001).

Psychoanalytic concepts like “transference” and “counter-transference” (Freud S., 1922, 1974) suggest that leaders encounter transferences and counter-transferences in their relations to others within the organisational context. For example assumptions derived from early childhood experiences that shape current relationships in the adult life and how these influences are seen in relation to positions of authority in organisations. The psychoanalytic approach to coaching explores the psychological process of defence mechanisms of leaders like projections, introjections, identification, idealisation, reaction-formation, regression, repression, denial, displacement, sublimation (De Board, R. 2000) that lead individuals to irrational behaviour when the “external reality” (organisational environment) is threatening their “internal reality”.

During the coaching process one can explore the effects of early life history on personality and achievement of the client (leader); to identify habitual modes of defense mechanisms used by the client (leader). Also sorting out the preferred life-story sequences used by the client when he/she talks about his/her life; isolate formative events like an early experience of loss. For example what aspects of the subject’s development, especially in childhood, best explain his/her adult personality thus the coach can make connections between the client’ past and present.

Although the models of leadership discussed in this paper seem to have some validity, an organisational coach may also consider developmental concepts such as psychosexual stages (Freud), psychosocial stages (E. Eriksson, 1992), development of self-concept (Rogers), drive for superiority (Adler, 1998), development of the personality (Storr 1983 on C.G. Jung), learning through reinforcement and punishment (Skinner, 1974), observational learning (Bandura, 1986), basic anxiety (K. Horney, 1992). All these aspects would enrich the client (the leader) to becoming aware of his/her internal reality but also to integrate past and present thus achieving self-leadership.



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