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Impossible Professions

Updated: Feb 2, 2020

Succession’ is an entertaining TV series portraying a degenerating autocratic executive who built a media empire and struggles to let go of his President & CEO position. His four children are neurotic and thoroughly incompetent with perhaps one partial exception. They all seek to position themselves for the leadership job, with each attempt to gain a competitive edge resulting in resounding public humiliation. With its backstabbing and betrayals, the family is acutely dysfunctional. The show is a black satire well worth watching, leaving a broad audience with a therapeutic feeling of Schadenfreude when considering the current socio-political environment: Better be poor than cursed by wealth like the series’ main characters.

Leadership successions need not be that tragic, but at their core they represent a complex process. This is not too surprising when considering Sigmund Freud’s thesis outlined in ‘Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego’ (1922). According to him, each group unconsciously experiences ‘an intense emotional tie’ with its leader through identification and idealization. Followers tend to fall into a state of infantile dependence, with leaders assuming the role of a parent figure. This phenomenon in which there is an unconscious redirection of feelings from one person (a mother or father) to another (the group leader) is called transference’. The attachment with a leader, in turn, creates a psychological bond amongst followers.

Given these psychodynamics, a leadership change is bound to trigger deep emotional feelings in any organization, as the passing of a matriarch or patriarch does in a family. In fact, successions arguably require a mourning process for employees, independently from the quality of their relationship with their ex-leader. This makes successions – from planning to execution – a particularly challenging task for boards of directors as well as leadership teams. There is plenty of literature which highlights the potential pitfalls when it comes to corporate successions and ways to avoid them, many of which are summarized in this article from the Harvard Business Review.

A way to reduce the need for managerial successions is for executives to be their own successors. In 1985, Andy Grove, CEO of Intel, had to decide whether to defend its weakening position in memory chips or make the bet to invest in the emerging microprocessor business. He famously asked his team: ‘If we got kicked out and the board brought in a new CEO, what do you think they would do?’ With a new perspective unencumbered by the company’s legacy and his own history, he got out of the memory chip business. This proved to be a wise decision.

Beyond the topic of succession, the author of a study entitled The Contribution of Psychoanalysis to Organization Studies and Management (2012) makes a passionate case for integrating psychoanalytical tools in the analysis of organizatios’ functioning. He notes that ‘psychoanalysis considers the invisible dimension [of the unconscious] to be just as worthy of interest, and a source of material effects at least as significant, as organizations’ visible reality’; and more concretely: ‘the repetition of failures or inappropriate action, the disavowal of reality or refusal to face up to problems, […] group resistance to innovation, […] interpersonal conflicts […]: all are examples of psychic disturbances requiring diagnosis and resolution.’

The profound complexity of group relationships in organizations must be acknowledged by any leader. That said, expecting executives to decipher the unconscious of an organization is rather fanciful when considering the practical reality. Freud stated: ‘It almost looks as if [psycho]analysis were the third of those ‘impossible’ professions in which one can be sure beforehand of achieving unsatisfying results. The other two, which have been known much longer, are education and government.’ I am extending his list to business management.

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