Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Therapeutic leadership?

John Foster

In my paper Leadership after Sustainabilityfor the IFLAS Leading Wellbeing research festival, I discussed the leadership required to combat pathologically deep-embedded forms of denial. This is not just the denial (amazingly, still around) that climate change and other forms of environmental tragedy are real. It extends to what I call activist denial – refusal to accept that if we were going to stop this happening, we’d have started seriously forty years ago, but we didn’t, so we won’t. (Hence, leadership for after sustainability.)

That leadership will have to be charismatic and therapeutic. It cannot simply operate within the assumptions and practices of the ruling ‘sustainability’ paradigm – that would now be to subscribe to embedded denial, not to break out from it. We will need instead the naturally-arising creative powers through which leaders and followers work together to make new things happen in the world. (The natural gift of these capacities is what charisma means.) Only in such dynamic duality will we have even a chance of acting from the levels beneath denial at which we can still hope to engage with the real.

The therapeutic leader

Therapeutic leaders will draw with greater consciousness and intensity on the capacities inherent in any leadership. The crucial characteristic of a leader is that he or she goes out ahead, in speech and action, to articulate and implement an emerging common will. The leader, by what he or she says and does, realises shared purposes in which, unled, the group wouldn’t share because they would not emerge as purposes without the leader’s prompting. Human leadership has an essentially expressive-creative role. The leader’s words and actions, taken up acceptingly by the group, create something real that was not there before. Through creative-expressive agency, those with leadership gifts – insight, articulacy, focus, determination, aptness for responsibility – help us constitute our goals and organise around the pursuit of them.

Charismatic-therapeutic leaders use these gifts neither to impose such goals, nor merely to propose them. Rather they frame aims and approaches which they intuitively recognise as apt for group endorsement, because expressive of what is there but presently inaccessible (often through denial) in the wills of relevant others. Leading into and through the breakdowns of systems, institutions and long-established expectations of control which coming climatic and ecological disruption will bring, they will thus facilitate resilient reconstruction both of life-ways and of self-understanding. Such leaders will be the innovative poets of praxis, opening up insights and re-making possibility for all those with the gifts of followership – powers of recognition, acknowledgement, sincerity in response, critical alertness and disciplined submission when called for.

 Justifying therapeutic leadership

Only such a conception of leadership-and-followership could be adequate to what is coming. Evidently, however, this raises very sharply the problem of how such charismatic-therapeutic leadership is to be justified. It is no good saying that it is justified if it gets us out of denial and through breakdown. Justifications of means by ends are notoriously dangerous, and nowhere more so than in political contexts where cravings for mere power and dominance are always lurking to reframe the ends of any collective action to suit themselves. But then the justification of what the therapeutic leader does has to be intrinsic to the idea of expressive-creative leadership, and about this there is a deep problem.

Put starkly: the leader’s expressive and pragmatic articulacy guides the group by creating its common will; but how, if not to this common will, is leadership to be held properly accountable for what it does? To the extent that the leader is principally responsible for articulating the goals and standards in term of which he or she is to be held accountable, the force of ‘accountability’ drains away. (If someone makes the laws, then the question whether they act legally in doing so cannot arise, and for logical not legal reasons.) But if leadership, however intentionally therapeutic, is unaccountable, or only accountable to itself, does that not imply an unacceptable ceding of initiative, and therefore ultimately of power, to the individual leader?

 Leadership’s creativity

The problem of justifying charismatic-therapeutic authority is thus structurally related to a very general problem for understanding human creativity. If creators (of any kind) are unaccountable, acting gratuitously on what is finally nothing more than their own behalf and whim, what they create can have no more claim on our attention than our own equally gratuitous likings and dislikings accord it. But if they are accountable to others, to ‘public opinion’ via sets of established rules and guidelines, something essential about freedom and spontaneity going with the idea of creativity has been lost. And how can the process of creation be held accountable (which seems the only other option) to itself?

This is a genuine not a rhetorical question, and until it is convincingly answered lots of people will go on being nervous about therapeutic leadership. I think the answer has to do with how leaders and followers must collaborate in a mutually-created public space of meaning – a process which in different forms pervades our lives. (See, for a great example, the lessons about co-creativity which Sue Cox, also at the research festival, draws from Argentinian tango.) I am now trying to work out this answer in detail –  any thoughts which this blog may stimulate much appreciated!


John Foster is a freelance writer and philosophy teacher and an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University


You can find the link to this and all submitted papers here at the Leading Wellbeing website, or via the IFLAS Research page here

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