In many ways leadership has emerged in all kinds of encouraging and unexpected ways in this current crisis to break our sense of dependency on idealized individuals. Young medics have gone to work in hospitals just as they are graduating, supermarket workers have continued to turn up to help feed us every day, underpaid carers have continued to care for the vulnerable despite lacking the support and PPE they need; com
munity groups have rallied in their communities to support and aid their neighbours. Leadership doesn’t always emerge from leaders.
Rather than obsessing about leaders and leadership, the pandemic and resulting crisis has given us ample opportunity to notice how leadership is a co-created
pattern of relationships which arises in a group. It tells us as much about our own expectations of and projections onto authority figures, as it does about the authority figures themselves. We all play into some dominating emotional patterns which catch us up again and again.
It’s important to pay attention to this social and emotional perspective on leadership because it is underrepresented. The mine of leadership scholarship which has focused on individuals and how they behave, what they should be doing, has been dug very deep and every time one anticipates that there is no more digging to do, along comes another variation on a theme: transformational leadership, servant leadership, relational leadership, leadership and followership, clear leadership, dialogic leadership, leadership, leadership, leadership. It becomes hard to think about power and authority without having the word leadership somewhere in the sentence as though every societal problem can be reduced to one thing.
The alternative to further refinement and differentiation is the tendency simply to pour old Dr Feelgood in new bottles and claim that the particular crisis X institution or Y society is facing shows that there was an absence of leadership, requires more leadership, or simply needs a doubling down of the same kind of leadership recipes that we already know. There is nothing wrong with transformational leadership, it just wasn’t transformational enough in this particular context. It was insufficiently visionary.
But let us turn to consider the conditions into which leaders are invited to act when a group is anxious, with the help of psychiatrists Wilfred Bion and Pierre Turquet, it may help us reflect upon how we are all caught up in social and emotional patterns which are hard to resist. I explore this as an underrepresented aspect of group life in much leadership literature, rather than claiming that it is the only thing going on.
Bion contrasted what he described as the ‘sophisticated and rational functioning level of behaviour’ present in a group focused on a task, which he termed a ‘work group’, with a ‘basic assumption’ group. Bion’s three basic assumptions, dependency, fight/flight and pairing are emotional states which seize the group when it becomes anxious and interferes with the group’s ability to function. Turquet added a fourth basic assumption, oneness. These basic assumptions may alternate, or one basic assumption might take hold of the group for long periods of time. I explore all of these below in relation to the current situation in the UK.
Dependency is pattern of relating in an anxious group, which then looks to an idealized leader to help them out of a crisis. The group itself may become passive and docile and overly respectful of the leader. In the UK our principle authority figure, the Prime Minister has been largely absent for the past months for good reason and bad. Leading up to the crisis he didn’t attend cabinet meetings planning for the crisis. During the beginning of the crisis he ignored his own government’s emerging advice about not getting close to Covid-19 sufferers and contracted the virus himself and nearly died. Subsequently he has been absent through recovery and paternity leave. Johnson’s return was greeted by politicians within his own government as a ‘boost for the country’, where Johnson’s body and the body politic become synonymous. In the meantime and in the UK we co-created an amplified idealization of Captain Tom Moore, a 99 year old who has raised more than £30 million for the NHS by walking 100 laps of his garden in anticipation of his 100th birthday, and has subsequently had a song which went to the top of the charts. In microcosm and in my institution, a relatively mundane e-mail from a manager to all staff setting out what the department should be working on elicited some members of staff to reply that they found the instructions ‘inspirational’.
In situations of crisis, according to Bion, we are likely to become highly dependent on our leaders and to invest heavily in their actions and words. They may become idealized figures for us. Or if they are unavailable, we may to look to others to lead us. This can be dangerous territory for leaders if they come to believe in this idealization of themselves. It is also dangerous territory for us. Bion comments on the kind of leader that an anxious group might look to:
“In my experience most groups, not only patient groups, find a substitute that satisfies them very well. It is usually a man or a woman with marked paranoid trends; perhaps if the presence of an enemy is not immediately obvious to the group, the next best thing is for the group to choose a leader to whom it is.” (2011: 67).
Can you think of any leaders who easily find enemies to blame?
In terms of finding enemies, the basic assumption fight/flight is where group members fight among themselves, avoid talking about what is important, disrupt the functioning of the group and become aggressive. They are likely to rally round a leader who can mobilize this hostility, for example against the virus, against the Chinese, or against those in the community who are considered not to be ‘socially distancing’ adequately. Recently PM Johnson described the Covid-19 virus as an invisible mugger which needed wrestling to the ground, a metaphor which reveals a lot about attitudes to class as it does towards the illness. In organisational life teams which find it difficult to function might find that members don’t turn up to the meeting on time, become rivalrous with each other or argue about the task in hand.
Pairing is an expression of hope for the future of the group, and occurs when members look to two people in the group to produce offspring, in Bion’s terms perhaps the Messiah, who will save the group. Let’s hope that British people can scale down their expectations of Wilfred Lawrie Nicholas Johnson, and that he merely becomes a future leader of the Conservative party, like his father. Of course it is only human to wish the parents of new babies well and to be pleased for them, but in group dynamic terms Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds couldn’t have timed the birth better as spectacle and group nourishment.
Oneness is a basic assumption in a group which encourages an undifferentiated feeling of wholeness in order for the group to preserve itself. At the same time this feeling makes it difficult to examine assumptions or call things into question. Many organisations make an appeal to oneness with their values statements, where all employees are expected to ‘share the values’. Equally, in times of crisis like the present, we are encouraged all to pull together, not to criticise the government, which is said to be doing its best. We are constantly reminded that ‘we are all in this together’. Even a cursory scan of the statistics reveals that this is not the case, however. BAME communities and health professionals have suffered a disproportionate numbers of deaths, as have poor areas of the country, as have the old and vulnerable, and not just because they were old and vulnerable. Poor communities without good accommodation and facilities have suffered more in lockdown, and poor countries will suffer the crisis more than rich ones.
The appeal to oneness is not just enjoined by authority figures, but we are likely to encourage each other not to let the side down, and not to be negative. The price we pay for falling into this basic assumption is an absence of critical thinking.
In all of the above I am in no way claiming that these group patterns are the only thing which are shaping our expectations of leaders and leadership, nor that individual leaders play no part in what is happening .
 Bion, W. (1961/2011) Experiences in Groups and Other Papers, London: Routledge.
 Turquet, P. M. (1974). Leadership—the individual in the group. In G. S. Gibbard, J. J. Hartman & R. D. Mann (Eds.), Analysis of groups, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.