The Psychodynamics of Leadership

Over the last nine months we have undergone the Prophetic leadership program through Al-Murabbi consulting. We learnt about what characteristics makes a good leader, specifically the 11 leadership qualities of Prophet Muhammed (SAW). In addition, looking inwards into our own personality traits by doing different exercises such as the Myers-Briggs personality test so we are aware of our strengths and weaknesses.

Throughout this journey I have often wondered how our inner and outer world contributes to the type of leaders we choose. What do leaders give us in terms of our sense of self and why we are drawn to their power and authority. I believe that psychodynamic systems theory can give us a lot of insight into the intrapsychic world of groups. This branch of psychology has been used to analyse group behaviour in organisations and the unconscious motives to why we choose the leaders we do. Just like the Johari’s window model illustrates there are parts of ourselves that we are aware of, but we also have parts we aren’t aware off at all our blind spots. This is in the arena of the unconscious.

Psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion (1959) studied group dynamics by conducting experiments through which he formulated his own theory to explain what function groups provide in our psyche. He proposed that there are three basic assumptions in groups firstly dependency, which is that followers expect their leader to provide them with a sense of omnipotence, a patriarchal or matriarchal figure that can solve all the problems of their society. We can see this in Donald Trump’s campaign message “make America great again”. It’s a message the symbolises a saviour and restoration of what once was, which tapped into the insecurities that many Americans were most likely feeling.

Secondly is fight-fight, this is the strong desire to protect the group from outside threat and preserve its principles. It can be a positive thing that helps the group in its strategic planning and achieving its goals. However, it can also be negative as it can stimulate the death/aggressive drive, doing anything to make sure the group survives even if it’s not ethical. We can think of Hilter and his obsession with the preservation of the Aryan race that lead to genocide. This also happens in cults, I recently watched the documentary Wild Wild Country about the Rajneesh movement. It’s very interesting to observe their progression from an innocent move to preserve the movement by moving to America, eventually leads to attempted murder, positioning and other vile crimes to make sure that nothing comes in the way of their goals even if it means their original ethics are compromised.

Lastly is pairing, which is the desire for followers to partner with someone that will help to deal with their anxiety. However, this may result in splitting which causes intra-group conflict and sometimes in aggression towards the leader, which can lead to another leader being created. We see this a lot in political parties, which splits into factions and the old leader is no longer trusted.

A lot of the emotional projections that leaders receive from their followers can be described as transference. Which means that followers transfer feelings from early object relations (parents, caregivers) onto their leadership figure (Rycroft 1995). Kohut (1971) described two types of transference that are key in infant development. The infant mirrors their caregiver making them feel like they’re the centre of attention and they also idealise them providing a sense of security as they merge with a superior figure. Followers like to see their leaders reflect their aspirations just as leaders also like to see their followers reflecting their vision (Kets de Vries, Florent-Treacy & Korotov 2015). Followers especially idealise their leaders, as if they can do no wrong. That’s why we find it very hard to accept when we hear that a leadership figure has done something unethical, it completely contradicts the idealised object we have created in our minds.

For leaders receiving all these projections of grandiosity, it can be very hard to stay humble and narcissism is a common side effect of success. In small doses it can be healthy as it gives leaders the belief and conviction about their aims which attracts followers. This is known as constrictive narcissism, most leaders that have had a healthy view of love as children can project back out their positive energy to their followers (Kets de Vries, Florent-Treacy & Korotov 2015). This enables these leaders to be able to inspire other and project their vision in an ethical way showing they possess emotional as well as spiritual intelligence. However, narcissism can also be dangerous, reactive narcissists tend to have had a rough start of ambivalent and disorganised attachments with their primary caregiver (Kets de Vries, Florent-Treacy & Korotov 2015). They become hooked onto the prestige of power and nothing can satiate them. They often make decisions without taking advice from their members and don’t deal well with criticism.

A leader represents not just what they are but also a fantasy of what their followers need them to be. Therefore, being a good leader involves tapping into what people need and restoring their hopes. In addition as these psychodynamic theorists illustrate, our own intra-psychical conflict as well as the influence of groups can have profound effects on our behaviour and ethics. One thing I really enjoyed about our leadership training is that we weren’t just being taught about models of leadership but there was a lot of focus attaining emotional and spiritual intelligence. Which means being aware of our emotions as well as others and how to link goals to our spiritual beings thereby forming our own moral compass.


Bion, W.R. (1959). Experiences in Groups. London, Tavistock.

Rycroft, C. (1995). Critical dictionary of psychoanalysis (2nd ed.). London, England: Penguin

Kets de Vries, M. F., Florent-Treacy, E., & Korotov, K. (2015). Psychodynamic issues in organizational leadership. Chapter in The Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of The Psychology of Leadership, Change, and Organizational Development. Wiley-Blackwell

Kohut, H. (1971). The Analysis of the Self. New York, International Universities Press.