The Leaders We Need, and What Makes Us Follow

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By Michael Maccoby
Harvard Business School Press, 2007, 272 pages

Sigmund Freud’s reputation as a scientist and social thinker is at an all-time low, but in the view of anthropologist, psychoanalyst, and management consultant Michael Maccoby, his ideas can still inform our understanding of leadership. Maccoby says he wrote The Leaders We Need, and What Makes Us Follow to grapple with the evolving social character of today’s workers. By social character, he means that portion of our personality that is learned from experience. It is changing because young people today have had different relationships with their parents, siblings, and peers, and because the “mode of production” in knowledge industries is very different from that used in traditional industrial and commercial businesses.

The Freudian concept of transference is key here: In our industrial past, workers from conventional family backgrounds with tough, demanding fathers and nurturing, caring mothers brought a predictable set of responses to the bureaucratic settings of their workplaces. The leaders who flourished in these circumstances were either “productive narcissists” (outer-directed innovators and personalities) or “productive obsessives” (inner-directed figures with high standards) whom workers would often cast in the parental role. These types of leaders are still prevalent in industrial cultures around the world. In places where the modes of production have shifted to service and knowledge work, however, leaders with personalities such as the “marketing type” (a concept the author derives from his work with psychoanalyst Erich Fromm), who are adept at handling changing situations, have come to the fore. Their followers, the “interactive collaborators,” do not have the same childhood experiences as those in the industrial age. With emotional attachments to siblings and peers rather than to parents, they will not emulate the behavior of traditional leaders. Maccoby introduces two new forms of intelligence that he says these leaders must exhibit. Strategic intelligence refers to five interrelated competencies: foresight, systems thinking, visioning, motivating, and partnering. Personality in­telligence is the intellectual and emotional skill of un­derstanding people and their personality types. It is intended to be broader than the more familiar idea of emotional intelligence.

To adopt a psychoanalytic perspective on leadership is to exchange the cold line drawings of the management scientists for a broad brush and a bright palette. This approach can give the reader an approximation of the leadership experience — an idea of what it takes to lead and what it means to follow. The best chapter in the book is the description of the kinds of leadership that are needed in the health-care system, where a three-way cold war is taking place among the physicians with a craft production model, the hospitals with the bureaucratic iron cage, and the patients who need care. Freud’s approach to understanding human behavior has the advantage of being systemic, al­though his models for systems were hydraulic and mechanical rather than organic. The real downside of taking a psychoanalytic view, however, is the endemic conceptual confusion, a bewildering choice of idiosyncratic frameworks, and a lack of empirical evidence to allow one to translate those frameworks into reliable action.

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