Donald Trump….and other issues

Donald Trump….and other issues

We appear to be fascinated - or petrified - by Donald Trump...and the task of coaching flawed leaders.

We appear to be fascinated – or petrified – by Donald Trump (DT).

But why does the main-stream media quote every talk-show host, every major actor, and every bass-player in every semi-obscure rock band on how awful he is, with such an extraordinary lack of nuance or variation? (Voltaire noted that an idea repeated without enrichment is thereby diminished.) Much less time is spent on the possible reasons for Trump’s unexpected salience. So let us now venture forth…and even wander into the unconscious, and the task of coaching flawed leaders.

One possible take on DT is that he resonates because he evokes Freud’s id, the unconscious site of our desires, drives, and instincts, requiring instant gratification. Aggression and sex are primary drives, of course and this is what Donald Trump channels, partly unconsciously and – no doubt – partly deliberately, as he knows instinctively what will play well to his constituency. The alpha-male posturing, and the crude sexuality as apparently evinced by recent footage are testament to this. (Incidentally, Freud’s concept of the id probably emerged from Schopenhauer’s will, transmuted – most relevantly to DT – into Nietzsche’s notion of an underlying will to power.)  And, for we spectators: it is entirely possible to be disgusted by Trump and also to project all our own worst impulses onto him, and thereby expel and disown them. We are repulsed by him partly because – albeit in magnified form – he may represent elements of what Jung called our ‘shadow side’.

As coaches we have to be aware of these projections, to limit any tendency to judge our clients, and to help us see them as amalgams of good and bad – the ratios will shift from person to person – and how we and they might interpret these terms differently. But………..could an outrancier personality like Trump be coached? Firstly, such people are often reluctant to accept the need for coaching: the only way to persuade them is to activate their fear of the consequences of not changing. (If all is going well for the achievement of their ambitions and desires, the prospective coach has no leverage.) Ethical issues would also have to be considered: the coach’s own values might well be in conflict with the client’s. Beyond that, at the contracting stage and in early sessions, the ‘primary task’ would have to be defined. (In DT’s case this is currently the object of speculation: does he want to be President, or does he merely want to boost his brand?) But the primary task can be but a facade and it might turn out that the presenting issue was not the real one, this to emerge later in the coaching programme.

And it might be that a client had serious personality issues – narcissistic personality disorder, for instance – and then the coach might suggest therapy in place of, or in parallel to, the coaching. But the coach would do well to acknowledge that many successful leaders manifest pathologies of this kind, so the issue is not an isolated one. (The pathology may even be an intrinsic part of their worldly success – Shelley noted that ‘our torments become our elements’.) The key to narcissists is that, as Adler so wisely remarked, under a superiority complex usually resides an inferiority complex, so the coach has to steer a course between giving some narcissistic support and presenting the client with a taste of realpolitik: ‘you are getting unhelpful and negative responses from others because you are behaving like this, perhaps for these reasons:….’. But this is a lengthy process – the narcissistic leader is extremely delicate, usually tormented by and rebelling against, a punitive super-ego (loosely, conscience) and requires the coach to be sensitive and only selectively challenging.

The coach also has to be alert to the wider culture and system as cognitive and behavioural change is usually bounded by the constraints of the cultural context and other parameters within which a leader operates, including anything from: the organisational pathology – which could, in our example, mobilise narcissism, to the limits to what can be thought and talked about, to the idiosyncrasies and demands of the market-place. We are, as coaches, often dealing with the ‘art of the possible’, not utopian ideals.

These are some of the challenges and issues a leadership coach faces and a final paragraph is usually the point at which it is customary to draw definitive conclusions. Yet conclusions are often false boundaries: there is never an end or limit to speculation – just as a coaching programme is in a sense never fully finished – and it is via ongoing reflection and discussion that ways forward emerge. But what we can say is that these are the kinds of conversations and explorations you will experience on the Tavistock Institute’s course in Coaching for Leadership and Professional Development.

James Mackay
Founder and Director of the Tavistock Institute’s course in Coaching for Leadership and Professional Development.

The Coaching for Leadership and Professional Development Certificate is a professional development course in 4 modules accredited by the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations.

We are inviting applications for the cohort beginning in January 2017. You can find out more here or if you would like to receive a brochure and more details of the fee, module dates and venue or if you have any questions, please contact please contact Rachel Kelly: Professional Development Coordinator.

Image: William Blake, The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea (1805). Public Domain.

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