….and the Supervisor as Literary Theorist.
That elections are essentially psychodramas was spectacularly evinced by the recent UK and French versions which featured an array of stock characters – strong woman, avuncular older man, young hero, flawed aspirant, jesters – plot twists and vertiginous reversals of fortune. They are for the tribalists, cathartic battles between good and evil where victory brings euphoria and defeat a trip to the slough of despond. Party leaders aspire to be parents of the nation and draw to them all the associations conscious and unconscious of those archetypes. Canny PR and spin strategists subliminally evoke images to help consolidate this: ‘strong and stable’, ‘caring and compassionate’; opponents attack on this flank, too: a year ago Andrea Leadsom famously went too far when she appeared to criticise Theresa May for being childless; Emmanuel Macron is apparently ‘guilty’ of having a maternal wife, a charge which carries with it the implication that he is himself a child and thus not a true father of the country.
Electoral processes are also fairy-tales: they fit into time-worn narratives and are in this way familiar and comforting; and they are in many senses not ‘real’ – smoke and mirrors are deployed, images created, lies told, unsustainable promises made. Vladimir Propp, the 20th century Russian literary critic, in his analysis of Russian folk-tales, identified seven recurring characters and thirty-one elements in the story. The characters represent these roles: villain, princess or prize, the hero, false hero, and a set of supporting players: the dispatcher, who motivates the hero to perform his/her task, a magical helper, and the donor who gives the hero a potent gift that transforms his/her quest. (Several roles can be played by one character.)
Parallels with the UK and French dramatis personae aren’t hard to find: the hero is of course ‘our’ candidate, the prize/princess is the electorate, the villain is the electoral opponent, the false hero may be someone like former President Francois Hollande (who during the transfer of power ceremony blatantly tried to imply that he had created the Macron phenomenon) and can also be construed as the opposing candidate. In the Macron tale, his wife Brigitte might fulfil the roles of helper and donor and the fact that she is a drama teacher may point to the likely magic ingredient she gave him. The dispatcher figures are mentors and king-makers who may seek future influence: thus union leader McCluskey for Corbyn, hard Brexiteers for May, and a cabal of enarques and business people in the case of Macron.
There is no time to explore the full sequence of typical events Propp identified but two are worth mentioning: the transfiguration of the hero – eg Jeremy Corbyn from bumbling old fool to charismatic inspirer of the young; Macron from posturing fantasist to young Lochinvar – and the punishment of the villain/loser: e.g. the subsequent obloquy visited upon Theresa May, the sacrifice of her ‘evil’ aides, and the constraints now placed upon her freedom of manoeuvre.
And what of us? As spectators we are drawn into the drama, the familiar narratives, but we can also take a panoptic view, we can, like Propp, look at the shape of what is happening, tease out the themes, and try to identify where the fairy-tale is distorting reality, usually through over-simplification or the evocation of underlying but unacknowledged emotions. In this we are ‘supervisors’ but with the additional postmodern twist: we are part of the narrative, part of the fairy-tale, and this too we have to acknowledge.
To pursue the analogy in the organisational context, the supervisor of coaches or consultants is a kind of literary theorist or even an author – in that she/he describes ‘what is going on’ – who is at the same time part of the novel (incidentally a device which several writers, including Martin Amis, have used). The stories we describe and consider involve four main characters: supervisor, coach/consultant, the latter’s client, and the client system (which is of course Hydra-headed or some less alarming metaphor). Each of these elements has a back-story which affects emotional reactions, thinking, behaviour: interpersonal relations may be difficult because the other person is seen as a character in our own personal fairy-tale; the hero/villain dichotomy may obscure shared objectives and hinder empathy; defensive rigidity may prevent us seeing the possibility of transformation in ourselves or others; an obsession with a single issue may prevent us taking a global perspective.
And what roles do supervisors play in Propp’s typology: are we helpers and donors – preparing and helping the ‘hero’ and giving him/her something magical to help overcome the challenges of the journey? If there is magic, it lies in the conjunction of rational analysis, feeling, reverie (the non-judgemental absorption, and dream-like exploration, of what is happening in the moment) and in the oscillation between the roles of deus ex machina observing a quadrilateral world, and actor in an unfolding drama.
Founder and Co-Director, Supervision for Coaching & Consultancy
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