Leaders, Archetypes and the Trickster figure as an unconscious agent of change.
Powerful leaders attract projections and transferences, and to do so usually have to embody an archetype: the powerful images – say of the Mother, the Father – that emerge from what Jung called the collective unconscious, (a subliminal stratum which humankind shares, that crosses cultures and national boundaries). ‘There are present in every psyche forms which are unconscious but nonetheless active – living dispositions, ideas in the Platonic sense, that preform and continually influence our thoughts and feelings and actions.’ They constantly re-emerge in myth and legend, fairy-stories and narratives, overwhelmingly so. As Jung underlines, it is the form that is sustained over time: it takes on subtly different details and content when it is made conscious, in a particular time and location.
As we seek to coach and consult to leaders, and to survey and understand group processes, currently or historically, and at national or local levels, we don’t have to be fully-fledged Jungians to see how leaders (and the country or organisation itself) might evoke archetypes, the most obvious being parental. So the organisation is sometimes seen as maternal, and leaders – of either sex – personify aspects of the ‘Maternal’ or ‘Paternal’, and are responded to accordingly. (The simple dichotomy of ‘nurturing’ versus ‘critical’ parent in Transactional Analysis displays something of this.) Naturally enough a particular employee’s own history will partly determine how they respond to these images. A coach can help a client understand the resonance of their persona and help them tap into the archetypes more consciously.
Archetypes transcend moralistic considerations – they are beyond good and evil – and much of their power and interest derives from how they function. This is exquisitely so in the case of the Trickster figure, whose quintessence lies in his/her role as catalyst.
Which leads us, perhaps inevitably, to Donald Trump, President of the United States of America. Transcending the party political viewpoint, he can be seen in terms of what he symbolises, the role which historical and sociological forces have cast him in, and his archetypal connotations. There are an infinite number of archetypes, but we can say that he does not evoke the Mother or Father (even if he may connote elements of ‘Maleness’)……….but he does present many aspects of the Trickster.
What is the Trickster figure and how has it appeared throughout history? An early example cited by Jung is the alchemical figure of Mercurius, characterised by sly jokes, malicious pranks, shape-shifting and boundary-crossing, good and evil, half-animal and half-divine. Other attributes of the archetype include a stupidity that co-exists with effectiveness, malice, humour, and (curiously) a suffering that leads to a certain capacity for healing. The figure relates to a range of other mythological and literary types, including Tom Thumb, Stupid Hans – who achieves through his stupidity what others failed at – and shamans and witch-doctors, not to speak of jesters.
As Jung notes ‘in his clearer manifestations [the Trickster] is a faithful reflection of the absolutely undifferentiated human consciousness, corresponding to a psyche that has hardly left the animal level’. He goes on to relate the archetype to our ‘shadow side’, loosely those darker aspects of ourselves that we don’t acknowledge but which are often the source of creativity (the bounty of the unconscious), and which need to be consciously integrated in order for us to function with more authenticity and purpose. The Trickster is at one better and worse than our conscious personality, and that is why we respond to it so fiercely, passionately for or against: hence the chronic divisiveness of the Trumpian persona.
We see the latter in what in the US is ironically called Trump derangement syndrome – the obsession with DT that characterises the Democrats – and if studies are to be believed, the resigned and wry support he receives from many Republicans who are well aware of his failings and foibles, but are somehow captivated by the Donald. Trickster-like, he amuses as well – a recent comment in the Guardian (hardly on DT’s side) used the ubiquitous Trumpian ‘sad’ at the end, satirical certainly but not without a certain reluctant hommage to the President.
The issue – for any analysis of the Trump phenomenon, and as a commentary on how things work in organisations – is that individuals in key roles often transcend the limits of their surface personality and the particular moment in time and have a symbolic importance, perhaps as a turning-point, an interim phase of chaos turning eventually into the new. Disruption and chaos, from bloody revolution to (less dramatically) a carnival, are often portals to the unconscious, the drives, and the throwing off of convention – in short, it is often catalytic….even if, as in chemical experiments, the catalyst is destroyed in the process.
From the historical perspective, the Trickster is an agent (knowingly or unknowingly) of change, often when a society (global, national or organisational) has gone far in one direction, and discontent has begun to accumulate. Jung deploys the Greek word enantiodromia to explain the process: when there is a surfeit of a predominant phenomenon it eventually turns into its opposite. In that sense, Trump himself doesn’t matter: by operating often unconsciously and irreflectively, in a primordial manner – Tricksterian tropes – he evokes our shadow side and (while we are alternately horrified, amused, or entranced) we and society are provoked into a shift.
To return to my beginning: powerful and charismatic leaders almost always represent an archetype (or several). If their charisma is rooted in the Trickster figure the ride may be bumpy but the potential for radical change – positive or negative – may be exponential. As Gramsci noted, during the interregnum between the old and the new certain ‘morbid symptoms’ emerge – often violence, chaos, unpredictability and strange but beguiling characters – but often lead in time to a paradigm shift. The Trickster – stupidly clever, maliciously reassuring, destructively progressive, unconsciously rational – often emerges to channel subliminal forces unknowingly and thrust us into the future. We judge our leaders harshly – and often with good cause – but at a more analytical level (and if charged with coaching them) we will want to see their symbolic importance, the subterranean forces they disinter, and the role they may be playing unconsciously in the theatre of history.
James Mackay is a Founder and Director of the Tavistock Institute’s course in Coaching for Leadership and Professional Development.
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