Psychology is an exploration of who we are, what we are capable of, and why. It questions not just the individual, but society as a whole.
For even the greatest minds of the field, the answers, when revealed, have the ability to cast the world in a whole new light.
Coming to prominence at the dawn of the 20th century, neurologist and psychoanalysis pioneer Sigmund Freud’s work defining the unconscious positioned him as a respected yet controversial icon of science from both a public and institutional standpoint.
Freud’s hypothesis was that humans subconsciously repress memories or impulses as a defence against fear and pain. His reaction was to develop tools and processes through which to unleash and confront those memories as a means of healing.
In 1930, he published Civilization and its Discontents. By then, his position on repression had changed. As he’d travelled the world, beholding the widespread degree of social tension, he’d witnessed a tendency amongst leaders on all levels of society not to seek to contain this tension, but exploit it.
While Freud had come to accept that the repression of certain basic instincts was necessary to ensure civility, Civilization ultimately warned of the issues that occur when leaders believe themselves exalted, and expect those they lead to conform to their exact expectations.
90 years on, his warning rings as true as ever. Perhaps more than ever.
We live in a time when the individual pursuit of happiness is not seen as a selfish act, but rather a quintessential goal fuelled by what makes us human. We can tailor our careers to our passions, and work to create the change that we want to see in the world.
As Freud warned us, however, if we lead as a totalitarian, believing it to be the most efficient way to realising our vision, we’re going to end up sorely disappointed.
Who’ll Change the World?
In an article recently posted by Harvard Business Review, INSEAD Associate Professor of Organisational Behaviour Gianpiero Petriglieri defined the difference between the two types of leaders who promise employees that, by following their lead, their work will have a global impact.
The first is the anti-social leader. The second, counter-social.
Before we get to the difference, let’s look at the similarities.
Both believe their leadership style champions authenticity and disruption. They perceive themselves as being highly capable. They are driven, and they are passionate.
The way this passion manifests is what defines the first difference between the anti-social and counter-social leader.
The anti-social leader is guided by what Freud called the id – the instinctual drive. As Petriglieri says, they are “a bundle of impulses in a suit — if they can keep the suit on — whose only predictable trait is their irrationality”.
The anti-social leader is hated. Their unpredictability and inability to look beyond their own perspective (which can often change on a daily basis) makes employees resent and distrust them. They are followed not out of respect, but out of fear; usually fear of losing a job.
The assault is “cultural assassination“. Employees stop caring about their work because the anti-social leader shows no willingness to either listen to their thoughts and concerns, or act upon them. They lose interest, start towing the line out of nothing but necessity, and the business suffers as a result. The anti-social leader can’t see that though. So long as their vision is being enacted, they can’t see anything else.
This is in stark contrast to the counter-social leader.
Counter-social leaders understand that empathy and openness work to strengthen the realisation of their passions. They recognise that their employees exist not simply to serve their vision, but support it.
By repressing an inclination to dictate, they foster trust and curiosity; both roots of a successful business, and a strong civilisation.
In doing so, they create something bigger than themselves. They create an organisation capable of changing the world in ways an individual can never manage alone.
A Warning Call
Civilization and its Discontents was a warning call against the dangers of anti-social leadership. Freud died only three weeks into World War II, so he never saw just how terrible it proved to be.
Modern examples such as the Trump government and Brexit are reminders that anti-social leadership will never go completely out of style. Power will always prove too appealing a prize.
So it’s up to you, leaders, to abandon it. To realise that your passion, your vision, requires you to look beyond your selfish desires if you truly want to change the world.