Academic journal article Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science

A Case of "Acting out the Missing Leader": Understanding Aspects of the Psychodynamics of Group Identity

Academic journal article Tamara : Journal of Critical Postmodern Organization Science

A Case of "Acting out the Missing Leader": Understanding Aspects of the Psychodynamics of Group Identity

Article excerpt


This article revisits a previously published case study of group dynamics that related to when a leader dies (or is absent). The conceptual lens used to re-read these group dynamics, is one derived from psychoanalysis and specifically features the notion of the death instinct and the work of C. Fred Alford. The paper frames its discussion of the case study using Alford's five dramas of "acting out the missing leader". Like a drama, the paper locates the case study as a series of acts and scenes with a specific psychodynamic script that is being played-out. The paper has broader implications than simply "When a leader dies" as the discussion speaks to an understanding of larger leader - follower behaviour.


In 2003, the journal Human Relations published an article authored by Paula Hyde and Alan B. Thomas entitled "When a leader dies". In a broadly psychoanalytic manner, they investigated and describe "the reactions of followers after losing a leader" (Hyde & Thomas, 2003: 1005). A study of leadership loss has much to commend itself in as much as leadership change is one effective and affective agent of followers' and concomitantly, groups' change defense behaviors. In this paper we analyze the same case study to highlight and to augment Hyde and Thomas' important contributions. Our rereading of the case study has its foundations in the more recent work of C. Fred Alford (1991; 1994) in conjunction with object-relations (Klein 1975a-d), which we see to be strongly influenced by Spielrein (1912/1994) and Freud (1920/1984; 1923/1984). The purpose of our paper is to put these theorists to work to uncover behavioral expressions constituent of the death instinct, which need to be predicted and interpreted, if the 'organization' is to regenerate healthy attitudes toward leadership change and, indeed, understand group dynamics during organizational change more generally. Before we examine the case study, it is instructive to first outline the conceptual framework we intend to employ.

The setting: Conceptions of the death instinct in primal human relations

Melanie Klein accepted much of Sigmund Freud's orthodoxy including the vision that under the superego's rules and regulations, the ego is responsible for mediating the demands of the id, in which instincts are housed (Freud, 1923/1984). In Klein's rendering of primal human relations, the mother or object represents the superego, the newborn's or ego's first attachment. Klein believes that the release of instincts from the id always presupposed the object interacting with the ego such that objects and memories or fantasies they trigger are sources of reassurance and persecution.

Klein's aggregate view of human experience (see Klein, 1975a-d) is based upon two primitive dispositions of relating to the world: one is adoring, caring and loving or reassuring; and the other is comprised of destructiveness, hatred, envy, spite or persecution. The former parallels Eros, the class of instincts comprised of life (sex) and self-preservation; and the latter, the class of instincts embodied by destructive behaviors, known as Thanatos (see Jones, 1957: 295) or the death instinct (Freud, 1920/1984; 1923/1984; Carr, 2003a-b). It is in the child's all important first year of development that Klein views the death instinct as purely a destructive force summoned forth by fears of dissolution and imminent annihilation, when the infant, in its Manichaean world, cannot adequately resolve ambiguity and conflict posed by the mother's breast.

The primal relationship is one comprised of mutual causalities. The infant projects love onto the breast as this 'good' object is idealized: it generates feelings of contentment that are absorbed or introjected by the infant because they represent the mother's reassurance, as through the transfer of milk (Suttie, 1935). The good object also confounds the infant because it inspires a degree of envy from the emphasis of the infant's need and dependence upon it the infant experiences the good object as being outside its control, when the infant cannot have it. …

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