Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

SPEAKING OUT: Learning from the Director's Role: Leadership and Vulnerability

Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

SPEAKING OUT: Learning from the Director's Role: Leadership and Vulnerability

Article excerpt

Tavistock-style residential group relations conferences sponsored in the US by the A. K. Rice Institute (AKRI) offer opportunities for people to construct a temporary organisation to learn about organisational dynamics and the sources and nature of institutional irrationality (Aram et al., 2015; Coleman & Bexton, 1983; Coleman & Geller, 1985; Gould et al., 2001; Krantz, 2006; Rice, 1965; Shapiro & Carr, 2012). Since 1974, I have either directed or served on the staff of over forty group-relations conferences in the US and abroad. I have directed five AKRI national and international residential conferences: two in 1989-1990 and three from 2013-2015. Directing these conferences is both stimulating and stressful. A lot happens in a short, intense period and, though the primary task is member learning, the director also has an unusual learning opportunity. In addition to these conference roles, from 1991-2011 I directed a real world organisation. My learning from both settings is the focus of this paper.

In 1991, I became the Medical Director/Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Austen Riggs Center, a small psychodynamic hospital focusing on so-called "treatment resistant psychiatric patients" in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. It was a stressful job; many of the patients had serious suicide attempts prior to admission and the work was intensive, long-term, and psychodynamic. The treatment setting was completely open with no restrictions, seclusion, or restraints. We managed our work within a therapeutic community organised by the patients where the focus was on the patient's authority. We formulated our primary task in one sentence: "to help 'treatment resistant patients' become people taking charge of their lives". "Taking charge" is a phrase about authority-and authority is the centre of group relations work (Shapiro & Carr, 2012).

Over the next twenty years, we reshaped the organisation's culture and its structures, formulating marketing and development functions, downsizing over a third of the workforce, renovating and redesigning the entire campus, facing lawsuits, suicides, difficult regulators, and personnel problems, and working with a responsive Board of Trustees. By the last ten years of my tenure, this small institution had raised a significant endowment, developed working relationships with Harvard and Yale, found a consistent place on the US News & World Report's Best Hospital's list, initiated the Erik Erikson Institute for Education and Research, invited several organisational consultations from Tavistock trained consultants, published a number of books and papers, and sent scores of staff members to group relations conferences (Plakun, 2011; Shapiro, 1997, 2001a,b,c, 2005, 2009, 2012, 2013; Shapiro & Carr, 2006; Shapiro & Fromm, 1999; Shapiro & Plakun, 2009).

Riggs stood for a psychodynamic systems approach to treatment in a clinical world increasingly focused on the behavioural and biological; the President of the American Psychiatric Association referred to us as "the gadfly of American psychiatry". Despite all of the stress, I loved the work; it was a role that allowed me to fully engage the staff, the patients, the board, and a broad range of external organisations around a primary task that mattered a great deal to me. On reflection, I do not believe that I would have dared to undertake this job without everything I had learned directing and staffing group relations conferences.


I want to focus on two residential conferences that I directed, one in 1984 and one in 1990, both prior to my taking on the directorship at Riggs. I will conclude with some comments about the most recent conferences I directed in order to show application in the other direction: from leading an institution to directing a conference.

In 1984, two days before the beginning of a weeklong residential conference sponsored by the Washington Center, the director (a senior, white, military man) resigned because of the sudden illness of his wife. …

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