Great Leaders: The Secret That Freud Understood

What was Freud's vital insight about groups and leaders?

Posted Feb 04, 2015

Great leaders are....

Freud mostly is known for his brilliant insights about subconscious motivations and the individual psyche. My favorite sentence from all of Freud’s writing about various kinds of problems, however, expresses his wisdom about leadership. Groups, Freud wrote, take on the personality of the leader.  Great leaders therefore need to be great people.

Hmm. I work with family groups. Sure enough, when the dad, if he is the strongest personality in the family, is kindly and warm, all the family tends to act in a manner that is warm and kindly. If dad is mean-spirited or depressed, the likelihood is that the tone of the family as a whole will be mean-spirited or depressed. Same with Mom. If Mom is insecure or sometimes nasty, the family group will feel overall insecure or nasty. If Mom is caring and loving, then the family will tend to be caring and loving toward each other.

Sports teams tend to show similar patterns. Show me an upbeat, confident and positive quarterback and I’ll show you an upbeat, confident and positive-spirited team.  

Companies, churches, and countries all do the same. Here’s an example.

Topex (name changed for confidentiality) was a startup company that had been launched by an enthusiastic young fellow, Jim, and seemed to be growing rapidly.  When Jim developed health problems and took a leave of absence, Patrick took over in his place.  

Patrick tended to be critical of others. When one of the lower level managers launched a new initiative to upgrade their initial product, Patrick kept pointing out what might not work. Others in the group began similarly to focus on what was wrong with ideas that other colleagues suggested. Before long, back-stabbing and demoralization had totally replaced the initial enthusiasm that had reigned when Jim had been running the show. 

The company fizzled and almost died…until Neil came along. Neil took over as the CEO. He was decisive, upbeat and appreciative of everyone. Within a week, the tone of the whole organization changed. Employees who had begun looking for jobs elsewhere turned back to Topex and reinvested their creativity. The company launched several new products within the year. Topex was back in business, and once again thriving.  

What is the moral of the story? Groups take on the personality of the leader. If you want a group to thrive, pick a leader with a positive personality.  

What’s a positive personality?  

Positive people listen for what is right in what others say rather than to point out what they disagree with. Positive people generate affection by showing affection to others. Positive people express appreciation, and rarely or never complain, criticize or put others down; they give feedback, not criticism. When something goes wrong, a positive person looks at what he himself could do differently or at how to fix the problem in the system rather than pointing fingers of blame, criticism or accusation.

Want to be a great leader? 

Become a great person, that is, a positive person who radiates warmth, appreciation, encouragement, responsivity, optimism and enthusiasm.

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Susan Heitler, Ph.D., a Denver clinical psychologist, is author of the book The Power of Two and the interactive website that teaches the skills for marriage success, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com