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Episode 16 · 2 years ago

Episode 16 Dan Liechty on Leadership

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What is leadership and how do we get better leaders? This episode discusses leadership and the psychological forces at work in our selecting people to follow.

What is leadership and how do we get better leaders? Welcome to the hub for important ideas. I'm Steve James and I'm Ken Swain. In this episode we discussed leadership and some of the psychological forces at work in our selecting people to follow. This is an important topic, not just in terms of the election season that we find ourselves in, but offering broad terms for the well being of our society. We're going to play for you and interview we conducted with Dr Dan Lichty. DOCR LICHTY is a professor of social work at Illinois State University. His research includes social work theory, Post Freudian Anthropology, death, education, aging and society and medical ethics. He's the world's foremost authority on the work of Ernest Becker. He's author or editor of nine books, including the Ernest Becker reader, transference and transcendence, death and denial and reflecting on faith in a post Christian time. This interviews several years old and predates the election of Donald Trump, but it remains evergreen in its thoughtful analysis of what leadership is and how it relates to our governing process. I think you'll find it remarkably pressent. Here's the interview with Dr Lichty. Dr Lichty, welcome the perspective. Thank you. Then, you're considered one of the foremost authorities on the writings of Ernest Becker. Could you just review briefly some of his key concepts and ideas well? I think that the most important thing that Becker noticed was that our sense of mortality are recognition that we are mortal beings plays a key role as a motivating factor for all kinds of human behavior, both individual behavior and collective or social behavior, and once he had that insight...

...he was able to go back to the literature and use that as a sort of organizing principle to pull together a whole lot of theory and a whole lot of ideas that people have had in the past and sort of connect them through that concept. And many of our guests have spoken about the the existential condition. Could you elaborate on that one? Is the existential condition? Well, the existential condition is essentially that we are mortal beings and we have the intelligence to know that we're mortal beings. We share with all animals this life force, this will to continue living, this life instinct, you could call it. And yet we are an animal that has the knowledge that we will die and that creates potentially at least a large clash, a big resulting anxiety pool and anxiety that no other animal has to deal with. And that's really why I think is unique about the human psyche, the human the way that humans think, or a human psychology as opposed to animal psychology. And how do we how then deal with that anxiety? We've spoken on this show about repression. What is repression? Well, repression is a psychological term, you professional psychological term, meaning the ability that we have to keep from thinking about certain things. You know, we may know there's something coming up, but we don't want to dwell on it because we have other things we want to do. So we all have that experience. There's something anxiety provoking, let's say a I don't know, a public speech or something like that coming up. We're worried about it, you like, like being on television, a bee like this, and we're worried about it, but we have to sleep and we have to eat. We know that's going to tie US up in knots otherwise if we had it in our consciousness all the time. So we have this ability to sort of put it off to the side and not think about it, and repression is really sort of a fancy word to talk about that ability to keep things from our consciousness. Dan Some of the people on our...

...show have talked about human beings being hungry for illusions. Why are we hungry for illusions and for symbolic and mortality? Well, I mean, if reality is that we're that we're going to die, that we are mortal and and we have this urge, this sort of overriding organism encourage to keep living, one of the ways that we can deal with that, one of the ways that we can keep that from our consciousness, is to tell us tell ourselves stories about how we're really immortal, how we're really not going to die. Death may happen to other people, but it doesn't happen to me because I'm special. These kind of illusions can take all sorts of different paths, but essentially we have to create illusions because reality is to start for us to take full in the face. Another concept they've talked about here is the concept of transference. Could you explain what transference is? Well, transference is a word that comes out of psychoanalysis and basically in psychoanalysis it means when you play out in your relationship with your psychoanalyst a previous relationship, usually with your father or with a some other authority figure, you take the feelings you had from that relationship in your real life and you transfer it now to your feelings with your analysts. So so it distorts your your sense of what's actually happening in the psychoanalytic session by, let's say, you think your analyst hates you, or whatever that kind of thing you're but becker talked about transference and I think this is one of the one of the really important things that in his writings. Transference simply describes any relationship we have with an authority figure in which we sort of, you know, we feel ourselves weak and we feel ourselves vulnerable and we project onto our onto authority figures the feeling that will they they're strong,...

...they know what they know what's going on. I'm ignorant, but they know what's going on. They have things under control. I may be out of control, they're under control, and so we sort of psychologically attach ourselves to them and draw from their strength to give us a sense that we also now, through them, are under control or in the you know, in the know or have our strong or whatever, and that's really that kind of expanded transference relationship. That so it's something in our in our everyday social relationships, not something only in a analytic session. So transference is normal behavior or transferences neurotic behavior, or transference is both. Well, it's normal behavior in the sense that we all do it and we have to do it. That's the that's one of the mechanisms by through which we can keep ourselves distracted from the reality of our actual situation, the existential situation of mortality, vulnerability and so forth. So we all do it. It can become, let's let's say, neurotic, but we can, let's say, dysfunctional when, for example, you get obsessed with a certain you know how you have to have your hair just combed exactly in the right way and it'll take you hours a day to get it right. so that looks like Elvis or, it looks like some other transference figure that you've attached to and it starts to it starts to interfere with your ability to function normally in life. Then you would say that it's you know, then it's it's a problem, problem yeah, it's a problem. I'm sure our viewers at this point of saying, what does this have to do with leadership? Let me recap a second. What what we're talking about here? We're mortal creatures. We but we know we're going to die, and so we have anxiety and to deal with the anxiety we repress it. We seek symbolic immortality in the North Sea. We seek overcome death in other things, and one way is to is to transfer authority to others. So we seek immortality in others. Protection, protection, protection from mortality,...

...might be another way to instead of going the whole hog and thinking mortality. Protection against against our mortality, against our vulnerability, against our weakness. That's essentially what leaders provide for us as a adequate transference object. If they are unscrupulous person and want to take advantage of that, they've really got you in a stranglehold, because you need them, you need their approval, you need their sense that you're a worthy follower, or whatever it would be, and so it's easy to be manipulated in a position like that. What is the extreme form? It's toxic leadership. What makes a leader, especially at toxic leader, is when they really don't care that much about the well being of their followers. They're really just in this for their own gratification, of whatever form that gratification takes, and that's dangerous because you're a leader of a large group. There's a lot of power in a large group and that can be unleashed in a lot of different ways. So really this whole theory explains how people can come under the spell of a Hitler or a Stalin or Saddam Hussein or a Manuel Noriega. I mean, we sit back and we look and say, how could you possibly respect that person as a leader? Don't you see that they're awful people? But yet you're saying that we are vulnerable to this kind of leader, especially someone who instinctively knows how to play on the psychological need that we have. I wouldn't say that this theory explains it exhaustively, but it's all a mix of social condition, historical situation, the technology of it's available and so forth. But but yeah, given that right mix of things, there is this this this theory goes a long way in explaining, for example, why people would find themselves doing something in a group authorized by a leader to do it that later on, when they're out of that situation, and they may be after they've seen that leader knocked off the pedestal, so to speak, and they're out of that group situation, they're...

...totally amazed that they could ever have done such a thing, you know, and that's also use. We think of that as negative x, but it's also positive acts. That was really heroic what I did. I that's that's out of the ordinary for me. I mean so it can go positive or negative, but usually it's negative. Why are we so fascinated with people who hold power? Well, because, in a sense, they if we want to say it this way, they're they're sort of unspoken promise to you is, I will make you strong, I will make you invulnerable. You Partaken My invulnerability, my strength, my power, which is another way of saying I'll I will in exchange you, yeah, in exchange for your for your following me, I will conquer death for you. And so that basically a leader that is an adequate transference object. Is a leader that assists us, AIDS US in dealing with that underlying death anxiety, that underlying rumble that we all feel. This is interesting because we're talking about leaders, but yet we've been talking about us more than the leaders. What's the relationship between the leaders and the followers? Well, in a given culture there's a certain set of maybe personality characteristics or whatever that sort of exemplify the born leader in that culture. In our culture it might be strong individualism or a sense of a lot of knowledge or something like that. And so when a leader starts to gather followers, the followers are initially, I think, attracted to that person for those qualities. They sort of exemplify the best the thing, the what our culture holds up is the best qualities that a human could have. In another culture they may be bizarre qualities, but in our culture those qualities are what we hold up is the best of that human beings can be. And so we start this, the leader starts to gather followers on that basis. But once this transference dynamic is in process, then in a sense the leader is...

...just as tied to the followers as the followers are to the leader. The leader has these maybe these natural qualities to begin with, but the but the followers want immortality, in other words, they want more and more and more, and the leader in a sense gets to the point where that person has to run ahead and keep trying to project themselves more and more is superhuman, and since I think by definition we could agree that no human is superhuman, they get themselves into a bind where they can be just as trapped by the need to continue to be adequate for their followers as their followers are trapped being enthralled to the leader. And I tell you one thing, history is totally full of examples where once the leader no longer in, since they let their they let the underside show, you know, the toto pulls back the curtain, curtain, and and people see that they're just mortal human beings like everyone else. Pay No attention to that man behind the cuts. That's exactly right. Once that happens, history is full of examples of where the people will turn on there for someone that they formally looked at literally as God. They'll turn on that person so fast and even kill them. Or you know, it can be very, very dangerous for a leader to be deflated as a leader, you might say. So we all have this need to project this thing onto a leader and find someone to follow. Basically, from what you're saying, how does a group go about choosing a leader? Well, I guess that depends on the group. It depends on the history. You know, if you're talking about how does a how does a congregation choose their minister, it would depend on which congregation and what they're you know, what the traditions of that particular religion are and so forth. If you're talking about Lee by committee, well, yeah, which is a great way to choose a leader. Right. If you're talking about nations, then different again. Different nations do it different ways. We tend to do it by elections. We put people on television and sort of test out how good of a transference object they're going to be and then if they could show that they're strong and that they can face a television camera well and they can project these ideas or these...

...images that we need for our own wellbeing, then we say that's a good candidate and we vote for them and whatever. If if they just have good ideas but they're not good in front of a camera and they they're not, they don't seem to be a leader. You know, they may have great ideas, they may have great political savvy in terms of how to get those ideas through the legislature and all this kind of stuff. But if they don't have that leadership quality, which is intangible, that's sweetness at certain something that's so it's a rational we just reject them really quick really quickly, and we we end up then, in our in our particular culture, we end up with leaders that basically are good television, they're good with the media. That's what we get. We don't necessarily get the people who have the best ideas, nor the people who have the best ability to think in terms of how a large social system works and how we can balance rights and responsibilities throughout the society. We don't get that. What we get our people that are really good at manipulating the meaning the media and they have their wizards behind them to help them do that. And it's starting again, Dan. We've touched on this. How does a leader take a group into violent behavior? Well, again, you'd have to look at specific situations and there's a lot of factors involved, but I think one of the central factors that relates to what we're talking about is that the leader is constantly running to stay ahead of his group, so to speak, or her group, and when a leader starts to feel vulnerable, when a leader starts to feel like maybe the group is not following me anymore, starting to suspicion my ability to to lead. One of the things you can do to take the group's mind are the group's the tension away from you, is to focus it on something else, and we call that as we call that a scapegoating process. And so one of the things that a leader can do is focus the group's attention on an enemy. It...

...can be almost any kind of enemy. It can be a particular individual if it's a smaller group, it can be a social social group, it can be a certain religion, it can be a certain race, it can be a certain sexual preference. But what you'll see over and over again, and I think this is sort of what I think, there was a film out some years ago called Wagley Dog, and I just I was thinking, yes, and sort of what I think they were getting at there was this idea that when the leader finds themselves in trouble, there's a possible focus on attention that's going to knock them off the pedestal. One of the things they can do is focus attention elsewhere through directing people's violence towards of scapegoat. What does it mean to scapegoat to an individual or group or a nation or whatever. It's basically telling people everything would be great if we could just see they're the ones mucking up the whole situation and if we can just get rid of them, everything will be fine. And so the group is happy to have its attention focus on what it needs to do to have make everything right again, and which again is another way of saying conquered death or conquer evil. And so the group can be led by a leader into extremely bizarre and violent behavior. Again, that's the kind of thing that afterwards a person might say, did I really do that? How could I have done that? But as part of a group that's given sanction for it by leader, some certain kind of leader, in the right situations, people can do very, very violent, very vile kinds of things to other people. Dan. Typically, leadership is described, at least for us, in terms of intellect or having a vision or motivating or inspiring or listening or persuading. People like Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr and Gandhi and Joan of ARC and John F Kennedy come to mind. Are we saying that these aren't actually special people. They're just people that were shoved in front of the parade. Well, yeah, I like that image. Shoved in front of the parade. No, I think...

...these people are ones that ended in their time and their place. They had the personality characteristics that were privileged by that whatever culture they were in as good leadership qualities. And again, if they if you took a Winston Churchill and put them in, let's say, Navajo Society or something like that, those those kinds of characteristics might be considered very bizarre. But given the given the time and the place that he was in, in the cultural background of his situation, and so we're he exemplified those kind of leadership qualities and I think all of the people you mentioned do maybe a little bit differently. I think Gandhi, for example, would be a quite different type of a leader than Churchill or Kennedy, but they exemplify the qualities that will make people look to them and say, I would like to be like that person. I would like I feel this kind of hole in me and that person seems to fill it and I and so they become enthralled with that person and follow after them and so forth. We as a nation have been through a period of intense leadership disappointment. What's wrong with American leadership and how do we nurture or attract better leaders? I think that essentially, in America we've had a tradition of looking at the leader as a as a transference object, but also the institution and in a sense, as long as the institution was strong, the leader could the leaders could shift and come and go, or vice versa. If institution is weak but you've got very strong leaders at that particular time, things also kind of balance out. But we we're sort of in a situation where many of our leaders have disappointed us and the big danger is that we will also lose faith in the institutions at the same time, and that's when you really start to have a collapse of a that's when a culture comes apart, isn't well, yeah, I mean I'm not saying a reparably, but at least that's when we start to really feel a sort of cultural malaise, the kind of thing Jimmy Carter talked about. But then how do we nurture better...

...leaders? Well, I think that one of the things we can do is when we find ourselves expecting our leaders to be superhuman. We need to slow down, do a little introspection and recognize that that person's a human being just like the rest of us. We all want John Kennedy again and we all want that time. What was it about that that Kennedy camelot? Well, Kennedy made us feel good about ourselves, and I think that's one of the things that that a good leader does. A good leader makes people feel good about themselves. I think maybe the DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A to get back to what's the difference between a good leader and a toxic leader? I think one of the things that a good leader does ultimately is want to help the people who are following him or her, the stronger people, be more full people, be more educated or whatever would be. But in other words, they use their leadership for the benefit of the primarily to benefit the public. This is, I think, Gandhi's Gandhi wasn't interested so much in having people, throngs of people adulating him, but he was very interested in taking people who were who suffered from prejudice and from unjust institutions and giving them institutions where they could be free and so forth, and that's what a really good leader does. A good leader makes us feel good about ourselves at the same time that they're empowering, is the word we use in social work, empowering us to be better people. Bad leaders make us feel good about ourselves, at least for maybe a short period of time, but ultimately they aren't too interested in really strengthening the people who are their followers. Well, how do we improve the situation? How can we, as followers, make better decisions and make better leaders, make the world better? Make Yeah, by being better people ourselves, by being more aware of the kinds of puppet strings that are potentially there to be jerked around. And I mean we all need our illusions, even even even the enlightened need their illusions. They need their illusions of being enlightened, I suppose. But essentially, by being more aware ourselves, we then...

...allow our leaders to be also human beings who have some qualities that are good for the group at this time and place, but we aren't expecting them to be Superman. That's good advice. Our guess has been Dr Daniel Lichty of Illinois State University. Dan, thank you for a fascinating conversation. It's been fun. Thank you, Dan. You've been listening to an interview with Dan Lichty on leadership, particularly in twenty one century America. By the way, I wish everyone listening could have the opportunity to meet Dan Lichty. He is one of the nicest, most thoughtful people I've ever met. He really goes out of his way to help you and to understand where you're coming from. He teaches counseling and does hospice work. What does that tell you? This is a selfless hero in our book. I couldn't agree more. Steve. Dan is a really great guy with a great sense of humor. Yeah, so, Mr Swain, what's your takeaway? Steve? I think the big idea in all this is the Freudian notion of transference. Transference is a very big topic, in one we will also be returning to later. Dan says it's normal and that we all do this. We need to believe that through our authority figures, we have things under control. They defend us. We unconsciously want them to protect us from our mortality. We all need the authorities approval, whether it's from parents, from teachers or bosses, but especially from people with power that we can share in. Yeah, this is a really important idea, and I don't think many people understand it, but in this democracy we unconsciously evaluate potential leaders in terms of how good a transference object they are. They also need to have other intangible leadership qualities, but mostly in...

...the present world they have to look good on television. Yeah, isn't that incredible? Yeah, Dan really hit that one well. Our candidates aren't necessarily the ones with the best ideas or talents, but they're good on television, right. Well, I like the way Dan differentiated between good leaders and toxic leaders. Yeah, he says. All leaders make us feel good about ourselves. The best leaders empower us. Toxic leaders are all about themselves and less about the common good. What's a good example of a toxic leader in your mind? Gee, I don't know. Donald J trump. Isn't he the poster child? Yep, yeah, let's but let's not dwell on trump alone. Dan says that unscrupulous leaders have us in a strangle hold becauuse we need them, we need their approval that we are worthy followers, and so we are easily manipulated. Toxic leaders don't care about the well being of their followers. Trump take care most about what's in it for them gratification. Trump. We are vulnerable to toxic leaders. I thought we weren't going to dwell on trump. I couldn't help myself. Sorry, trump, have you got that all out of your system now? I guess. For now, for that, let's right. Let's talk about what passes for leadership in the US. Dan notes that in our culture, which is not universal but works here, that our leaders must project strong individualism and be good on television. Do the appear strong? Do they face the camera? Well, this is hilarious. Do they face the camera? Well, yeah, he he says it's irrational,...

...and he's not the first to say this, but well, he said this probably before. You've all know a Hararre wrote that democracy is all about emotion, not rationality. We're talking here about unconscious processes. Right. I would add that the candidates must look the part and sound the part and, amazingly, have a short name like Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, George Bush. Wow, I think Joe Biden definitely fills the bill. If I were casting a movie and needed an actor to play the president, I would want Joe Biden. He looks and sounds the part. Is a good actor too. When he gets righteously angry or sentimental. It's good television, not long on policy ideas or proposals, or is voting record for that matter. What about Barack Obama? A lot of syllables, that's true, and he had tough opponents like John McCain and Mitt Romney, three syllables each. But he was fortunate in that, in my opinion, he was in the right place at the right time. African Americans desperately wanted a black president, but think about it, he was great on TV, looked presidential in every other way except skin tone, sounded presidential, was squeaky clean and had no record to hold against him. What we in America tend to get our leaders who are good at manipulating the media, like trump, who's a master at it, and who have really talented wizards behind them. Okay, Bernie Sanders the opposite of Biden. Lots of great new ideas and policy proposals,...

...but just didn't look the part or have the right voice or accent. I can't tell you how many people I know said they didn't like him, even people who completely agreed with him. It's as if we were electing homecoming queen. He had to be likable, whatever that is. Isn't it unbelievable? You it is likable. Why? Why? You want a likable president? Why do you want a likable leader? I don't know. How about Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris? Well, in my opinion, they don't look and sound like men and therefore don't look and sound presidential to Americans. I'm not saying a woman can't or shouldn't be president, but it will be hard for a woman to get elected president in America. It's partly because of historical memory. is about presidents. We've never seen a female president and also because of the way our system works. It's going to take some right, going to take time. Oh Yeah, Oh yeah, who knows how long, but yes, it's going to take time. We as a country would rather have a male game show host than an accomplished woman, so it would seem. So, it would seem. Another important concept scapegoating, that Sheldon Solomon mentioned in a much earlier episode. Dan Notes that when a leader starts to feel vulnerable, they may use the scapegoating process to focus the group's attention on an enemy and individual, a social group or race or religion or a sexual preference or another nation. WAG The dog. WAG The dog, conquer evil. Yeah, what Bill Clinton was accused of when he attacked terrorist camps in Afghanistan to distract from the Monica Lewinsky scandal. I'm not saying that that's what he was really doing, but but that's what he was accused of.

WAG The dog. Yep. Dan stressed that the leadership qualities he described were specific to the leaders time and place. Well, I maintained that in our present culture that's experiencing an epidemic of Narcissism, which is, you know, a conversation for another time. Yep, but I don't think it's a coincidence that we elected a narcissist in chief. But anyway, that's what we'll talk about that another day. Dam talked about the traditional strength of our US institutions more than the leaders within them. When we lose faith in our institutions, that's when a culture comes apart, and I think we're living through that now. Yeah, I agree. I like Dan saying that good leaders empower us. He said it's a social work term. It's a good one. We are empowered to be better. Yeah, and I really like Dan's way for us to have better leaders. It's pretty simple. We have to be better people ourselves. Yeah, yeah, that's simple, but hard. Ain't that the truth? So we've been talking about leadership and the importance in our society. These are important ideas, aren't they? Join US next time. Like us on facebook. Please recommend us to your friends. You can find us at www dot important ideascom and support us on Patreon at wwwatoncom. The hub important ideas. We are one hundred percent listener supported. Thank you for listening to the hub for important ideas. I'm Steve James and I'm Ken Swain. STAY SAFE, everybody. Stay well.

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