Eric J Miller
May 1987 (unpublished)
Over the last 25 years I have had the privilege of working as a consultant with a number of organisations led by the founding entrepreneur. In several cases this was a woman. These female-led organisations have varied in size, from a score or so of people to several hundred, and been engaged in differing tasks, in both the commercial and non-profit sectors. One had an all-female membership. They nevertheless seem to have had in common a distinctive underlying dynamic. In this brief paper, my purpose is to describe that dynamic and offer a hypothesis that may go some way to explain it.
The paper is of necessity brief, because confidentiality prevents me from disclosing my supporting evidence, except in the sketchiest form. This has made me diffident about writing anything at all for publication. However, I have been encouraged by the fact that the experience of one or two professional associates, working in similar settings, seems to corroborate my own. Moreover, events in these organisations have often been extremely painful and destructive for individuals involved, and it is possible that an understanding of the processes may be of help in limiting the potential destructiveness in other organisations of a similar kind.
Besides the paucity of evidence, one other obvious criticism which readers may make is that consultants tend to get called in only when an organisation is in trouble. One can hardly draw inference about a total population from a small sample of pathological cases, which might be explained by the psychopathology, or just the incompetence, of the person in the leadership role. This is a criticism I cannot rebut. I am merely asking readers to test the validity of the hypothesis against their knowledge of other organisations led by female entrepreneurs. If it turns out that my cases are exceptions I shall be relieved.
Many entrepreneurial endeavours begin and end as one-person organisations. Growth involves difficult transitions, which often turn into hurdles that are too high to surmount. These difficulties are normal, not pathological. Typically a first step is the shift from a sideline – perhaps a hobby – into a full-time commitment. A second is recruitment of the first employee, which doubles size and risk. It also begins to raise issues of specialisation and delegation, which become acute when numbers reach about a dozen, if not sooner. The proprietor of a store, who is checking stocks, placing orders, keeping the books, dealing with the bank and the rest, has little time left to serve customers. Some activities have to be given up, and this is usually painful. Having started by doing everything oneself, it tends to be assumed, often justifiably, that one knows best exactly how everything should be done. Delegated tasks are closely supervised. Enterprises reach a further hurdle, which many fail to cross, when numbers are too great to be directly supervised by the entrepreneur either personally or in conjunction with a trusted spouse or partner. A new layer of management is needed. Difficulties in bringing in and retaining managers are common; and quite often – perhaps at the insistence of investors – a consultant is hired to help re-structure the organisation.
In these processes and transitions, turnover of personnel is normal and probably inevitable. This follows from the nature of entrepreneurship. The successful entrepreneur, regardless of gender, has to have an idea or vision and the ability to convince other people that he/she can implement it. For the time being, at least, the entrepreneur maintains a monopoly of creativity; and the authority of other members of the organisation to initiate and innovate is tightly constrained (cf. Miller 1983). The primary task is closely prescribed but often, paradoxically, not explicitly: it is defined by the decisions that the entrepreneur makes. Overtly, the entrepreneur may indeed invite initiative; but between acceptable and unacceptable initiative there is an implicit boundary which has to be discovered experientially. Some people leave, voluntarily or involuntarily, as a result of miscalculating that boundary. Others go feeling uncomfortable with what they experience as an arbitrary authority.
My first proposition is that, in the terminology of Bion (1961), such an organisation is pervaded by “basic assumption fight/flight”. The entrepreneur is essentially a fight leader. Creating a new enterprise requires thrusting out into the environment, establishing and enlarging a bridgehead, competing for finance and for a market. It is a crusading process in which there is strong identification with the new product, or new concept, and anything short of complete acceptance tends to be interpreted as hostile. The world outside is well-stocked with potential “enemies” to be converted or conquered.
It is characteristic of a “fight culture” that casualties are to be expected and accepted. They are a condition of survival. It is also characteristic in times of setback to look for enemies within. External failure is explained by internal disloyalty or treachery. Scapegoats are identified and extruded, thereby reinforcing the resolve of the remainder to sustain the fight.
The personal authority of the entrepreneur is often labelled charisma. Wilner (1984) (quoted by Post 1986, p. 676) defines charismatic leadership as “a relationship between a leader and a group of followers that has the following properties:
- The leader is perceived by the followers as somehow super-human.
- The followers blindly believe the leader’s statements.
- The followers unconditionally comply with the leader’s directives for action.
- The followers give the leader unqualified emotional support.”
This certainly captures the quality of a basic assumption culture, which mobilises just those regressed, primitive aspects of ourselves. It does not, however, distinguish between the different basic assumptions and the emotional states associated with them.
It will be remembered that Bion identified three basic assumptions – fight/flight, dependency and pairing – and postulated that the prevailing basic assumption serves as a defence to keep at bay the emotional states associated with the other two. Thus if fight is to be maintained, security needs and reproductive drives have to be repressed. Pairing is particularly threatening to entrepreneurial leadership: unconsciously it represents the possibility of giving birth to a new, alternative leader; and hence if two members of the organisation get together, excluding the leader, this is almost invariably interpreted as a conspiracy that has to be suppressed.
So far, the dynamics I have been describing are not affected by the gender of the entrepreneur. It is around security needs that this distinction becomes important.
In “basic assumption dependency”, as Bion describes it, the group is met as if to be nurtured and fed by an all-knowing leader with boundless resources – a deity. Whereas the basic assumption of fight can be appropriately and effectively mobilised to achieve the external task of the organisation, a dependency culture is inimical to work. In this emotional state the group has only to worship and the deity will provide. In an effective and, especially, an expanding enterprise, needs for security and dependency are met en passant as it were. Followers are rewarded by the approval of their leader, higher salaries, or both. Expansion provides openings for energetic younger people, thereby reducing the possibility of their becoming mobilised as rivals for the leadership. And so the leader’s authority is correspondingly reinforced. In a phase of non-growth or recession, the fight culture can still be sustained for a while – there is acceptance that some people have to go and that those who remain must tighten their belts – but only so long as the leader can keep alive the fantasy of ultimate victory that will make the sacrifices worthwhile. The organisation is then increasingly vulnerable to the demands of unmet dependency needs. At this point there is a search for an alternative, more benign leadership.
The male founding entrepreneur is not immune to such threats. A rival or rivals may emerge – always, I suspect, males. In the long run, there may be a serious struggle for power in which the leadership is ousted – the primal horde phenomenon.
My hypothesis is that whereas in the male-led organisation the leader becomes vulnerable to attack mainly in phases when the fight culture is not sustained by external organisational success, the female founding entrepreneur is much more continuingly the focus of powerful ambivalent emotions. As a successful fight leader she mobilises a loyal and committed followership. (I would speculate that it may be even more fiercely committed – that curiously exciting, even erotic, feelings are aroused by the image of the successful female hunter.) Simultaneously, however, simply by virtue of being a woman and hence a mother-figure, she evokes powerful yearnings for the satisfaction of dependency needs. The basic assumptions of fight and dependency are therefore in almost continual oscillation. She is required to be both the fight leader and the dependent leader – to vanquish the enemy and to nurse the casualties. After all, that’s what our mothers do, isn’t it? And in the early stages, when the organisation is still small, she does indeed do both: she both engages vigorously with the task and also attends to individuals. That in itself fosters a myth of omnipotence that accompanies her into the expanding organisation. With it comes the corresponding pressure to be omnipotent. Female and male leaders alike are readily seduced by such pressures into believing that they really are omnipotent.
I would postulate that the individual member of such a female-led enterprise is internally split: on the one hand, devotion to the fight leader; on the other hand, rage at the dependent leader for failing to provide personal attention and nurture. The ambivalent drive to both preserve and destroy generates intolerable anxiety. A defence against this anxiety is found by mobilising one member of the organisation to carry the negative, the rage – or, more precisely, to take the role of assassin.
An associate of mine recently gave an account of a board meeting in which he described the atmosphere around the female entrepreneur as being “murderous”. This exactly confirms my own observations, and also at times my own counter-transference in the role of consultant. At the same time, there is of course the equal – more or less equal – and opposite wish to preserve. My experience in female-led organisations is of a series of dramas in which someone is set up to confront the entrepreneur, and which engross the organisation much as the Romans were engrossed by the encounter between the gladiator and the lion. The gladiator is selected – albeit unconsciously – with great care. Sometimes a senior male in the organisation is set up to carry the murderous wishes, but I hypothesise that this is intolerable: in my observations the man in such a position is rapidly extruded or neutralised. So the gladiator has to be a woman, and ideally it is a woman who has been a close and trusted ally of the leader. Sororicide is acceptable; matricide is not. Presumably to alienate the ally in itself also gratifies the destructive impulses.
I referred just now to the “more or less equal” wish to preserve and to destroy. I suspect that the ideal outcome, in fantasy, is for the gladiator to come close to killing the lion but actually to fail and to be killed. To have murderous feelings towards mother is one thing; to see her killed – even by her sister – and to feel responsibility for it is another. Anxiety about the ensuing chaos may demand that the leader should survive. In the one case I know of in which the “younger sister” mounted a successful coup (with much male support), the leader was spending a period away from the organisation: it is tempting to infer that this tilted the balance and that mother had to be additionally punished for abandoning the children.
Although this hypothesis is specifically concerned with the founding female entrepreneur, it may say something more general about female leadership. Is it a coincidence, for example, that in 1984 attempts were made to assassinate the world’s only two female prime ministers? Indira Gandhi (date…..) was killed by a Sikh member of her own bodyguard; Margaret Thatcher survived the bombing of her Brighton hotel in November 1984. This was at the height of a bitter and violent mining strike, which had divided the nation. It offered a splendid contemporary version of the archetypal struggle between good and evil, in which the rest of the population could choose for themselves which was which. Was the hero Arthur Scargill, the mine workers’ leader, who was defending a major industry and the workers in it from a government determined to destroy the mines and miners and using police brutality as an instrument of repression? Or was the heroine Margaret Thatcher, who was introducing economic rationality at last, and reasserting law and order against the use of violence by miners’ pickets? (cf. Miller 1986). At first, when it was not known who was responsible for the bombing, a number of people attributed it to miners. Then it became clear that it was the Irish Republican Army. Even so, support for the miners quite quickly evaporated, as if to say we had gone too far. So at a deeper level, I suggest, the IRA were acting out split-off murderous impulses on behalf of the rest of British society, and the Sikh bodyguard was doing the same on behalf of India.
As I said at the outset this hypothesis is speculative and may be an unjustifiable extrapolation from a small and deviant sample. That is for the reader to judge.
If however, there is some confirmation, we then have to ask what we can do with our understanding. Can we prevent these organisations from being subjected to such pain and destructiveness? I have no panacea. To a limited extent, wider recognition that these dynamics are inherent in the situation may help to blunt their effects. For example, in working as a consultant to a therapeutic community that faced the retirement of its founder, I was able to use as an object lesson a paper that gave a frank account, by people involved, of the dynamics that followed a similar change in a similar institution (Jones and Riach 19…..). I could encourage my clients to make sure that they did not replicate the process.
This perhaps takes us one step further. From my role as consultant, essentially what I was doing was to help this particular organisation to develop an “observing ego”, so that they were not simply being and doing and perhaps acting out, but able to step aside from time to time and scrutinise and interpret what they were doing. Their own transition was much less traumatic than in the case that had provided their object lesson.
Such provision of a “space”, in which people can take up the role of “citizen of the organisation” in order to explore the unconscious dynamics of the system, has proved useful in other settings (cf. Khaleelee and Miller 1985). However, I do not underestimate the difficulty of institutionalising the “observing ego” in an organisation in which polarisations are already deeply entrenched.
Bion, W R (1961). Experience in Groups, London: Tavistock Publications.
Jones, P & Riach, P. Some thoughts on the effect of trauma on individual, group and organisational life.
Khaleelee, O & Miller, E J (1985). Beyond the small group: society as an intelligible field of study. In: M Pines (ed), Bion and Group Psychotherapy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pp. 354 -385.
Miller, E J (1983). Work and Creativity. Occasional Paper No 6. London: Tavistock Institute of Human Relations.
Miller, E J (1986). Making room for individual autonomy. In: S Srivastva et al, Executive Power. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, pp. 257-288.
Post, J M (1986). Narcissism and the charismatic leader – follower relationship. Political Psychology 7, 4, pp. 675-688.
Wilner, A R (1984). The Spellbinders. New Haven: Yale University Press.