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  • Writer's pictureNatalia Braun, MSc

Charismatic or hubristic leader? Gestalt coaching approach to the acquired political and business &q

Updated: Dec 17, 2019

"I'm right till proved wrong" is a powerful statement of self-belief, especially if the proof needed requires enormous effort by the other. Hubris* falls into this domain – a total self-belief that is based on arrogance and contempt for others opinion.

Lord David Owen who’s studied Hubris in politics has identified a ‘Hubris Syndrome’ whereby some politicians can become ‘intoxicated with power’ and refuse to take guidance from colleagues and advisors. We can see this in the latter stages of UK Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair as well as corporate leaders like Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers or Fred Goodwin of RBS.

It is clear that to be a powerful, inspirational leader that element of certainty in one’s opinion and the self-confidence to stick to one’s own views and principles in the face of opposition is admirable. Owen would say even necessary to be a senior politician or corporate leader. However, when taken to excess Hubris becomes destructive for the leader and the followers who have placed so much faith in their leader.

From a Gestalt perspective we can understand this syndrome as a form of Retroflection – an ‘interruption to contact’ which means that the individual refuses to engage with the other in a meaningful way. There is no-longer dialogue but all opinion is self-referenced, or sought from those who agree in a confluent, compliant way.

The way forward to addressing this issue in Gestalt coaching has to come from a number of perspectives:

  1. The coach needs to challenge the coachee on the avoidance of contact in the relationship – in other words, refuse to comply with the retroflection of the coachee. Ensuring that awareness is constantly drawn to the points where the coach feels marginalized, ignored and held in monologue rather than engaging in dialogue.

  2. This grandiose self-belief is also a defence against its polar extreme – Humiliation, a fear of collapse, vulnerability and failure. So the coach should introduce a model of health and wellbeing being a flow between the polarities of Hubris and Humility. It is important to provide a safe space with a lot of support to explore this feared polarity – often very real in a political or organisational context where displaying uncertainty is unacceptable. In doing this the coach validates that Hubris and Humility have their place but are the extremes with the middle ground of personal authority with acknowledgement of others views being more effective.

  3. A recognition that leadership style is a response to the needs of the followers. If the environment and context does not encourage Hubris then a leader will not emerge with these qualities. So the coach has to be cognisant of what the systemic forces are demanding, otherwise any work will be swamped by these energies. The coach can help the coachee to be aware of these systemic expectations and know that they are not to ‘blame’ but need to resist these forces if they are to create a more healthy, productive and sustainable working environment.

One key way the coach can learn about Hubris is by exploring their own tendencies towards either end of the polarities. We all have the potential, given the right circumstances, to exhibit these qualities so working on oneself will provide first-hand experience of what it’s like and create more compassion for your coachee. This can be done in a safety of a Gestalt personal / professional workshop or in 1:1 coaching.

This is a complex subject and coaches will need to be experienced in psychological frameworks like Gestalt if they are to be successful. They also need to be in supervision as the coachee will manipulate in extraordinary ways to maintain their power and control.

This is a topic that will be covered throughout the one year European Gestalt Coaching Programme taking place in Switzerland, Geneva area, beginning in October 2016.

Published by kind permission of John Leary-Joyce, the European Gestalt Coaching Programme Leader and President of the Academy of Executive Coaching.

*Hubris, also hybris, from ancient Greek description of gods, describes a personality quality of exaggerated or foolish pride or dangerous over-confidence. (Merriam-Webster’s Learner’s Dictionary, often invoked on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's departure, as mentioned in the Dictionary in April 2012)

For more information about the European Gestalt Coaching Programme in Switzerland, please read here.

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