The Leadership of Sigmund Freud

In the late 1800s, when Florence Nightingale was pioneering today's nursing, a talented medical researcher was developing many of the concepts of modern psychoanalysis. His name was Sigmund Freud, and today we know him as the father of psychoanalysis.

Freud devoted his energies to the study of human nature and concluded that humans are self-centered beings. Freud's constructs of human nature hold a significant irony; considered separately, they leave the leader bewildered and directionless. However, Freud himself was a masterful leader who had a devoted following and an impact on Western thought that has far outlived him.

HE CREATED. Freud was a leader who created. He challenged the process of the day, was willing to experiment, and was willing to make mistakes. Freud recognized the intellectual paucity of neurological research directed at tracing psychic disturbances to physical causes, which was accepted in scientific circles at the time. He proposed a less scientific approach to research because he felt that the convergence of clues about the inner workings of the psyche was sufficient confirmation of fact to justify theorizing. He had seen in his own practice that physical treatments, such as hydrotherapy and electrotherapy, were futile in treating supposedly physical diseases. Not only did Freud challenge established modes of investigation, but he also challenged established therapeutic modes.

In challenging the status quo in psychiatry and neurology, Freud experimented freely, trying hypnosis and, later, free association and dream interpretation, despite the fact that neurologists of the time generally viewed hypnosis as a fraudulent technique that endangered the patient (Miller, 1993). He did not let opposition or failure stop his progress. In an age when psychoanalysis was officially held to be of ill repute, Freud participated in establishing leadership within the International Psycho-Analytical Association to advance the cause (Freud, 1935). In addition, although he believed strongly in hypnosis, his own failures in inducing hypnosis in patients led him to turn eventually to dream interpretation and free association as therapeutic alternatives.

When a leader creates, he or she must also create the climate for followers to want to participate. It is not sufficient to challenge the status quo or attempt to change it if constituents have no interest. This is perhaps more challenging than going against the norm, because it involves changing the perspective of people other than oneself. Freud believed that his patients expected great things of him, and that belief in him fostered self-confidence and his ability to accomplish his goals. Similarly, Freud sought to engender self-confidence in others by expecting great things of them and giving them the resources to accomplish their goals, even if they did not coincide with his own (Freud, [1914] 1972). He desired most of all to be a leader among leaders, not to monopolize power. In this spirit, he sponsored the informal discussion group that met in his home, the establishment of professional societies, and the foundation of a new journal in which fellow psychoanalysts could publish their findings and expound their theories.

HE SHARED A VISION. Through his work, Freud spoke volumes to the dynamics of human motivation and communal interactions. Freud's vision began as a narrowly defined one, in which he strove to alleviate the mental ailments of patients who consulted him as a neurologist in private practice, yet it became all-encompassing. Freud described psychology as his consuming passion (Miller, 1993). His ultimate goal became to enable individuals to understand their own history so that they could make choices.

Today we refer to Freud as the father of psychoanalysis, not because he was the originator of key ideas about sexuality and the development of the psyche or the therapeutic benefit of talk; he was not. He freely admitted that he had derived some of his ideas from others, including Charcot and Breuer, and he made a point of giving them full credit for their work (Freud, [1914] 1972). What marked Freud as the father of psychoanalysis was that others found his own conviction so compelling that they came to him asking for training. Freud never actively recruited adherents to his theories, but nonetheless, his fervent belief, his intellectual prowess, and his lucid writing style drew others to him from around the world.

Freud once pronounced, "We have the truth, I am sure of it" (Freud, [1914] 1972). It is quite significant that Freud referred here to a collective "we," not a self-aggrandizing "I."

Freud's daughter Anna shared Freud's vision and worked toward a common purpose. She ultimately became a pioneer in the psychoanalysis of children. Other psychoanalysts, including Heinz Hartman and Erik Erikson, advanced her ideas in their own work, making major contributions to current thought in developmental psychology. Once Freud's ideas gained a foothold of legitimacy in hospitable environments in the United States and Switzerland, the trickle of adherents to his theories became a torrent. Soon, Freud's work was applied to education, art, history, religion, anthropology, and sociology (Appel, 1995).

Freud was a visionary and a creative leader by virtue of his message and his means. Many a leader with great potential has stopped with a message, albeit a grandiose or a carefully crafted one. An organization whose leader is merely a visionary without the means or motivating factors to carry out the vision will produce, simply, an organization with vision. A leader who carries the vision to reality by creating an environment for change can only do so in tandem with the motivation of his constituents. In other words, it is insufficient to have a vision or to create the means to carry out the vision, if one does not lead.

HE SET AN EXAMPLE. Followers are only followers because they are following something or someone. The leader must set an example for others to follow, without expecting followers, albeit dedicated to the vision and eager to get started, to set the example for them. Even self-directed work teams become such because they have a strong example to begin with: a leader or strong guiding principles. Example is a crucial point of leadership, the make-or-break element, no matter how strong the vision or how ripe the environment for change.

There is a distinct transition of power that must occur when a leader sets an example. The followers have to feel the ability to follow the example. Freud was a masterful leader in the sense that he set a beautiful example, enabling his followers and constituents to act because he gave them a framework for taking action.

We may think of setting an example in terms of the old adage many of us heard in childhood, often in jest. "Do as I say, not as I do." This statement left many of us squirming in our conscience, because people naturally want to do as others do. Today's leadership theory boldly denounces the practice of walking any walk other than that expected of followers. Simply put, this involves honesty and credibility.

Freud was a scrupulously honest leader. Although in his day, psychoanalysis was still subject to trials and the truing up of conflicting avenues of thought, the very process of psychoanalysis required an unrestrained approach to what was often the bitter truth. In addition, conflicting theories and the ripples created by challenging the norms of the day often resulted in dissension between Freud and his followers. Constant intellectual battles ensued, some of which created breaks in professional relationships. Freud discussed even these with honesty, giving due credit to the merits and strong detail of the theories of others while supporting his own through truthful comparisons.

Freud proved himself an honest leader, then enabled others to act through collaboration and the sharing of information and power. He said, in effect, "Do as I do." Although Freud did much of his work in isolation, he studied with others in order to advance his own theories throughout his career. In turn, he provided an environment of collaboration for others through weekly discussion sessions at his home and later through offers of collaboration with medical institutions and professional societies. He tirelessly supported and worked to help other theorists who had been met with rejection in the psychoanalytic movement. In fact, for ten years, he had no followers largely because of a similar rejection (Freud, 1935). However, over time, he shared the personal power of his expertise with others, which enabled them to act and ultimately to advance his theories, creating what we know as modern psychotherapy. One man, no matter how brilliant, no matter how visionary, no matter how creative, no matter how powerful, could not have done this alone.

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  • rhea
    How was sigmund freud a leader?
    24 days ago

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