Society and Leadership

Wilfred Bion believed that societies operate according to one of three basic assumptions. These are – dependent – broadly where society looks to a leader to depend upon; flight- flight – where there is a perceived external threat where the leader galvanises and curdles (my word) society; and the pairing group – where there are two leaders (archetypal parents). In this latter group system there is a hopeful expectation because the true leader, the future leader, is yet to be born. Bion termed this the messianic idea.

Bion observed that we are each as humans essentially social animals. We have these group structural tendencies within us, even before we are operating within a group.

“Our individual psychic make-up is intimately related to others, both the tendency to form constructively working groups and the potential for forming any of the basic assumption mental states when in a physical group setting with others”.

Societies do seem to me, practically to group as Bion suggests. It also seems to me that there is a tendency for dependent societies to flip to fight-flight and back, and that pairing groups emerge only after a period of stability. A quick personal review:

Russia (now) – under Putin. Dependent, but he introduces external enemies because he is failing to provide (the basic function of a dependent leader) – therefore moving toward fight-flight. This is also reflected across many middle-eastern countries, the difference being the “religious” archetype that their leaders draw upon, introducing a twisted and unreconstructed medieval view of Islam to create an enemy (all of the rest of the world). In Britain I would suggest we had a dependent/fight-fight society right through to Margaret Thatcher, but that this moved with Blair-Brown and now Cameron-Clegg toward a pairing group society. (Who will the future Messiah be for British politics, we sure are looking for one!). The USA was perhaps set up in the first place as a pairing group society (checks and balances!). It’s why it doesn’t (it seems to me) work so well when either the Democrats or Republicans have ALL the levers of power – Senate, President, Supreme Court, Congress – and why this happens so seldom. The leaders in Scotland, most recently of course attempted to carve out a new fiefdom by drawing on the dependent and fight-flight models. We are now moving back to a pairing group structure between Salmond-Sturgeon – which reflects the reality of the fundamental pairing group of Scotland-England. (Salmond as a UK MP, Sturgeon as First Minister of Scotland).

Foundational to Bion’s view is that humans are interdependent, part of one-whole.

The chapter on Bion’s study of groups in Symington’s review of Bion’s work has a quote from Vladimir Soloviev (Russian 19th century Christian mystic and philosopher), which sums up this basic tenet.

“The self-deception in virtue of which a human individual regards himself as real in his separateness from all things, and presupposes this fictitious isolation to be the true ground and only starting-point for all his relations – this self-deception of abstract subjectivisim plays terrible havoc not only in the domain of metaphysics – which, indeed, it abolishes altogether – but also in the domain of the moral and political life”.

Soloviev, though, goes much further, and prefigures Teilhard de Chardin with his observation that all is connected and interdependent, all part of one.

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