The containing role of leadership

I am a republican through and through and have never had much interest in the extravagant rituals and seedy scandals that surround our royal family. Nevertheless, the Queen in her old-age has grown on me, and her address to the nation last Sunday seemed to manage a level of wisdom and humanity that our politicians have found difficult. A few of my psychotherapy patients this week have mentioned the calming effects of her words.

Psychological containment is something we think a lot about as psychotherapists: how to make insecure people feel safe so that they can breathe freely, face the reality of their situation and embark on the risky work that therapy involves. Age and experience can help, the reassuring sense of being with someone who’s seen it all and can’t be shocked. The Queen’s recollection of herself eighty years ago, broadcasting to evacuated children during the war, resonated powerfully with people of all ages, without the need to use the fighting language that has become the norm in so many press conferences about the pandemic.   By linking our present story with generations past, she conveyed the sense that suffering and adversity are an inevitable part of life and this made her assured talk of better days to come feel real, rather than wishful thinking. Her emphasis was on connection –  “remain united as a country”,  “joining with all nations”, “fellow-feeling”, “common endeavour”. This reflected a theme emerging strongly through this crisis. Maybe it even pushed  some of the more individualistic, competitive, red-in-tooth-and-claw types amongst us towards some awareness that our futures are tied together. She left the sense of responsibility for each other to speak for itself.

Jacinda Ardern, the prime-minister of New Zealand, also creates a sense of kinship in her short speeches to her nation – and without the aid of royal blood or longevity.  Somehow, she manages to combine a sense of calm authority with a natural common-touch that I imagine reaches out to people in all walks of life. Whilst Queen Elizabeth talks about the many heart-warming stories that are emerging, Jacinda Ardern manages to be the heart-warming story: the multi-tasking, sleep-deprived mother of a toddler, unflustered as she answers questions about how the potty-training’s going whilst she heads up the country’s response to the pandemic. She seems to be able to trust people enough to accept her as she is, confident enough to earn her authority and allow people to judge her on her merits. All this, as she plays a firm hand, both kind and stern, describing the scale of the threat truthfully, clarifying the issues compassionately, whilst communicating clearly what she expects from the citizens of her country. “So New Zealand, remember to be calm, be kind, stay at home – we can break the chain.”

Jacinda Ardern understands that the population need to feel linked to each other with the help of a leader who embodies intelligent kindness.   “You are not alone. You will hear us and see us daily as we guide New Zealand through this period.” Sure enough, the government in New Zealand seems to be much more active than the UK government, supporting people in lockdown, and not just through financial support. It is very directly helping families, for example, by ramping up internet connections and distributing devices, providing hard copy materials like books and worksheets, launching dedicated education broadcasts in both English and Maori, and increasing support for parents.

It is good to find a leader who is relatively transparent, lacking in pomp and self-importance, lively and spontaneous, refreshingly grounded in the ordinary. She apparently gets a huge amount of hate-mail which makes me fear for her. I need to be careful that my admiration doesn’t slip into a position of naive idealisation, as people raised to pedestals in our minds tend to topple and the process of disillusion can be painful.  But this prime minister is there ahead of me, the first to acknowledge she’s not always right: “It won’t always be perfect but the principle of what we’re doing is the right one.”

There are lessons here for all leaders, especially those at the sharp end of work to respond to the threats of the virus, including those in less exalted positions in the system. In a crisis, containment of anxiety becomes particularly important. People feel contained when they trust a leader’s genuine commitment to doing their best for them rather than acting in their own interests or defending their own position.  This is helped when people sense that their anxiety and needs are recognised and  attended to by a leader who is attuned to their – the people’s – experience.  We are all helped by seeing a leader managing, but not denying, his or her own anxiety, whilst being  humanly vulnerable, realistic and optimistic at the same time.  Honesty, warmth and authenticity in a leader promote trust. Of course, confidence in a leader’s competence helps as well.


One thought on “The containing role of leadership

  1. Hi Penny
    I think this s brilliant. My brother lives in Auckland and he experiences JA’s leadership as you’ve described. Wouldn’t it be great if ….
    Thank you!


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