Lessons of Leadership: Sigmund Freud, Heinz Kohut, and Nelson Mandela

Three of the photographs in my office are of Sigmund Freud, Heinz Kohut, and Nelson Mandela. Each of them not only made significant contributions to humankind, but brought forward a very particular kind of leadership, not without flaws, that moved their respective “missions,” forward.

Freud, in creating a new field against almost insurmountable odds, including dismissive and hostiles response from the scientific, cultural, religious, and political communities of his time, never lost sight of keeping his endeavor moving forward. When attacked for theories and treatment methods, he forged ahead with more scientific data based on clinical work with detailed writing used as evidence. His application of these ideas beyond the consulting room, remain as significant today as they did during his life.

As a leader, he welcomed colleagues, often younger, who would take his new field beyond him and to new communities, both scientific and otherwise, around the world. Many succeeded. Others went in new and diverging paths which could be met with a dismissive response by Freud. Personal relationships sometimes ended quickly and painfully. His response in historical context was understandable–a young field, if not solid and fully developed, could gradually disappear.

I believe psychoanalysis sits on solid ground today. As one friend of mine has always suggests–he never worries about the survival of psychoanalysis, but always about the the survival of psychoanalysts. We no longer have to operate out of old fear, be it about theories, or standards of education.

Lessons of Freud’s leadership are about keeping one’s eye on the bigger picture, expanding an “inner circle,” both in new ideas and pragmatic development, while maintaining critical foundations of theory and treatment. Lessons from the limitations of his leadership “style,” are sharing and delegating responsibility with other and newer colleagues, to move ideas forward. Something like–their ideas and actions may not be exactly like mine, or the way I might do it, but I can trust they will add their own mark and creativity, and through our common commitment to the whole field and association, both will grows by their actions. As a leader, that becomes primary organizing principle–the growth of our field.

In the photograph of Kohut he is sitting in a chair at his home feeding his dog (I believe the dog’s name was Tovi). It was given to me by his sister-in-law as a Christmas present years ago through a mutual friend. That picture is a complex symbol. I remember literally sneaking in the back door on a cold Tuesday evening of the Chicago Psychoanalytic Society 34 years ago. It was not a particularly welcoming place to outsiders.

A well respected faculty member was presenting a paper critical of Kohut’s ideas, and in the most personal and attacking way. When someone asked a question disagreeing with the presenter, his question was was dismissed as a “resistance,” to a more traditional way of thinking. Kohut’s back was to me and I couldn’t see his face but he sat completely still. Later, I would hear stories of Kohut, a former president of APsaA, walking though the halls of the Waldorf being completely shunned by old freinds and colleagues, merely for offering new ideas.

Whether you agreed or not with Kohut’s ideas, the clarity of thinking, like during an hour long lecture without a note, was impressive. I heard him later on two occasions. But it was because of Kohut, nicknamed “Mr. Psychoanalysis,” that I was determined to learn and study closely traditional psychoanalytic theory. Only then could I hope to make any real sense of more contemporary theories and ideas. Some of his collaborators became my mentors, and as I previously said, their generativity, had the great influence. He himself at times could be dismissive like Freud, and maybe for similar reasons. Yet, his ideas have remained and grown. As he wrote, leadership requires great empathy with those one hopes to lead.

And finally, in 1997, I traveled with one of my daughters, Leah, then 13, to Cape Town both to present a paper, and visit a woman in (that woman Kim Richardson later became my wife). One of the first things we did was to take a boat to Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela spent 18 of his 27 years in prison. Our guide was Patrick, a former fellow inmate with Mandela. We were taken to the 8×8 ft cell (“classroom is what he called it) where Mandela lived, the quarry where he worked each day, the shower room where most of the political lessons of change and freedom were whispered to younger inmates, and the mail room where officials would censor mail, or blatantly change content, for example: write to a spouse on the mainland that the inmate no longer wanted to married; or writing the inmate falsely about a relative dying. This on top of daily physical abuse.

At the conclusion of the tour, Patrick asked Leah to come forward in front of the group. He took both her hands and said, “My new young friend, when you return to America, you must not forget that the most important lesson we learned from Mr. Mandela: “You can never right a wrong with another wrong.”

Such a principle guided not only his will to survive impossible conditions, but also impacted Manlela’s decisions to begin work with his oppressors years before his actual release. How do we avoid civil war and more bloodshed, end apartheid but save our country. It is hard to imagine siting down with his captors, who had taken him away from his family and his life for 27 years, and work toward compromise and change. Though there have been many problems and missteps since, Mr. Mandela saved a nation.

One lesson is obvious. One can be openly and clearly on the side of significant change and still negotiate serious compromise with those with whom one disagrees to save a country, to save the mission, and certainly to bring a professional association forward.

Kohut wrote that it is not what a parent does that has the most impact on a child’s development. It is about who a parent is. Hopefully throughout this campaign I have conveyed to you all something about who I am, how I have led, and how I will lead.

But, this election is not about me, nor Bob. It’s about you and about our common psychoanalytic “mission” and association and how we finally move forward by way of real change.

If you have voted…thank you. If not, do so today.

Best regards, Mark P.S. Kim and I are going to see the movie, Invictus, this evening.

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