The boys in the (wo)men who run things

Recently, and for the first time in my life, I walked into a betting shop.

I wanted to find out if I could place a bet, and at what odds, that Brexit will not go through. It was, after all a plebiscite – a non-binding, advisory referendum. And who in their right mind would implement a decision as complex and significant as leaving the European Union on the basis of such a tiny majority of votes to leave, particularly when the overall statistics suggest a broadly three thirds split between “leave”, “remain” and “didn’t vote”?

It seems we are not in our right mind

So many things about Brexit highlight that we are not in our right minds that I need not mention them all.

Perhaps, even, any.

From the safe distance of the US, a friend wrote on Facebook. First, he responded to the result of the referendum, by saying:

To all my friends and colleagues in the UK and the EU: the “Brexit” vote is a huge deal! My heart goes out to you in the instability and change, regardless of which way you were voting.

Sending hugs and fierce love today.

Then, he responded to David Cameron’s post referendum speech by saying:

Can someone explain the intricacies of UK politics to me around a prime minister resigning? I can’t tell, from what I’ve been reading, whether David Cameron is resigning on principle, or if there is a process in the way the prime minister loses his position when something… changes…? <confused>

After I get an answer to this, I’ll ask about the rules of cricket.

Of course, from the safe distance of the UK, the possibility that Donald Trump might become President of the United States also seems pretty off the wall.

Even so, we might still have to live with it.

Wounded Leaders

Everything about Brexit pointed to one thing for me. It was time to read Nick Duffell’s book, Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion.

For over twenty years, Duffell has been exploring a topic that came to my attention only because of conversations with a friend: the impact on men and women in adulthood of attending boarding schools in childhood.

Duffell’s thesis is that sending children away to board exposes them to the traumatic experience of being separated from their parents before they are ready. Then, as if this were not enough, they have to make sense of their parents’ reasons for doing it, raising fears that they were sent away because their parents didn’t love them or that the fact that they are not enjoying boarding school means there is something wrong with them. Finally, the experience throws up the need to find ways to survive in their new context. They become bullies or buffoons, or possibly both. In Nick Duffell’s language, they become Boarding School Survivors.

Duffell’s thesis is vividly reflected in a documentary film, made in 1994, entitled The Making of Them, which is still available to view.

As his book outlines, the results of boarding in the adult lives of boarders are also plain to see in the behaviours of our political elite.

You are not alone

You could think that this posting is directed only at people who have been to boarding school, or to people who work with former boarders. It’s not.

Reading Duffell’s book, I found parallels in my own experience both as a child transitioning over time into adulthood and also as someone who works with men and women in leadership roles.

If you, for example, are sometimes triggered in the work place… if, at times, you respond at a speed that can only come from some kind of automatic pilot to the events you face at work… if you sometimes regret your reaction but don’t begin to know what to do differently or if you seek to justify your response by finding fault with the person or people you are dealing with… if there are things you desire as if your very life depends upon it… if you are riddled with self-doubt unless you achieve X or Y or Z… you are not alone.

It is common for children to experience things in childhood that are beyond their capacity to understand. It is equally common for children, in finding ways to cope with difficult experiences, to develop strategies that, whilst far from effective, nonetheless get carried into adulthood. These are strategies that protect us – or attempt to protect us – from the worst fears of our inner child.

At the same time, in our adult lives, our inner child remains stuck unless and until we are able to recognise our pain (the “wounds” implied in the title of Duffell’s book), to understand the source of our pain and to seek out and embody the learning we need to move forward.

When your inner child is running the show

Early in his book, Duffell reminds us of David Cameron’s now (in)famous remark to Angela Eagle in the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions: “Calm down, dear”, which he analyses in some detail as an example of the kind of strategies boarders adopt. It’s the kind of strategy that works in the moment, at least to some degree.

At the same time, as you may know from your own experience, strategies that come from your inner child can only work to a limited degree and may even be harmful.

What are the consequences of these strategies, of which we may or may not be aware?

  • Often, they are accompanied by high emotions, particularly anxiety, on the part of the inner child. We may look as elegant as swans on the surface, but maintaining appearances takes untold energy and can lead, over time, to exhaustion, stress and more;
  • Formed in childhood based on the thinking of our immature child, the harm to ourselves is self-perpetuating, because the thinking that drives them is taken as true. You think you have to work ten times as hard as your colleagues to be accepted? You think you have to be top of the corporate class in order to be liked? You will strive, constantly, in line with your inner belief. Worse still, because you fear, at some level, that you are not, fundamentally, okay, it can be hard for you to receive feedback that brings your hidden belief into awareness, lest it be proof of the flaws you fear so deeply;
  • Paradoxically, the very strategy that you adopted as a child may prevent you, in adulthood, from achieving the needs it was designed to achieve. This can become more and more apparent as your career progresses… when, for example, the attention to detail that made you an asset early in your career becomes a failure to see the larger picture in your role as a leader;
  • There may be consequences for those you lead. These are likely to be designed into your strategy but also unconscious. If you strive for perfection, for example, in order to prove you’re okay, you may be highly intolerant of any mistakes, wherever they come from. As a consequence, you will come down hard on the mistakes of others and may even try to make others responsible for your own;

If you’ve read this far, you may already be aware of some hidden anxiety or behavioural pattern that is running the show. You may even be aware of the implications for you and for others in your career.

You don’t need to be alone with it.

It’s not just that you’re one of many people who have one or more stress responses which date back to your childhood experiences.

No.

In addition, there are many ways – such as learning to pause before you act or learning to meditate – to begin the work of re-shaping your approach. In addition, professional support is available from highly skilled therapists, coaches and trainers. Far from being a sign that you’re flawed or failing in some way, the decision to seek professional support signals a step towards conscious self-awareness and making adult choices.

And Brexit?

Nick Duffell would, I think, propose that Brexit is the natural consequence of attempts to survive a boarding school education. In the prologue to Wounded Leaders, he writes presciently:

Having had to do without loving parents and being thrust into a false community – a single-sex institution with a narrow age-range – most ex boarders develop a very complex relationship with groups and communities, characterized by a mixture of suspicion and unfulfilled longing. Despite their intentions, those with an overriding thirst for power seem to end up suspicious of Continental values, backing self-reliance and prolonging a deep conservatism that keeps the old for the old’s sake and robs the country of the benefits of its natural dynamism. This, of course, affects the whole of society from top to bottom.

If Duffell is right, our decision, by a narrow majority of voters, to leave the European Union, is the result of unconscious survival strategies at the most senior levels of Britain’s political elite. In my view, it has also been met by similar survival responses across the electorate.

As for me, I did not get to place my bet.

I explained to the man who was serving me that I had not missed the result of the referendum (as he assumed) and talked about the process of invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. At the time, there were no odds on offer (and I missed the opportunity to place a bet on Theresa May.)

A fellow customer, standing next to me at the next counter, looked quizzically at me and told me that we’ve already left Europe.

Nothing I could say persuaded him that this was not, actually, true.

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