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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Working Through Differences Among Leaders and Dominant Coalitions Across Generations: the Challenge of Integrating Past, Present, and Future

Obama's election night speech took up the challenge of thinking in time in a powerful way. The frame of the talk was both forward looking, not a manic celebration of the successful campaign, and backward reaching, to assets from the United States' collective history. The commentators had framed the transition in alternative ways: 'post-racial, post-boomer, closing out the cultural wars from the '60s' phrases that suggest we are sharper at thinking specifically about the era we are leaving than the outlines of the one we are entering. As Hegel noted years ago, 'Minerva [wisdom] flies at dusk.' In this paper, we examine this interplay of past, present, and future (not always in this sequence) in the context of generational transitions when a new dominant coalition takes up power and the old guard passes (Becker, 1973). We particularly want to explore two cases that explore the ways in which identity differences can shape strategic change across time (Kimberly and Bouchikhi, 2003, Drozdow, 1998). We contrast a narcissistic and grandiose conception of time, i.e., a decontextualized 'eternal present' (Vaknin) with a generative conception of time in which a leader situates herself in context with a group and with the external world in a way that integrates past, present, and future. The first case is that of a scientific medical library with a distinguished history back to Colonial Times that faced the challenge of reinventing itself as a cultural/historical society when it no longer could keep pace with the costs of an ever- burgeoning volume of scientific literature. Yet, the leaders consumed a substantial portion of their endowment trying to live in the past during a decade of 'restorative nostalgic denial' (Bohm) of the new external realities. A major driver in the eventual adaptation of this organization to its new context was the death of a narcissistic leader who had dominated the board, even when not in role of chair. The second case is that of a professional services firm. We will explore the founding leader's ability to knit together two different organizations that were merged to create the new enterprise. In managing the tension between his narcissistic and generative valencies, the leader and those who founded the firm created a new and thriving entity, and at the same time put off working through some important differences within and among groups, differences that must be managed now in order to create the identity, strategy and economic structure of the firm in the future. We will look at the interplay of narcissistic/grandiose and generative leadership styles as they played out across generational differences in the firm. We will explore in depth the generational differences in perspectives and the intra and inter-personal dynamics among and between the various groups. How do near retirement leaders (reaching what Erickson (1959) has framed as the generative stage), but still with substantial ownership stakes, work through differences in strategy, governance, identity, and economics with colleagues in different age cohorts? What are the dynamics among past and present leaders interpersonally and what are the intrapersonal challenges for both the older generation stepping down and the next generation stepping up? In other words, how do the players 'turn ghosts into ancestors' (Loewald in Epstein)? Can they both recognize and draw on the assets of predecessors without contaminating them with their liabilities (Klein, Menzies)? How can they take the ideas of those ancestors and enact the reality principle as stated by Lear (2004), and 'Act toward the world' or a part of the world'as if we know it, but always stand poised to learn from it and to be altered by it.' One feature of this second case is the way the founding myths and the dynamics of the founding president's narcissistic/grandiose character and relationships to the groups have lived on even after he left role and organization. As Faulkner famously noted, 'The past isn't dead, it isn't even past.' In this case, unmanaged differences were encoded structurally in the economic and governance structure of the firm. The next leader faced the challenge of working with and through those differences in a way that contained their adverse consequences while confronting them directly. Working through the tensions between founders who may have psychically overvalued 'their baby' and newer owners who worried that the economic engine was not sufficiently sound was as much a psychodynamic as economic exercise. Marguerite Yourcenar (1963, p. 167) in her brilliant memoirs of Hadrian conceptualizes the leader's task as letting go of one's reactiveness to the negative traits of one predecessors, joining with their positive features, pulling those forward, humbled by the awareness that future leaders will at some future date be looking back on their acts and similarly having to render judgments on them. We will use these two cases to take up the symposium theme of differences at work by focusing on the generative working through by both leaders and groups across generational cohorts in ongoing enterprises as they reinvent both economics and cultural features in ways that fit new circumstances, without needless denigration of the past.'