The exercise of leadership, whether in governance, business, or religious institutions, is complex and risky because of the complexity of the following: the context, the self of the leader, and the relationship of leaders and followers (Karel San Juan, 2009).
A major aspect of the complexity of the self is the influence of unconscious desires, which though integral to the personality of every human agent, will rarely bear direct influence on the person’s behavior in everyday routines. Unconscious desires may directly influence behavior in critical situations, which are circumstances or “situations that threaten or destroy the certitudes of institutionalized routines” (Anthony Giddens, Constitution of Society).
Unconscious desires constitute much, but not all, of the unacknowledged conditions of interaction, including the everyday routine. These desires are fundamentally infantile organic wants. Through the socialization process initiated by the parents or guardians, most infants learn to relate these wants to the expectations of others and thereby learn to “manage” these wants. Giddens writes:
“Given that the modes of management of organic wants represent the first, and in an important sense the most all-embracing accommodation which the child makes to the world, it seems legitimate to suppose that a “basic security system” – that is, a primitive level of management of tensions rooted in organic needs – remains central to later personality development; and given that these processes occur first before the child acquires the linguistic skills necessary to monitor its learning consciously…
“they lie ‘below’ the threshold of those aspects of conduct that, learned later and in conjunction with the reflexive monitoring of such learning, are easily verbalized – thus ‘made conscious’ – by the older child or adult.” (Giddens, New Rules)
In a critical situation, the unconscious of a leader or a major participant can contribute directly to the production of unintended consequences of action. An example is the case of somebody who is depressed because of the loss of a beloved person either by death or estrangement. If the depression becomes protracted, the agent or leader can become more withdrawn or more demanding in his/her dealings with others (Giddens, Studies in Social and Political Theory).
Further withdrawal or increased hostility represents an indirect and disorientated appeal for attention, love or forgiveness; this ambivalent behavior, however, can produce an effect that the depressed agent or leader does not really want: followers, relatives, acquaintances, or the estranged beloved might avoid the depressed person increasingly. A continuing deterioration of their interaction increases the possibility of suicidal behavior on the part of the depressed.
The ambivalent behavior of the depressed agent is sustained by ambivalent memory-flashes about the beloved. Facts and fancies of instances of having been snubbed, neglected, or offended by the beloved are recalled, which bring hostile feelings, which then are repressed. These repressed feelings evoke the deep foreboding that one has actually been abandoned by the absent beloved.
The depressed agent carries a self-absorbing sense of guilt which twists the hostile feelings about the beloved into a pervading hostility to the self. This shadowy hostility is self-punitive, punitive toward others, or both. Thus, the agent becomes withdrawn, and can become hostile even toward friends.
The foreboding that one has been abandoned is influenced directly by infantile memory-flashes of those instances when the infant sensed that the nurturing object was absent. In those moments, the infant feared that the absence was permanent and that the nurturer or guardian had abandoned it.
Good socialization or child-rearing accustoms an infant not only to the temporary absences of a guardian but also to the deferments of some organic pleasures to later moments. The well-socialized child has learned that, first, a period of absence does not necessarily mean abandonment, and second, a deferment of pleasure can anticipate or bring more satisfaction.
Every well-socialized person, however, still retains unconscious, and thus non-reflexive and non-discursive, infantile pleasures and fears in the deepest recesses of the personality. In a critical situation, these unacknowledged pleasures and fears can condition directly the action of a person.
Another example of how unconscious conditions can contribute to the production of unintended consequences is the case of an infantry company whose esprit de corps revolves on their devotion to the captain or commander. In a critical situation like a battle, a strong-willed and admired captain can keep a company united and co-operative no matter how bad the battle is becoming.
In the minds of many of these infantrymen, the figure of their captain is colored by childhood feelings about their fathers or guardians. Encouraged by emotive flashes of the charmed and contented dependence of childhood, they can immediately submit to the difficult tactical decisions of their captain. Yet the more fervent their devotion to the captain, the stronger is the possibility that his sudden death in battle will trigger infantile panic and even desertion among his infantrymen.
Reflexive agency has boundaries: the unconscious and the unacknowledged conditions and the unintended consequences of action and interaction. Leaders and their followers do make history, but especially in critical situations, the influence of the unconscious becomes strong and less indirect. In such situations, what may appear already to be the most logical option may not likely be the option most existentially attractive to the leader(s). To accept the existence of the unconscious implies that, in critical situations, observers and analysts have to be wary of overconfidence in the human capacity for critical reason and rational action.