“My Heart Belongs To Daddy”

The little-known psychological driver that can support - and destroy – leaders.

Leaders lead because they’re driven to – that’s the conventional wisdom.

And it turns out followers may follow for exactly the same reason.

Behind your followers’ drive to follow you is a topic from psychoanalysis and one of Freud’s greatest discoveries. It’s called transference.

“Transference is when adults interact with, and react to, other adults as if they were significant figures from their early childhood: parents, siblings or maybe teachers. They “transfer” their past attitudes and feelings onto the present person. (1*)

In other words, we take feelings towards authority figures from the past (possibly a parent or teacher) and transfer them onto authority figures in the present (for example, your boss).

Writing in the Harvard Business review, Michael Maccoby (2*) says:

“At its best, transference is the emotional glue that binds people to a leader. Employees in the grip of positive transference see their leader as better than (he or) she really is—smarter, nicer, more charismatic.

Yet you won’t be surprised to hear there is a downside, too.

Employees may turn against a leader who fails in some way to meet their idealised expectations.

Or the leader may make disastrous strategic decisions, fueled in part by the unquestioning ‘love’ of the employees.

In an article for CBS (3*), business writer and former-CEO Margaret Heffernan quotes academic Christian Stadler (4*),:

“… six out of the last 18 Chief Executives who won the title "Manager of the Year" in Germany presided over huge strategic blunders…”

It is likely that, at least in part, these CEOs had become convinced of their invincibility: a classic example of the power of transference to reshape a boss’s self-image as the all-powerful father-figure.

Transference also links to the rise of the Millennial generation AKA Generation Y. You’ll have them working in your business.

Often brought up in less-traditional family structures, these younger workers are influenced more by resourceful siblings and significant friends than parents. 

The net result is that when sibling/friend transference takes place, the Generation Y employee will look up to a co-worker possessing talents relevant to the job, regardless of their seniority (and not to the classic parental authority figure).

That might present challenges for you and your top team. The hierarchical corporate structures developed by the Baby Boomer generation draw much of their strength from parental transference.

This is part of the reason so many Boomer managers struggle to understand, much less lead effectively, their Generation Y employees.

How can you use this information?  Here are my three transference tips:

1.  You might find it of value to defuse mistaken assumptions about you by opening up and showing your employees the real you.

2.  Have a trusted outsider with whom you can work through the issues. I often work this way with my consulting and coaching clients.

3. Think about the people you admire as leaders (or maybe even dislike for some reason you can’t quite pinpoint).  Ask yourself, “who does this person remind me of from my past?”  Is your interpretation of the present-day person really valid? Or is it based on transference of your past attitudes & feelings of someone from your past.


(1*) Putting Leaders on the Couch: A conversation withManfred F.R. Kets de Vriesby Diane L. Coutu, Harvard Business Review, January 2004

(2*) Why People Follow the Leader: The Power of Transference; Michael Maccoby; Harvard Business Review, September 2004.

(3*)  Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. www.MHeffernan.com. CBS article: “Why you should avoid charismatic leaders”.

(4*)Christian Stadler is an Associate Professor in Strategic Management. Prior to joining Warwick Business School he was at University of Bath School of Management, Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and Innsbruck University.

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