14/10/2015 11:00 | Updated 13 October 2016
The other evening I was invited to a “Circle” led by a Native American elder - we do this kind of stuff down in deepest, darkest Sussex. Manitonquet (Medicine Story) is in his eighties and held forth on the subject of replacing power and dominance in human relationships with equality and respect. He told us, amongst other things, that a Leader should be like a ‘walking stick’ and then he paused to great effect. “Leaders should be there to help a person on their way without telling them where to go. They know their own way”, the wise elder said. This is the view of a Leader as facilitator, not director and it appealed to my own experience as a former person-centred therapist.
The next day, I got an email from Jeremy Corbyn on my phone. The email asked for questions to pose to the Prime Minister in his ‘People’s PMQs’. Unusual, thought I, but rather enjoyed the transference of power that was on offer. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to send in a question, but apparently some 47,000 other people did. I decided, for the first time ever, to tune into Prime Minister’s Question Time live to see what a different style of Leadership might look like, what it might feel like.
I was struck by the difference in atmosphere to the usual full-of-itself pantomimic fiasco I’d heard on the radio. Corbyn’s manner seemed to bring the temperature way down. David Cameron seemed nonplussed, perhaps not wishing to be seen to disrespect the questions of the people of the country. And a degree of quiet, respect and focus was subtly demanded from the whole House.
I pondered that we all live in such a narcissistic society, that the ego-led farce of PMQs had become normal, and as the TV commentator described Corbyn as having started a “Revolution in Beige”, I chuckled, and a bell rang in my one-time therapist’s brain. It hit me. What I was witnessing wasn’t the usual battle of ‘charismatic style’, one monologue versus another, but felt more like the Therapist dialoguing the Narcissist.
Narcissism is, of course, a state of personality in which one has little real empathy and is driven, often unwittingly, by self-aggrandisement. This occurs because the person never had their real self offered back to them by the primary caregiver when they were very young, and so the ‘narcissistic wound’ develops, and the person has an empty core, with no genuine sense of themselves, but an over-inflated ego and superb skills in charm and manipulation, which they use to get on in the world and form relationships. That is to say they have a ‘charismatic style’. A therapist may tell you that when you’re in a relationship with a narcissist the best thing to do in order to defuse them and disengage (narcissists do not like to be disengaged with unless it is on their own terms), is to become a “Grey Pebble”. Create no dramas, try not to look attractive, be boring and straightforward, do not draw attention to yourself, and be as smooth as possible with no emotional hooks to give fuel to the narcissist. This way you have far more chance of not being manipulated.
I believe that this is what Corbyn is doing in The Commons with his approach to PMQs. No wonder Cameron looking uncomfortable - there was nothing to engage with, little supply of fuel.
Now, I’d say that most of us are a bit narcissistic - I know I am. We live with wallpaper that glamorises attractive people, the high life, material wealth, instant gratification, and plays down patience, common-ness, humility, ordinariness and plainness. Our society has normalised rating outward appearance as more important than what is in the heart, and we have, to some extent, swallowed these values whole.
Personally, I might even watch PMQ’s live again if Corbyn continues as the neutral, but warm and real therapist in the House, with his apparent integrity and patience.
Some are suggesting Corbyn needs a Spin Doctor (an essential job, of course, in narcissistic times, and one that we have normalised!), and maybe he will get one. I hope he doesn’t, but rather that he continues to show us an alternative way of being, a more healing way of relating to each other that gives politics a chance to become human-centred again, and shows the value of grey pebbles on beaches.
I’m not saying I want an eighty-year-old Native American Elder as Prime Minister, but I’d certainly appreciate a world of politics where ‘charismatic style’ has less sway.