The heart of darkness in leaders and organizations

The recent article by Seth Allcorn and Carrie M Duncan published in Psychohistory, “A Journey into the Heart of Darkness: Psychosocial Insights into Predatory Behavior”, explores the heart of darkness in leaders and organizations using Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella, which was later remade in the movie Apocalypse Now. The article examines how “prevailing ideologies”, cultural norms, and social values “influence the emergence of predatory personality features” (p. 250) in some individuals, and amplify the effects of these individual on societies and organizations.

The article makes the clear statement that leaders with predatory personality features “leave a trail of destruction behind them”, counted in the currency of worker distress, organizational failures, and eventually even the breakdown of social processes (p. 255). As such, it is worth the effort for us to imagine how we might generate knowledge that gives people in organizations new possibilities for imagining and enacting work life. For example, a psychosocial perspective contributes to understanding how harmful styles of leading emerge and how they might be managed or even prevented. The psychosocial view presented in the article details how “sociopolitical and economic traumas” emerge from sociocultural environments that promote and value predatory behavior. Thus, consistent with a psychosocial approach to organization studies, the article draws attention to the web of both individual and social factors that organizations are suspended within. In fact, one might say that organizations are located, at least in part, in the unconscious realms of psychic life.

In “A Journey into the Heart of Darkness”, the authors point to the possibility of psychosocial assessments of leader-follower relational dynamics for gaining an “understanding of the unconscious emotional and psychological dynamics that become barriers to organizational effectiveness and change” (p. 254). Certainly, psychosocial assessments are one way we can identify and disrupt the defensive organizational routines that alienate people from one another. In doing so, it becomes possible to rebuild community both within the organization and between organizations and society.

But again, we need to recognize that the heart of darkness in leaders and organizations is an outcome rooted in our current cultural, social, and economic context. In the United States, it is a context that rips apart relational bonds and leaves people to manage the increasing complexities of modern life alone. The leaders we love to hate (an irresistible binary) are made in the communities that we build on institutional legacies and construct through our everyday choices. Ultimately, the psychosocial approach demands that we try to understand how and why we sustain these legacies, the anxieties and defenses that shape our choices, and the meaning of the heart of darkness in our lives, and our organizations, today.

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Read more from Seth Allcorn and Carrie M Duncan:

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