Posts

Obama the “Adult”

In my last article I analysed Donald Trump’s ego state, describing him as a deeply insecure man who was formed by his unhappy childhood where he was bullied by his domineering father and neglected by his absent mother. Trump’s “I’m OK, You’re not OK” behaviour, I wrote, masks his “I’m not OK, You’re OK” interior; while his “controlling parent” style of leadership, always seeking to win at the expense of others, is actually that of a spoilt child.

This was in the context of Eric Berne’s and Thomas Harris’s Transactional Analysis frameworks, and now, as Trump’s successor has just been inaugurated, I wish to carry out a similar dive into the ego state of his predecessor, Barrack Obama. What a dramatic contrast! We’ve enjoyed many opportunities to observe and admire President Obama in action, and my respect for him has been greatly reinforced as I read his wonderful 706-page autobiography A Promised Land over the holidays.

In it Obama reveals himself as having the healthiest of ego states. At the family level he is a nurturing parent to his children, while from when they were young he has respected and reinforced the “adult” in them as he replied to their questions and listened to their views. He is also at ease playing with them as child-to-child. As for his relationship with his wife Michelle it is clearly one of adult-adult rather than parent-child. Between them all a sense of “I’m OK, You’re OK” prevails, leading to win-win all round – true role models for a happy family life.

What about Obama as the leader of America, the most powerful man in the world? What struck me repeatedly in the book was how solution-oriented this extraordinary man is, always working to develop a better America and a better world. But without being unrealistically Utopian, without allowing the best to be the enemy of the good. As he learned more about domestic and international politics, he accepted that he was dealing largely with politicians for whom life is all about manoeuvring through zero-sum games rather than win-win ones.

He writes with utmost self-awareness, honesty and humility (not least when sharing his feelings that he was not really worthy of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize), but his straightforward and balanced assessments of his life in the White House speak very much of an “I’m OK” self-esteem, coupled with a “You’re OK” mindset towards those around him in the White House. At all times he is “the adult in the room”, and yet refreshingly “the child within” is alive, as he jokes and plays basketball with his staff and – not least when most needed – lightens the atmosphere.

The epitome of emotional intelligence, he knows when to separate how he feels from how he behaves when dealing with those who have behaved irresponsibly and whom he would like to hammer but appreciates it won’t help resolve an issue or protect a challenging relationship. But when needed he does reveal his “stern parent”… also knowing how to help a subsequent healing.

Obama remains overwhelmingly calm – certainly externally and usually internally – always looking for ways to move a situation forward. Whatever decisions he makes, whatever the outcome, he fully appreciates that he will inevitably receive damning criticism from all and sundry, however ill-informed or ill-motivated. He will be accused of having done too much or too little, too soon or too late, but he takes it all in his stride, accepting that never mind not being able to please all the people all the time, as President of the United States you can hardly ever please anyone.

But he does his best, knowing that nothing will work out fully as intended, that there will always be unintended consequences, and hoping that the long term positive outcomes will somehow eventually speak for themselves.

By contrast to Trump, whose father played such a crucial role in his dysfunctional development, Obama had no relationship with his father. It was his anthropologist mother and her mother who were the dominant figures in forming the Barrack we know. He was exposed to multiple countries, cultures and religions from an early age and they nurtured the healthiest of values and aspirations in the boy.

I cannot end this article without imploring you to read Obama’s autobiography. It will inspire and uplift you, leaving you filled with admiration for how he coped with the scale, complexity and variety of challenges that a US president must handle 24/7. No wonder Trump failed as miserably as he did. And no wonder Obama’s legacy lives on.

Mike Eldon is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT, and co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadership. mike.eldon@depotkenya.org

 www.mike-eldon.com

Analysing impact of spoilt child in Trump

As I have written in several previous articles in this column – the most recent of which was my opening one for 2012 – in much of what I do I refer to the pioneering Transactional Analysis work of Eric Berne, which he laid out in his 1964 book, Games People Play. I am also inspired by Thomas Harris, whose 1967 book I’m OK-You’re OK built on Berne’s thinking.

Berne analysed social interactions – or “transactions” as he described them – to determine our “ego state”, and he built on this to help us understand how we behave and hence to do so more positively. The three ego states he identified are “parent”, “child” and “adult”, noting that how these are manifested in each of us is largely a function of our early childhood experiences.

We all display aspects of these three states. Some are positive – like the nurturing or caring “parent” in us, or the spontaneous, fun-loving “child”; and some are negative – like the controlling or neglectful “parent”, or the irresponsible “child”. And then there is the ‘adult” within – the sober, rational, mature part of us.

As I wrote in an earlier column, Transactional Analysis also divides us humans into four categories, relating to how, generally, we feel about ourselves and about others. The first is “I’m not OK, You’re OK”. This is how we are born, utterly dependent on our mothers. And it is in this mindset where a vast majority of the world’s population exists until they die. The second state is “I’m OK, You’re not OK”, and you can guess the other two: “I’m not OK, You’re not OK”; and finally “I’m OK, You’re OK”.

Aligned with each of these options comes an expectation regarding winning and losing. So for instance the insecure “I’m not OK, You’re OK” character foresees a life of “lose-win”, while the confident, optimistic “I’m OK, You’re OK” one assumes they can indulge in give-and-take negotiating that leads to “win-win”.

Now let me come to why I am returning to these frameworks for my opening column of 2021. It’s because of how I have been observing the behaviour of Donald Trump, which I have been doing ever since, out of sheer curiosity, I attended one of his campaign rallies back in 2016.

To the casual observer Trump displays an extreme “I’m OK, You’re not OK” ego state, always expecting to win, no matter how, while enjoying seeing others lose at his expense. And he is the stern, controlling “parent”, while all around him are dependent “children” – either compliant or terrible. Yes?

Well yes and no. However much he behaves as “I’m OK, You’re not OK”, it is merely a cover for how he feels and who he really is.

So how does he feel, and who is he? Sad to say, the outgoing POTUS is a desperately insecure soul, as was so vividly confirmed by his niece Mary Trump in her book about him, Too Much and Never Enough. Deep down he’s an “I’m not OK, You’re OK” character, now acting the spoilt child rather than the parent; the villain complaining he is the victim.

Trump’s niece, a psychologist by profession, explains her uncle’s development by telling us about his controlling father – who, she wrote, had no real human feeling and treated his children with contempt; while Trump’s mother was largely absent from his life. His deep-seated insecurities created in him “a black hole of need that constantly requires the light of compliments that disappears as soon as he’s soaked it in,” Mary Trump explains.

Like me, I suppose that you too have come across such characters – maybe another politician, maybe a boss or a relative. Needless to say the more extreme the case the less chance there is that they can be helped to reach a better balance within themselves and with others. But for those with more moderate such tendencies I have found that once the three frameworks are laid out for them an “aha moment” arises, enabling them to transform their previous self-defeating behaviour, treating it as the unwanted baggage it is and enabling them to enter a new and more fulfilled existence.

Before I close, let me wish you an “adult”, “I’m OK, You’re OK”, “win-win” new year – and preview that in my next column I will be gazing at Trump’s predecessor through my Transactional Analysis lens.

It’s wise to accept that you don’t have all the answers

As my readers are aware I am a great advocate for emotional intelligence, in which context I often talk about how we are sometimes challenged to separate how we feel from how we behave. This allows us to act in ways that keep our interactions and relationships positive, by finding the strength to overcome feelings such as anger and hurt, embarrassment and inhibition.

So this recent post on Adam Grant’s LinkedIn page caught my eye: “A core skill of emotional intelligence is treating your feelings as a rough draft. Like art, emotions are works in progress. It rarely serves you well to frame your first sketch. As you gain perspective, you can revise what you feel. Sometimes you even start over from scratch.”

Wise words for those of us who take pride in just “saying what we think”, in “being straightforward”.

So who is Adam Grant? He is an American psychologist and author, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania who was made a tenured professor at the amazingly young age of 28.

I was first made aware of Prof Grant by my daughter, after he spoke to the parents and teachers at her children’s school in California where she is a board member, and after which she sent me a recording of his presentation on how to develop a next generation of creatives.

His first advice was to go easy on rules. Rather, share guidelines based on values, recognising those who abide by them and act as role models for them. Indeed the youngsters should be encouraged to challenge existing rules and guidelines, but of course in a respectful and constructive way.

Next he is against specialisation, in either the arts or the sciences – noting that some of the most prominent Nobel Prize winners in the sciences indulged in painting, piano playing, poetry writing and other artistic sidelines. Recognise those who, like the Nobel heroes, excel at creative problem solving in multiple fields.

Both teachers and parents should readily admit that they don’t have all the answers, and they should be encouraged to ask advice from the children, who in turn should feel free to speak up without fear of being unduly criticised. Neither the elders nor the young ones should be afraid to push back, on the understanding that we are all “work in progress”. At home as in school, it’s OK for children to be exposed to and to participate in disagreements, away from the notion that the parent/teacher is “always right”. Being exposed to civil discussion is good for the emotional development and wellbeing of the children.

Grant also asked the parents and teachers to pay attention to how they display their values through their behaviour, both with each other and with the children. And in commenting to their children about their behaviour they should talk about values, nurturing and reinforcing behaviour that is moral, generous and caring.

“Ask your children whom they helped today, how they acted as helpers,” I heard Grant propose. “And get them to reflect on what kind of persons they are; what they did that was creative in the last few days; what made them happy.”

Finally, he cautioned parents and teachers to neither be too soft – which would spoil the children; nor too hard, which would make them feel inadequate and ashamed. Yes, there should be high expectations, and where the children fall short that should not be ignored. But not at the expense of recognising their successes and strengths.

Much of this is incorporated in Grant’s best-selling 2016 book, Originals, which I couldn’t recommend more strongly. For in it he goes much further in explaining how the way we are treated when we are young determines how we develop when we become adults – what kind of activity we seek and enjoy, and how successful and fulfilled we become.

Above all he focuses on what it takes to be bold enough to challenge the status quo, to be a non-conformist creative and to speak up, to stick with your new ideas … and so to be one of the “originals” about whom he writes and whom he celebrates in his book.

Malcolm Gladwell, whose book Talking to Strangers I wrote about some months ago, is one of my favourite thinkers… and I am not surprised that Grant is one of his.