The Trap: TV series models the leaders we deserve

March 24, 2007

the_trap_screenshot.pngThe Trap explores the impact of game theory on contemporary life. It suggests how such social beliefs and actions may be helping create the leaders we deserve.

The BBC TV series, The Trap, promises to become a cultish success. Before its first broadcast, web-surfers were alerting their networks to its importance.

Part 1 of 3, F**k You Buddy: A series of films by BAFTA-winning producer Adam Curtis that tells the story of the rise of today’s narrow idea of freedom. It will show how a simplistic model of human beings as self-seeking, almost robotic, creatures led to today’s idea of freedom. This model was derived from ideas and techniques developed by nuclear strategists during the Cold War. It was then taken up by genetic biologists, anthropologists, radical psychiatrists and free market economists, until it became a new system of invisible control.

Lumbering along after the trend-setters, I caught up with the second episode last Sunday. Curtis offers his thesis in a way that is likely to promote discussion.

The web community offers its increasingly significant early indications of beliefs and arguments. Discussion has tended to polarise, with contrarians positive towards the programme for its revelation of the dystopian conditions in a globalizing culture.

In the UK, The Guardian offered about as thorough a critique as could be hoped for. Sometimes the blogging discussions transcend the traditional efforts of journalists, but Oliver Burkeman’s piece is a hard act to follow.

An audacious hypothesis

The trap according to Burkeman offers an audacious hypothesis whereby:

the paranoid theories hatched during the cold war would come to inspire a peculiar, cold-hearted idea of personal freedom – one that helps explain everything from the rise of Prozac and Viagra to Labour’s obsession with healthcare targets, from the military crusades of George Bush and the rise of the Iraqi insurgency to the rampant diagnosis of attention deficit disorder in children.

Burkeman captures one strong concern of some bloggers subsequently, that Curtis engages in ‘conceptual long-jumping’. He, like the bloggers, picks up on Curtis’ treatment of the beliefs of radical psychiatrists. The Trap presents R D Laing as contributing to the belief that madness is totally a socially constructed phenomenon. This may, or may not be what Curtis believes. His approach permits him to present himself as committed to a defense of individual freedom and leaving the viewers to take the debate forward.

As he tells Burkeman:

If there’s one thing that links all I do, it’s trying to make people pull back, look at their time

To which, Burkeman, who is largely sympathetic to the project, comments tartly that

The Trap occasionally feels as if it is stepping a little too far back, wrapping the whole past half-century into a single argument

The Trap and Leadership

I take Burkeman’s point, while feeling (in common with a view expressed in other blogs about the programme) that the Curtis perspectice can not be completely dismissed. Critical theorists such as Gibson Burrell and David Collins have been plugging away in a similar vein in their examination of received wisdom of leadership and organizational studies. They argue that the dominant paradigm severely distorts and diminishes the complexities of human beings engaged in working and organizing.

Judging from the comments they have provoked, the programmes have succeeded in helping (making?) people ‘pull back’, the better to reflect on wide social trends. They may also help us reflect on cherished notions of leadership.
The broad thrust of the argument is that an influential intellectual movement has, for several decades, reduced human behaviour to a kind of Hobbesian self-interested scrabble. From such a perspective, leadership is a construct of social control, cynically espoused for self-interested motives. It aligns with the theoretical perspective that all politicians are ‘only out for themselves’, and that claims to be acting out of a ‘higher’ sense of duty are efforts to manipulate.

This is in precise opposition to the humanistic psychologists such as Abe Maslow and Carl Rogers.

In an earlier blog I suggested that the ideas of Carl Rogers provided a rationale for trust-based leadership. I could have added that humanistic psychology also lies at the heart of the new leadership paradigm, and the idea of the transformational leader, elevating the moral and social sensitivities of the wider social group.

From a Hobbesian or Rogerian perspective we end up with leaders we trust. Hobbesians expect and respect one kind of ‘strong’ leader for exercising social control; Rogerians another frespected for removing impediments to moral development.

In either case, we end up with leaders we create, sustain, and deserve.


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