Agile types within the community?

Over the last few years I have been undertaking some action research around Agility and what we might possibly mean by the claim of an ‘Agile community’? Are there, like most other professional/social communities distinct sub-communities? Can we trace or recognise smaller grouping(s) that seek to collectively make sense of the notion of ‘Agility’ in its broadest sense? And does this naturally mean that Agility is understood in different and even competing ways? And, if so, how can we, and do we, make sense of that multiplicity of meaning-making, for want of a better term? What method lends itself to understanding?

One approach I like is that proposed by Carl Jung and his use of ‘types’. This is a first-class resource for those wanting to read/study a little more

Stated simply, Jung made the claim that humanity share a collective unconscious. Our collective unconscious was inhabited by a range of characters that he called archetypes. I guess then, I am wondering if these characters are shared symbolically by the agile community? Can you recognise any of them? Do they resonate? We each then using this framework can be ‘activiated’ by an archetype and act-out in the ways described. Of course, this would be unconsciously, rather than consciously given the nature of an archetype. What types can we recognise?

On Method
Following quite extensive individual and small group interviews; and then reading primary and secondary resources, I think I’m in the position to postulate the following typology. I have attempted to condense the complexity to a rather simplified 4 core types, but of course, I am in the process of making-sense of my own, rather limited, direct lived experience. There are therefore, I am certain, more that can be re-searched and shared, expounded and I hope, in a life affirming manner, debated too.

For each of the 4 types I have attempted to analyse sameness and difference. I’ve also looked at some of the main metaphors that resonate for each type. Next I’ve looked at some of the main ways by which they tend to ‘act-out’ in terms of power-relations. Lastly, I’ve examined some of the unconscious ‘shadow side’ of the types so as to provide psychological space for humility, reflection, insight, and possibly more self-awareness.

As I write that last sentence I make the candid declaration that I am a ‘flawed human’ with a need for my own ongoing ‘inner work’. I am grateful for my coach, mentor and friends to this end.

What are the 4 types?
I have carefully traced the following 4 types:
• The Radical
• The Reticularist
• The Retro
• The Romantic
I’ll address each in turn and then a short summary table for ease of reference etc.

The Radical.
With the Radical type of character there is an inherent impatience with the rate, or pace, of progress. If their dreams were actually realised; then there would be a massive, unmeasured and rapid change to their ‘way’. They seem to desire an over-idealised Agile image that forever seems just ‘out of reach’. Consequently, their preferred modus operandi is the on-going challenge, the critique. This is what Cooperrider refers to as ‘the deficit model’. They have ‘weapons of mass destruction’ and they are willing to deploy them if deemed necessary. Their preferred metaphors for Agile teams are ‘squads’ based on a military/conflict model. Thus, they speak and think in terms of war; fighting; and competition. For them to win then others must lose on their imagined Agile ‘Crusade’.

Their psychological narrative is binary: good/bad; in/out; friend/foe. They prefer in-groups where all the members share their future ‘end game’ when, presumably, they have ‘won’ and anyone that does not share their own (rather narrow view) of organisational Agility has lost? Thus, Agile ‘coaches’ caught-out by this character might spend over 80% of their time, energy and persuasion on ‘challenging the status quo’. As you might have guessed the Radical struggles with multiple, competing interpretations of reality. Thus, he sees things in a single-minded manner. They are very stubborn and fixed.

Of course, there is as with all types more positive aspects to this type. They have deep personal resource ‘wells’ of energy, resilience and massive drive. This role can be seen in some circles as a ‘necessary mavericks’ and by a smaller number as ‘heroes’ taking forward and representing the Agile cause with ‘passion’.

When things are not moving as fast as they deem realistic then their impatience reveals their shadow-side. This shadow-side includes all the military undertones of actual warfare: propaganda, guerrilla attacks, and psychological injuries. Next, given that they often have strong group boundary norms they can be given-over to darkened shades of group-think. The advice? To keep this in check this sub-community would do well to keep connected with other sub-groups and more especially the Romantics. (NB:- They would need to be careful with the Reticularist as the latter may simply be seen as an ‘intelligence source’ for their next ‘campaign’).

The Reticularist
I’ve blogged previously around the role of the Reticularist. Stated simply, the Reticularist is sometimes referred to as a ‘boundary spanner’. This Agile archetype is a ‘whole systems’ actor, thinker and planner. Therefore, within the organisation (and more especially the IT department) she/he is seeking to understand work flow. Questions arise such as: How does work flow through the organisation from product conception right through to the release stage? Where are the blockers to flow?
With whom do I need to make allies with and, quite literally, ‘see’ work from their perspective in an appreciative way? The Reticularist seeks to co-create with others incremental improvements to flow, and so share successes across teams.

The guiding metaphor for them is an organic or ‘living’ system. This is because such systems move, change, shift and therefore, new patterns emerge from the interactions of the parts. In this way, the Reticularist is a collaborator par excellence as they act on and with the ‘edges’ of different interfacing teams and departments. As an example: If product releasing is a current challenge- then a collaborative group would seek to co-create a solution.

Whereas for the Radical the temptation would be to challenge and then release the product from the direct Scrum team and then more simply watch and ‘see what happens’ which could well include fall-out and tensions…the Reticularist would systemically foresee the tensions arising from such unilateral decision-making and seek to circumvent it via a more collaborative method (e.g. a small cross-group experiment).
The shadow-side for the boundary spanner is gossiping. This is because when you are seeking to understand all the ‘parts of the whole’ of necessity this means engaging with the teams within those parts.

Consequently, there is a genuine risk of information-sharing for understanding in transit/translation, losing its ethical value, as gossip. The downside of gossiping are likely to include damaging trust, as well as negating possible future relational reciprocity. To mitigate this risk, one ought to state one’s own intentions for Agile improvement as the contextual discussion background. Thus, you cannot be ‘all things to all people’ if this means in professional practice you are left without any ethical ‘grounding’ from which others can evaluate you intentions for good or ill.

The Retro.
According to the online urban dictionary the Retro is a ‘contemporary style containing elements but not the replication of a previous era’. Thus, there is a sense of looking back in time or history, for the Retro. They hold in especial respect and regard the ‘Founding Fathers’ of the Agile movement. The Retro often have applied longevity with the application of Agile methods in various types of organisations. Many of them are seen as current leaders themselves. A smaller sub-set have taken the opportunity to incrementally develop, refine and market new tools, techniques and methods. The Retro has a deep and genuine sense of respect for the ‘Giants of the Past’. They will have taken the considered care and time to study their words and often memorised their key concepts and suggestions, and applied them too.

Whereas for the Retro there is respect and even reverence for the Founding Fathers this is often at the business or logical level. The Retro deeply understands marketing, branding and profit margins. This can be contrasted with the Radical as the latter actively seek to challenge the ‘Old Timers’ for even better methods; innovative breakthroughs and new models.

The shadow-side for the Retro is most often witnessed by a degree of arrogance, pride and a somewhat ‘closed mind’. Therefore, on many dimensions the Retro can be contrasted with the Radical. Whereas for the Retro ‘wisdom’ is a core value; for the Radical disruptive innovation is of a higher need/value. Many current and previous Agile community arguments can thus be framed using this interpretative lens or schema.

The guiding metaphor for the Retro type is honouring the wisdom of the collective past as incremental improvements are made moving towards the visionary future. The future vision, of course, would seem consistent with the Founding Fathers, whilst accepting and even celebrating a sense of building on their foundations.
Key words: vision, values and wisdom. In terms of power-relations the Retro views power and residing in the empirical evidence-base underpinning their Craft. Therefore, they look back to the philosophical Greeks not just for wisdom; but also for their technical Craft or techne. They are keen to learn the ways by which to persuade, cajole and bring others along in a relatively harmonious way to a more Agile organisation.

The Romantic.
For the Romantic type the Agility journey must engage meaning. It is essential for the Romantic they can see their role and the ways by which this is connected to the Agile journey for the organisation. For the Romantic, Agility has everything to do with increased job and team satisfaction; a more life affirming and innovative work-place. Whilst they appreciate all the empirical data ‘under the sun’ such as: efficiency, effectiveness, productivity and outcomes; the Romantic longs for something more: meaning. Therefore, and this is very important their emotions must be engaged.

The Romantic will have emotionally internalised the Scrum values, for example, and seek to work and be ethically guided by them as part of their working intuition. They may even internalise them as self-embodied values within other areas or life domains. Thus, they will enjoy experimenting with agility in their personal lives. Thus, when these values are ‘crossed’ there will be a deep sense of disappointment and even shame and regret. The Romantics are therefore, captured by a participative ‘Mission’ that must have an ethical sense of direction.

The Romantics are looking to carefully, and at times, patiently build the ‘Agile City set on a Hill’. Given their need for emotional connection and meaning; when senior leaders fail to make their connection for them by organisational discourse, metaphor and mission statement the Romantics symbolically (and perhaps in reality) ‘lose heart’ and they consequently disengage. The Romantics are deeply connected, on an emotional level, with the ‘Founding Fathers’ and they are seeking to be as true to those initial values as the Founders were. Respect is a key word in their psychological lexicon. Indeed, they are less interested per se, in new ‘brands’ or emergent markets, but rather to co-create new idea, and to solve new problems if and only if, they are underscored by the correct set of values.

Their shadow-side is revealed not be naked resistance (as marked-out so obviously by a Radical), but rather, by ‘going through the motions’. When the shadow falls over the Romantic they somehow seem emotionally ‘hollow’ to their team mates and wider colleagues. It is this sense of an accompanying emotional numbness that psychologically signifies the denial/rejection of things that really do matter (deep down in their soul) to them.

In this blog I have sought to explore and understand the notion of an Agile community and posited that there might be a number of Agile sub-communities. Why? I have done so in the hope that by articulating the ‘contested space’ of Agility that more harmony, collaboration and legitimacy can be taken-up by different ways of living and indeed being Agile.

It is beyond the scope of this current blog to work through how many of each type are the optimal ‘mix’ given any organisational agile journey. I would imagine that the organisational culture is a key factor?

Jason is a Certified Scrum Professional. He is also a Business Psychologist, as well as a full member of the Association of Project Managers.

Business Agility: What’s the added value of Senior Management Coaching?

The role of senior management in setting the business strategic design, development and implementation is well researched with a firm evidence-base. What is less well-known are the ways by which cultural change is enabled by coaching when it comes to a stated aim to become ‘more agile’.


Thankfully there are resources which add insight, challenge and case-studies from which we can learn. But before that it is worth briefly stating the subtle difference between an espoused value and an actual value. In the past I have worked in organisations were there is a total contradiction between the two which creates all manner of professional headaches. Consider a healthcare provider claiming that they genuinely care for their patients; and then receive patient complaints and feedback that in reality they are consistently rude, dismissive and unkind.  That’s a contradiction.

I’ve also worked in organisations where there is a distinctive, but more of a degree, of difference between their espoused and lived values. For example, several years ago one organisation claimed that our people are our most valuable asset and yet their staff satisfaction surveys were in the lower quartile of their industry benchmark. In this case, there was an organisational development programme to ‘close the gap’ between the desired and actual state. This, to be fair, is not uncommon. It is why cultural transformation for genuine practitioners takes time. There is no ‘quick fix’.

But what of agility? There is little doubt in my mind that agility might well be, or yet become, another management fad or fashion. There are several reasons for this possibility, and I will address one. In a previous blog I have looked back and traced various management ‘fads and fashions’ as well as shifts and movements in management theory, practice and aims. I will not be repeating that analysis in here. However, just to make the point that a stated aim is not reality. Cultural analysis aka Edgar Schein (1987) makes the point that one of the key points of analysis is the actual business policies, practices and staff attitudes.

How do we go about improving agility? Having trained Scrum Masters and teams is without doubt a significant investment with identifiable and quantifiable returns. That’s one key intervention.

The next has to be senior management as their role (leadership) as key ‘influencers and shapers’ of cultural change has, in my professional experience, a three-fold impact when compared to team investment alone. Yes three-fold! If you are looking to increase understanding, practice, pace and collaboration across all business Divisions or Units-then this is an intervention worthy of merit and serious consideration.

(If you happen to be a public sector organisation then I’ve also had a Non-Executive Agile Lead. This is also a good idea. It can complement the Coaching).

But what of the leadership coaching approach? What are the leadership behaviours? Thankfully, there is a first-class resource by Brian Wernham that has, through careful and considered case-study research, identified a set of 9 leadership behaviours that can add value to any Coach.

I have found these to have face validity and genuine added-value practice. Well worth a serious study and reflection. There is also this fab webinar that the APM invited Brian to discuss some of his key ideas in:-

So if you are looking to ‘close the gap’ between your strategic values and your current business operating model/practices what is stopping you? Is it time for senior management Coaching?

Take care Jason


Jason is a Business Psychologist, Scrum Master and Registered Project Manager.

Minimum Viable Product: Ignoring the Call of the Sirens

One of the most fascinating stages for any Agile product is working through what constitutes the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). 

It seems to me that all three signifiers, or words, have equal weight or importance. The process determines or ‘locks in’ at least for a point in time that which makes something of sufficient substance that we can recognise it as a ‘product’ per se.  Next the analysis concerns itself with what the minimum number of features the product has so that from a market perspective we can successfully have a product to release or take it to the market as part of a new product launch. Finally, the second term the viability becomes critical in at least three ways:-

  1. In terms of our market segmentation strategy and market research this meets or fulfills our customer demographic needs
  2. If for an internal customer, or business unit, then in a similar way- the product needs to meet a similar set of needs- at least for the point in time for the Release date (as by definition later releases will meet future needs that may well change, emerge or become redundant as a function of time)
  3. Finally, viability has a keen association with the business case. The latter will normally have the ‘golden triangle’ of classic project management tools and include analysis around time, quality and costs.

What can we learn from depth psychology? I’ve pondered this recently and think that there are some lessons from the Odyssey (Homer) and in particular the episode with the gorgeous Sirens.


You may recall that the poem centres around the hero Odysseus and his long-winded adventure and journey home after the battle of Troy. On their way home his skilled and brave crew are faced with mortal danger in the form of beautiful women called the Sirens. The Sirens lure sailors to their deaths by a fatal combination of the most enchanting, beautiful and hypnotic songs as well as their gorgeous beauty. They were seen as daughters of the god Achelous.

By their physical beauty, and melodious songs they, if successful, get the ship to change direction and shipwreck on the rocky nearby coasts. Thus, to this day, the Siren song refers to an appeal that is hard to resist but that, if heeded, will lead to a poor or bad conclusion. It is it seems an ‘irresistible distraction’.

Thankfully in our myth, our hero was fore-warned of the Siren call and consequently (and very wisely) strapped himself to the mast of his ship. He then ordered his crew to use wax in their ears so that they could not be seduced by the Sirens! No easy task! To be fair, the sailors obeyed and as we now know by looking back that this was a set of wise choices in such demanding circumstances! Thankfully, it all worked! and they were able to sail on despite the ‘distractions’.

This speaks to me in the following three ways:-

  1. After we have completed our market research we must be as wise as Odysseus and keep our eyes fixed on our objective asking carefully and wisely if each feature meets the litmus test of all three signifiers in the MVP trinity
  2. Next, we must paradoxically ‘resist the irresistible‘ and this ensure that we keep pace with our own progress and be careful not to be distracted by any external, or at times, internal ‘Siren call’s’ even though they may be beautiful features
  3. Lastly, as Scrum Masters we need to work alongside the Product Owner, in particular, and if need be ‘fasten him to the mast‘ and so ensure the safety of the project team.

Take care Jason


Agile working: Celebrating the Puer but ensuring we don’t become puerile?


One of the most fascinating insights from Carl Jung is the idea of opposites as a necessary set. This can hold true in terms of time; spatial proximity, concepts, physical realities and many, many others. One set of opposites that I have been experimenting with over the last few months is in terms of planning/control and emergence/freedom. I have a professional interest in this set of opposites in terms of Agile working. This is my learning to date.

The Collective Unconscious 

The collective unconscious is one of the ways Jung’s originality is best expressed for me. I won’t go into the details here as that is material for another blog at a future time. For those of you unfamiliar with this idea stated simply, Jung noted that human beings universally share unconscious material. This material and characters, what Jung referred to as archetypal are found in all cultures, and historical periods as far back as we can trace human history and thought. They are often expressed by way of cultural myths, fairy tales, stories, poems and legends, for example.

The Male Youth and the Old Man.

Jung noted two archetypes that I’d like to examine in a bit more detail and relevance and this is the old man and the male youth/adolescent. Jung used the Latin terms and referred to them as the Senex Type and the Puer Type.  It is important not to see these are personality types in our external worlds, but rather as characters. These are characters in ‘The Theatre’ of our unconscious.

The Senex embodies the notion we have for wisdom, experience and is underscored by a sense of veneration and respect as opposed to the ways in which in the West we have tended to become more disrespectful of the elderly sometimes even going too far as a see them as some kind of ‘burden’. Thus, when compared to the adolescent the Senex has strengths or virtues in that they are more likely to be grounded, realistic, cautious, forward-looking and careful. However, the shadow side of this type is that they can be resistant to change, express a more pessimistic attitude, and even a depressive tone that finds it more difficult to find the expression of comedy and humor. When taken too far with a lack of self integration the Senex can start to quite literally ‘squeeze’ joy from life, work teams and other social interactions.

The Puer Type is the Latin term for ‘child’. Thus puerile expresses the notion that a given action or behaviour is something that would be considered foolish, silly or immature for an adult. However, there are strengths to the Puer type and this is best expressed as playfulness. The sense that creativity is linked to, and of course key ideas around innovation, originality, and fresh approaches can be traced to this type. In contrast to the Senex the Puer is open to new ideas with a sense of spontaneous openness and fun-loving joy. Play for Jung is a quintessential activity that can foster learning, growth and personal development and of course personality integration of our ‘parts’. For most adults, it is fair to say that it is a genuine challenging process to recapture this fresh, beginner’s mind.

Of course, as the Senex can be unbalanced so can the Puer too. The adult that is constantly in ‘play mode’ can lack responsibility; be weak-willed morally; reluctant to fully commit their effort, time and ideas to projects. They can also lack the necessary tenacity and determination to ‘see things through’. One can see quickly the hedonistic drum of me, me, me associated with the accompanying drum of now, now, now!

A question of balance.  

If you imagine a spectrum or a continuum between the Senex and the Puer then one of the key insights from Jung is that for individual living at the extreme Senex end of the senex-puer spectrum is living a life out of balance. It is worth noting that both Archetypes should be active in our unconscious lives- and found expression in our lived realities. We all need ‘access’ as well as acceptance and integration of our inner Puer as much as our inner Senex.

The Agile Project: Celebrating Senex and Puer.

In my experience most large organisations tend to be more Senex in their cultural assumptions and guiding values- but not all. That is they tend to have a business operating model that values control, planning and forward-looking and are cautious around notions of Puer playfulness. Seeing this as a creative tension between these necessary set of opposites has added value as a Scrum Master seeking to develop more Agile way of working.

In a future Blog I’ll unpack some of the practical ways this has been successful framed by Appreciative Inquiry. For the time being, it is fair to say that Jung’s insights has been added value as a working framework in practical ways.

Take care Jason


Yes Minister! Survival Skills for Public Sector Leaders?

Yes Minister



“Yes Minister” is a totally hilarious sitcom (full of wit and loaded with satire) and in my view one of the best of very British TV programmes. It was written by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn. According to Wikipedia it was first transmitted by the BBC between 1980 and 1984 and was split over three, 7-episode series. It had a huge critical and popular success. The series also received a number of awards; including several BAFTAs and in 2004 was voted sixth in the Best Sitcom poll. Quite a success story!

It was so popular that the BBC very wisely produced a sequel entitled “Yes, Prime Minister”, and this ran between 1986 to 1988. In total there were 38 episodes which is a significant achievement by today’s standards. What I have also learned is that several of the very best episodes were then adapted for BBC Radio, and later a stage play was produced in 2010.

So what is it all about? Before I describe it can I just say that one of the main reasons I find it so fascinating and entertaining is that I have family, friends and old school chums that are currently civil servants and they all testify that the key themes and ideas resonate with rich authenticity.

As you might have guessed Yes Minister is set principally in the private office of a British Cabinet minister in the (fictional) ‘Department of Administrative Affairs’ in Whitehall, London. So the programmes substance or dynamic interplay, is the ways by which the British civil service ‘comes-up against’ Ministerial politics, policies and tactics. Stated simply, Ministers want to get things done quickly whereas the culture of the civil service is risk averse and cautious. Therein sets the tension!

With the scene set it..the series follows the hilarious ministerial career of The Rt Hon Jim Hacker MP, who is superbly played by Paul Eddington. You cannot but ‘howl’ as his various struggles to formulate and enact legislation or even effect quite simple departmental changes are frustrated, or subtly opposed, by the British Civil Service, and in particular his Permanent Secretary Sir Appleby (who is skillfully played by Nigel Hawthorne).

Jim Hacker’s Secretary is a chap called Bernard Woolley who is played by Derek Fowlds. What is equally amusing is the ways by which he is constantly caught between a ‘rock and a hard place’ of the dynamics between his commitment to his Minister, Jim Hacker, and then his loyalty to the Civil Service. The pressure from the latter embodied and enacted all too skilfully by the commanding presence from Sir Humphrey. As the Psychologist, Jung, once remarked the most emotive and memorable human albeit psychological drama’s can be traced to a ‘triangular dynamic of relationships’.

So what can we learn as we apply this to us and leadership development and even leadership career longevity?

What strikes me is that in this series the civil service acts as an effective ‘buffer’ between key public sector and business leaders and the Minister. This acts as a form of relational protection and, of course, ‘saves face’ when disagreements might arise. What do I mean by this? Well, putting this bluntly what any public sector leader does not want is any Minister having to put things very directly to them ‘mano a mano’ in any form. This is process failure!

This latter ‘end point’ reminds me of the proverbial ‘kiss of death’. Consequently, a wise, mature and ‘grounded’ public service leader would be actively looking for and rightly understanding any Ministerial ‘clues, hints and points’ from which to ‘get under the message’ so as to prevent the process failure noted above from actually occurring. And, in this same way, an effective and bright civil servant would also be looking to make active facilitation to this same end.

So, my advice is.. when the Minister speaks- pay full attention and when he provides ‘hints and tips’…pay even more attention. #survivalskills


“Let’s kick their ass and get the Hell out of here”



Within a short 60-minutes some 226 US soldiers has been massacred by the Indians. The latter had over 1,500 warriors and had more reliable and effective Winchester rifles. Ambrose (1996) rightly notes that the ‘Battle of Little Bighorn’ is arguably the most written about military event in American history which is quite something!

From my very own experience, it is fair to say that I have met three leaders that remind me of General Custer over the last 16- years of working as a Work/Business Psychologist. Recently, I have been reflecting on what leadership insights we might gain from re-examining General Custer from a Work Psychology perspective. By way of methodology I have adopted the type of discourse analysis as advocated by Parker & Pavon-Cuellar (2014). In this way I have completed a short intensive research review and consequently completed an analysis of the key themes. Lastly, I mapped these across to psychological evidence-base.

Up front and central I’d like to argue or construct a view of Custer as embodying the psychological ‘dark triad’. This is a ‘diabolical trinity’ of three key personality constructs, namely:-

  1. Narcissism which can be witnessed by pride, egotism, a lack of empathy and grandiosity.
  2. Machiavellianism which is characterised by the exploitation and manipulation of others for one’s own ends and a strong motivation and focus on one’s own self-interest. This also includes tactics such as deception, lying and lack of moral values
  3. Psychopathology which can be witnessed by anti-social behaviour, impulsivity, callousness and a lack of remorse.

You will notice that although these three components are conceptually ‘teased apart’ in practice they overlap. I have noticed in at least two clients that these components seem to ‘spark off’ one another. Lastly, each component has a statistical normal distribution. That is to say, a less ‘acute’ type can be found in non-clinical settings such as the workplace. This resonates with Lowen (1985) in his first-class and very accessible book on Narcissism has found a similar pattern.

  1. Narrcissim

“In years long numbered with the past, when I was merging upon manhood, my every thought was ambitious- not to be wealthy, not to be learned, but to be great. I desired to link my name with acts and men in such a manner as to be a mark of honor, not only to the present, but also to future generations.

“The largest Indian camp on the North American continent is ahead and I am going to attack it”

Both quotations from George Armstrong Custer, 1867.


OK let’s take a look at Custer’s narcissism. Firstly, we have the display component. For example during battle he would ride on a white horse; whereas his troopers would be on black horses as a key differential in terms of the positional display of power, authority, as well as the visual impact signifying difference and the element of deferral. Perhaps a modern equivalent would be a very expressive ‘executive’ car. Andrist (2001) states that he was “greedy for fame” and many commentators (e.g. Kershaw, 2005) have noted how he enjoyed making public speeches- primarily about himself and his successful campaigns to date (see Macnab, 2003).

It is also fascinating to note that Custer frequently invited correspondents to accompany him on his campaigns to report on his military skills and prowess. It is also sad to note that two of them lost their lives at his ‘Last Stand’.

Ambrose (1996) noted that within the U.S. Army Custer was described as being a vain, self-seeking and glory-wanting individual. Andrist (2001) believes that Custer was photographed more than any other Civil War officer; which from a narcissist frame of reference literally speaks volumes!

Custer also loved dressing very flamboyantly. He often wore or ‘sported’ a uniform that included shiny boots, tight olive trousers, a tight hussar jacket of black velveteen with silver on the sleeves, a sailor shirt with silver stars on his collar, and a red cravat. To ‘top it off’ he was had a wide brimmed slouch hat, and styled his hair in ringlets with cinnamon scented hair oil. Quite the image!

  1. Machiavellianism

“Hurrah boys, we’ve got them! We’ll finish them up and then go home to our station.”

Next, let’s briefly explore some of the ways by which Custer was a Machiavellian Connell (1997) reports that many of his peer-group saw Custer as someone that “really wanted to be seen as important but not caring how he got there.”

Connell (1997) reports how during the course of his military career Custer was prone to disobey orders, as well as openly criticize those senior to him in the military hierarchy. For example, he charged the Secretary of War of ‘hypocrisy’ saying that they were signing treaties with the Indians with one hand and them killing them with the other.

Custer also had the classic Machiavellian tendency ‘show-off’ to those in positions of authority/power when it was the right time to do so when seeking his own shameless self-promotion and vain ambitions. One of the most telling examples is when on May 24, 1862 General Barnard and his senior staff were assessing a potential crossing point on the Chickahominy River. Custer was waiting for his ‘moment’ so when General Bardnard said to his team “I wish I knew how deep it was”…with that Custer gently wiped his horse and rode- out to the middle of the river and shouted victoriously “That’s how deep it is, Mr General”.

What unfolds next is very important for our interpretive purposes as Custer was consequently given permission to lead a successful attack across the River and this resulted in the capture of over 50 Confederates. Following this successful campaign, he is also then personally congratulated for his gallantry by the General.

These details are psychologically relevant as this set-up the ‘reward’ frame of reference for the type of ‘heroics’ that Custer was in far too desperate need for. Of course, this deep-seated need for achievement and recognition was a classic ‘double-edged sword’ and would lead to his demise along with his brothers Thomas Custer and Boston Custer who died with him along with his brother-in-law, James Calhoun, and nephew, Henry Armstrong Reed.

  1. Psychopathology

“They tell me I murdered Custer. It is a lie. He was a fool and rode to his death” (Chief Sitting Bull).


For me the most telling psychopathological moment is back in 1866. By way of context the western frontier was conflict ridden. Unaccustomed to the tactics of the Cheyenne and Arapaho, Custer spent months fruitlessly chasing after elusive bands of warriors. At one point, he became so frustrated that he abandoned his command and dashed 150 miles in 55 hours just to spend one day with his wife.


For this insubordination and deserting his post the records state that he was court-marital and consequently suspended from the Army for a year. However, General Philip Sheridan came to his rescue and recalled him to lead a winter campaign against the Cheyenne. In a bloody dawn attack along the Washita River in 1868, Custer and his men killed 103 Indians. The records demonstrate that very few were in actual fact were warriors. Tellingly the majority were women, young children and old men. Custer demonstrated neither mercy, nor compassion nor any element of empathy. This was a massacre!


As time progressed Custer noted that the military culture turned a blind eye to some of his more brutal methods of ‘leadership’. As with all mavericks this was mainly because he ‘delivered results’. Unfortunately, given his personality problems Custer became extremely ruthless. For example, it is reported that on at least three occasions when he was challenged by subordinates he did not hesitate to kill them for ‘insubordination’. There was no room for any ‘critical friends’ in his psychological space.

I would argue that Custer’s lack of empathy was one of the factors which meant that he rejected help from new technologies and instead relied too heavily on his own military skills and methods. He outright rejected the Gatling gun. Next his forced his men to use single-shot Springfields, whilst the Indians used much more reliable and effected Winchester rifles.

On the day of the battle, Custer divided his 600-man command in the face of vastly superior numbers into three battalions. Thus, the refusal of an extra battalion reduced the size of his force by at least a sixth, and then rejecting the firepower offered by the Gatling guns played into the events of June 25 to the disadvantage of his regiment.

To be fair, prior to the ‘Battle of Little Bighorn’ Custer had experienced some measure of campaign success. But he ascribed this more to his own method of the ‘Custer chase’ which relied heaving on three factors:

  • having first-class reconnaissance intelligence,
  • the element of genuine surprise, and lastly,
  • Outnumbering the enemy.

Most historians note failure on all three tactical components with his fateful and infamous ‘Final Stand’.


Like Achilles, it seems that Custer achieved in death, the lasting fame that eluded him in life. For many years, the public saw him as a ‘tragic military hero’ and ‘a gentleman’ who ‘sacrificed his life for his country’. To this end, Custer’s wife, Elizabeth helped construct this narrative with the publication of several books including: Boots and Saddles, Life with General Custer in Dakota (1885), Tenting on the Plains (1887).

My own analysis is that General Custer was a psychologically flawed individual and that this can account for:

  • his exponential rise through the ranks with little/limited actual military experience
  • his very brutal treatment of the ‘enemy’ more especially the vulnerable (e.g. unarmed women, children and the elderly)
  • his reliance upon his own skills and rejection of help or new technologies
  • ultimately- his key military failure



Interested in Further reading?


I enjoyed reading Stephen E. Ambrose (1996): ‘Crazy Horse and Custer: the parallel lives of two American warriors’: New York: Anchor Books.


Ambrose, S.E. (1996). Crazy Horse and Custer: New York: Anchor Books.

Andrist,R K (2001). The Long Death: The Last Days of the Plains Indian, Editorial Galaxia.

Connell, E. (1997). Son of the Morning Star. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Custer, George Armstrong (1874) My Life on the Plains. New York: Sheldon and Company.

Kershaw, R. (2005). Red Sabbath: The Battle of Little Bighorn. Ian Allan Publishing.

Lowen, A. (1985). Narcissism: Denial of the True Self. Touchstone Books, New York.

Macnab, D B (2003). A Day to Remember: Introducing the Drama, Irony, and Controversies of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, iUniverse.

Parker, I. & Pavon-Cuellar (2014). Lacan, Discourse, Event: New Psychoanalytic Approaches to Textual Indeterminacy. Routledge. London

Perrett, B. (1993). Last Stand: Famous Battles Against the Odds. London: Arms & Armour.



Coaching Welsh Directors: Can you pass The Statesman Paradox?

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had several one-to-one personal coaching discussions with Executive Directors in the Welsh public sector. Whilst each session has been deeply personal, different and unique that has been an overarching ‘meta-narrative’ in and between them, that has been bubbling away with my own sense-making. The reality is that I am not quite sure how to fully or properly express this. And, therefore, this blog is my own personal attempt to ‘get it out of my heart’ and on to a page that it may invite challenge, and also help me to write to my-self as a part of my own first-person inquiry process (see Reason & Bradbury, 2002).

Stated briefly, it has struck me how successful leaders are getting ‘stuck’. Each has significant personal strengths which will not come as too much as a surprise given that they are Executive Directors with a median budget of £ 1.1 billion of public sector money. Each of them has strengths around strategic design; personal resilience; influencing and negotiating skills, and political acumen for working in complex, political systems. In the same way, as we review their personal and organisational achievement there are evidence-based success that bring to mind a deep sense of achievement, meaning and pride (in the positive sense) not avarice.

But here comes the thing. It is slightly elusive. These skills, strengths, experiences and values seem to turn in on themselves. But why? The Welsh Government policy framework calls for a new leadership skill. It is a word used often and understood, it seems, just a little. Collaboration. Suddenly, we ask highly competitive, driven, challenging and individual leaders that fully appreciate, and can energise, systems under their ‘span of control’ to drop these skills to the ground.. and surrender their own organisational strategic we ask them to think, feel and value something very different. Almost odd.

To give this some texture, in my own psychology, I call this the ‘statesman paradox’.

We suddenly ask Directors to start with a fresh, new frame of reference. But it gets more demanding as the question is underpinned by a new value-system too. We get them to ask: What is in the best interests of the citizens of Wales? For clarity-this is just over 3.0 million men, women and children that live in Wales.

The paradox it seems to me is this. To date, each of these successful Directors and CEOs have worked incredibly hard under their own ‘span of control’ and each of them (that I have talked this through with) have a profound internal locus of control too. They are highly skilled at making things happen that fall under their legitimate authority. That is to say, their own organisations. They are fantastic at strategically bringing scarce resources to bring to bear evidence-based outcomes on…their own patch. They are organisers par excellence. Their career paths demonstrate (both to themselves and others) that these skills, strengths and experiences help them to succeed. Therefore to gain promotion, and consequently high credibility, so that you can rise-up ‘through the ranks’ these are the skills you need. You will recognise this pattern I am sure.

But then…and here comes the paradox. At the very ‘pinnacle’ of their careers; we ask them to “give-up their most cherished and deeply held beliefs, values and skills” (as described by one of them recently to me) and do something completely different. Totally at odds. In complete contradiction!

We ask them to start first with a statesman like frame of reference by asking: What is the right thing to do for all the citizens of Wales? In other words: Forget competing for scarce resources for your organisation for just one moment. Forget the embodied value of competition that has successfully brought you to this point in your career. Forget your own span of control; because much of what we are now asking of you will be in other organisations over which you have no control. And, to make matters even more complex, by definition when working at this all-Wales level- you are looking around a room that is full with people with the same set of skills, strengths and values as yourself! Oh my goodness!

When Directors ‘pass this test’ they go through a more or less ‘agonising’ stage in their personal life, in their careers, and in their embodied values. One says it like this:

When I heard the words come from my heart that said I was willing to implement a system that was not in my own organisations self-interest so that other organisations would realise the benefits as well as my own something peculiar had happened. That night I had a sleepless night. I wondered if I had ‘lost my edge’ or that this meant I was becoming weak. It is nine months later and I realise now that this was a marked transition. Am I stronger or weaker? Neither. I simply understand collaboration in a different way. A more profound way.”

It seems to me that any future Welsh leadership development should include this paradox as a key leadership stage of we are to suceed in our ambitions as a devolved Country. I will leave aside, for the moment, of whether there are different values from Welsh ‘home-grown’ talent when compared with other leaders developed from outside Wales- as I think such a debate is a red herring. What we do know, empirically, is that leadership in the main, can be trained, coached and developed. This assertion seems a healthy response. There is, of course, sound evidence that a diverse workforce is a good and worthwhile thing.

As for the question around core cultural/personal values I will explore this for a future blog.