What shapes the authority and power of leaders and their followers?

15 September 2021
SERIES Rethinking organisational development 20 items

Drawing on open systems theory and unconscious group processes, I’d like to highlight four factors that shape the authority and power of leaders and followers as they take up their role in an organisation. They are:

  1. The primary task;
  2. Boundaries and their regulation;
  3. Group dynamics; and
  4. Containment.

The primary task

An organisation (including a temporary one like a project) can be likened to an open system, which imports materials, labour, money, information and emotions from its environment, including from other systems, and converts them, through the undertaking of a primary task, into outputs, money and information, which it exports to its environment including other systems. As such, an organisation’s survival depends on its primary task. If members of a group or organisation do not know what task they are supposed to be undertaking, or if the task is inappropriately defined (too broad, too narrow, or defined in terms of methods instead of aims), members will experience stress and specific problems will go unaddressed.

When members of a group undertake a poorly defined task, they will experience difficult and conflicting feelings. They will establish ways of working to avoid becoming too aware of these. They might be formal or informal practices, which manifest in attitudes and inter-personal relations, in customs and conventions and in the formal social structure of the organisation and its management systems. Some of these aspects will be oriented to primary task performance while others will not; we call the latter ‘anti-task’. Anti-task activity may manifest in organisations not relating to its members, its clients and/or its task in a realistic manner; preventing the full deployment of staff capacities; and being resistant to change.

Boundaries and their regulation

An organisation is like a system made up of parts (or people) that has a boundary around it, which needs to both separate and to mediate what is inside and what is outside. Regulating the boundary around a group or organisation is key and is performed by leaders. Effective leaders operate on the boundary of the group, avoiding both excessive involvement within the system and disconnection from it, to effectively regulate transactions between their group and the environment.

Followers and leaders will need to recognise where their role ends and another person’s role begins and the scope and limits of one’s own authority. They also need to have a readiness to sanction the authority of others, especially where leadership might be distributed across an organisation or project. Enforcing boundaries around a group may require leaders to exert influence on others, reject someone’s advice, push one’s own ideas and prevent some people from influencing a decision. This requires the mobilisation of aggression, which leaders might find challenging due to the imagined effects of either injuring another or being injured. However, not doing so, can end up discounting and hurting the group, as well as completion of the primary task.

Group dynamics

Wilfred Bion identified two major tendencies in the life of a group. The first is to work on its primary task, known as work group activity, where members can think rationally and learn. The second tendency, operating in parallel, is to avoid the primary task, known as basic assumption activity, which describes the emotional atmosphere in the group. Here, members take up an informal role (usually learnt in childhood) with others to reduce anxiety and/or conflict between group members. This tendency sees group members lose their capacity to stay in touch with reality and its demands, and to bear frustration. Bion identified three types of basic assumption activity:

  • Dependence: the group behaves as if its primary task is to provide for the satisfaction of the needs and wishes of its members. The leader is expected to look after, protect and sustain the members of the group.
  • Fight/flight: the group behaves as if there is a danger or an enemy that must either be attacked or fled from. Members look to a leader to devise some appropriate action; their task is merely to follow.
  • Pairing: the group behaves as if a pairing between two members within the group, or perhaps between the leader of the group and some external person, will bring about salvation.

Pierre Turquet added a fourth basic assumption, oneness, which encourages an undifferentiated feeling of wholeness in order for the group to preserve itself. At the same time this feeling makes it difficult to examine assumptions or call things into question

Some degree of basic assumption activity can be helpful in pursuing the primary task. For instance, in a research centre, a dependency state of mind can be helpful if researchers working on a project lack experience. However, when basic assumption activity comes to dominate over work group activity, due to excessive levels of uncertainty and anxiety, leaders and followers are pulled out of their role and the primary task suffers. Leaders (who might not be the formal leader of the group) can subsequently be positioned: to provide unlimited nurturance, to fight, to rescue the group from catastrophe and/or to provide hope. Leaders will be followed as long as they fulfil the basic assumption of the group. If leaders do not co-operate, or disappoint, then group members can project their frustration onto them, denigrate them and eventually abandon them.


When groups can no longer tolerate frustration and learn from experience, they may discharge difficult feelings with colleagues informally and in private (so-called ‘hidden transcripts’). However, these rarely help improve the situation. What groups need is containment, which involves people bringing work-related feelings to the surface, where they can be contained and discussed. For this to happen, individuals in a group or organisation need to know each other and their roles in a task-oriented setting, which in turn requires time, patience and ongoing work so that staff have the freedom to think and share their own thoughts.

In such a container, individuals are supported to make explicit their organisation in the mind, where participants are encouraged to listen without judgement. Individuals are encouraged to bring their ‘hidden transcripts’ into formal view. Unconscious processes are verbalised, and individuals are supported to return to a state of mind where they can learn and take back the feelings they have located in others. When they and their feelings are contained, people can overcome their defensiveness and be supported to identify choices about their behaviour. In such an environment, leaders and followers can properly re-take their respective roles and the former can re-establish their power and authority.

As the containment process is powerful and potentially volatile, it is key that the structure that contains the work is resilient and strong. This means having a fixed and regular time for meeting, meeting in the same room (where people are working in-person), agreeing on confidentiality issues, and investing the time required to build up trust. Over time, this allows one to relax and to allow those inner representations of the organisation/group to come to the surface. Experienced managers can facilitate such meetings. However, bringing in an external consultant to manage meetings can help ensure that meetings do not become bogged down by defensive behaviour.