Child leaders

A friend recently sent me the link to a Guardian article published in 2014 under the title: Why boarding schools produce bad leaders. I hadn’t seen the article, but I was familiar with its author. Nick Duffell was a contemporary of mine at the school we both attended. Today he is a psychotherapist, well known for his specialist work with former boarders.

The main photograph with the article shows Boris Johnson and David Cameron smiling (or perhaps grimacing) as they point at one another. In 2014 Cameron was Prime Minister, Johnson Mayor of London. Little could the author have known that five years later the latter would have succeeded to the former’s job and set about doubly proving his point that public schoolboys so often turn out to be, in the words of the Guardian heading, ‘bullies or bumblers’, and in both cases unsuited for the highest office.

The reasons why this should be so are many and complex. I know them well, having found myself in mid-life turning to therapy to try and unravel the feelings that had been locked away since I was first sent off to board, aged nearly eight, and that only now were breaking surface and threatening to engulf me.

The article offers more explanation (here) than I have room for, and I have anyway written about this before (here). But in essence it concerns how, at a young age, one develops the defences and behaviours necessary to survive the twofold trauma of separation from family (unconsciously experienced as abandonment) along with sudden adjustment to a highly structured regime in which any signs of weakness are pounced on. These behaviours necessitate the suppression of true feelings, and if they remain unacknowledged they can come to have enormous repercussions later in life.

Self-awareness, emotional literacy, a capacity for empathy, an ability to engage with others on equal terms without the wish constantly to dominate or ‘win’; these are qualities one associates with statesmanship. Barack Obama and Jacinda Ardern come to mind as exemplars. Much as he might believe it to be otherwise, there is nothing statesmanlike about Johnson nor, it need hardly be said, his US counterpart. Johnson was sent to private boarding school at 11, Trump at 13. Both characteristically mask their feelings with an armour-plated self-confidence and bluster.

How very different they are to the people I have been spending time with over the last few days at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I think particularly of the four novelists with whom I have enjoyed public conversations — Clare Clark, John Simmons, Alexander McCall Smith and Alberto Manguel — four people who have had to look deep within themselves to find the humanity, the compassion that enables them to bring their characters to life and tell their stories in a credible way. They know that to be truly creative, to be as truthful to themselves as they can, they must be able to connect with the inner child.

The pitiful thing, and I use the word in its literal sense, is that neither Johnson nor Trump know that child, hurt and trapped within by early experience — and so they behave as they do. The terrifying thing is that they are world leaders.

About Jamie Jauncey

Author, writer, blogger, facilitator, musician, co-founder of Dark Angels and The Stories We Tell
This entry was posted in Creativity, Edinburgh Book Festival, Leadership, Personal development and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Child leaders

  1. wrbcg says:

    Thank you for sharing your experiences of boarding and the interesting articles. I was luckier than you in that my experiences of boarding were both brief.

    The first was when I was seven to cover the 2 weeks my parents were away on holiday – I think it may also have been a trial to see whether I’d be suitable to boarding. I suffered night terrors and was desperately unhappy for the whole time. The next time my parents went abroad I was sent to stay with my grandparents.

    The second time was when I was ten. Following an incident in which my younger brother Colin had set a building on fire (but, as was frequently the case, had somehow put the blame on me), my mother decided that she was not coping with four children at home and so we were sent to board. My mother could see that it was emotionally damaging to me in a way it wasn’t for Colin, who loved being in a larger group of boys and never suffered any kind of bullying. She had been a boarder who, like me suffered bullying (though in my prep school it was very mild), and so could empathise and I returned to being a day boy (much to the ire of the headmaster, who asserted that boarding would make a man of me) for what turned out to be my final year in the school.

    Following my parents divorce, my mother wanted to move out of Scotland to escape the gossip (the scandal of the divorce having made the front page of the Daily Express) but my grandparents would only agree to it (despite their having facilitated the divorce) if I was to remain in Scotland as a boarder. Thankfully, my mother refused, but acquiesced to leaving Colin in my stead, as the bullying in my very minor public school was so bad that I almost had a mental breakdown. Despite seemingly enjoying boarding, Colin never got over his feelings of abandonment and rejection for which he blamed his mother.

    A final point, if I may. My own experience of being bullied mildly in prep school, viciously in public school, and persistently in grammar school (it only stopped in VI Form College) is that it causes a very similar syndrome to that experienced by boarders and can take decades to overcome.

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