After two weeks of unprecedented political turmoil and fallout following the EU Referendum, recent work on the capacity of our society to produce leaders with faulty judgement through the British boarding school system ('Wounded Leaders' as Nick Duffell calls them) has never been more relevant. The psychodynamics of political life are in full swing with the shock result of the EU Referendum, the resignation of the Prime Minister and the savaging of the Leader of the Opposition by his own Shadow Cabinet; this, followed by betrayal and backstabbing, leading to the resignation of a key and popular Brexiteer and the mobilisation of a new female head of the Conservative party. No longer is a week in politics a long time, now each day brings more shock revelations.
Why has this happened? Why did David Cameron call the EU Referendum in the first place? What were the psychological processes involved in the 'Project Fear' label in the Brexit debate? How are these processes having an impact on the political fallout of our decision to vote 'Leave'.
As Corporate Psychologists, my colleague Ralph Woolf and I have been analysing test data from the last 10 years of working with senior executives and leaders in outplacement. A significant proportion of these attended boarding school as children: 45 senior executives who boarded were tested and compared with 45 non-boarders drawn randomly from our files.
One of the tests, the Defence Mechanisms Test, was developed in Sweden by Ulf Kragh in the 1960s to look at how air force pilots managed their stress levels and has subsequently been applied to many other professions. This test produces a timeline of emotional development indicating how resilient they are and which defences individuals employ to protect themselves from stress. It analyses whether their defence mechanisms are so powerful that they are prevented from remaining in touch with their emotional intelligence and their capacity to perceive threats in the environment when under pressure. This has a major impact on their ability to make good judgements when stressed, continuing to engage resiliently with strategic requirements without becoming overwhelmed - essential requirements for corporate leaders.
One of the main defences arises from having had a shock which has the effect of temporarily overwhelming the individual and arresting their emotional development (regression). Most people experience shocks at some time during their lives. The majority overcome them because they are resilient enough, having experienced the good mothering that is the foundation stone of a solid sense of identity. This enables them to bounce back and continue to mature.
However, we now know that shock and trauma from early prolonged separation - such as boarding - prevents emotional maturing because the inner child part of the self feels abandoned and continues to reside in a vacuum within the adult self. This experience of shock arising from separation impacts on resilience, leads to the development of other heavier defence mechanisms and often has a lifelong deleterious effect on work and relationships.
Preliminary analysis of our data indicates that if the individual has such a separation shock early in life, the tendency when this person comes under pressure later on is to lose touch with emotional intelligence. Within the individual there is enhanced sensitivity to stress and lowered resilience. Other defences are mobilised to protect this sensitive self, throwing the individual back on their cognitive capacities alone, which affects their ability to make accurate judgements that have an emotional component.
We wondered if this is what happened to David Cameron who, in offering a Referendum, clearly did not make the connection between the splits in his party and the splits in the country.
The preliminary results of our analysis showed that over 60% of the sample of ex-boarders had signs of early separation shock in their timelines compared to under 25% of non-boarders. Whilst 50% of non-boarders were able to stay in touch with their emotional intelligence under stress, only 33% of ex-boarders were able to do so. A mere 13% could be described as fully resilient. Examination of the timelines of ex-boarders with signs of early separation-shock showed that 70% could not stay in touch with their emotional intelligence under pressure and a further proportion were either over-sensitive or perceived threats in the environment late, making 86% in all.
Those who are over-sensitive to threat as a result of hyper-vigilance following early trauma from prolonged separation tend to see threats in the environment too early and may overplay them. In our recent political debate, this could have led to the label of 'Project Fear', a term often used during the Brexit debate by other ex-boarders.
One general inference from our research is that those who go to boarding school are more likely to have an early signs of shock resulting from prolonged separation from parents. The effect is to make them less likely to identify threats than those who did not board. This inability to use emotional intelligence is a worrying conclusion in the light of some of the leaders of the Brexit campaign denying that economic chaos might follow a 'Leave' vote. We should be thankful that our next Prime Minister has not attended boarding school.