Jung on Leadership

Sue Mehrtens is the author of this and all the other blog essays on this site. The opinions expressed in these essays are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of other Jungian Center faculty or Board members.  Honesty, as well as professional courtesy, require that you give proper attribution to the author if you post this essay elsewhere.



Jung on Leadership



“So-called leaders are the inevitable symptoms of a mass movement. The true leaders of mankind are always those who are capable of self-reflection, and who relieve the dead weight of the masses at least of their own weight, consciously holding aloof from the blind momentum of the mass in movement.”

Jung (1933)[1]

“But, in the end, the hero, the leader, the Savior, is one who discovers a new way to greater certainty.” 17-323

Jung (1932)[2]

“Human leadership being fallible, the leader himself has always been, and always will be, subject to the great symbolical principles, even as the individual cannot give his life point and meaning unless he puts his ego at the service of a spiritual authority superordinate to man.”

Jung (1942)[3]

“If you are humble enough you are never alone. Nothing isolates us more than power and prestige.”

Jung (1957)[4]

“If things go wrong in the world, this is because something is wrong with the individual, because something is wrong with me. Therefore, if I am sensible, I shall put myself right first. For this I need – because outside authority no longer means anything to me – a knowledge of the innermost foundations of my being, in order that I may base myself firmly on the eternal facts of the human psyche.”

Jung (1933)[5]

“The figure of the wise old man can appear so plastically, not only in dreams but also in visionary meditation (or what we call “active imagination”), that, as is sometimes apparently the case in India, it takes over the role of a guru. The wise old man appears in dreams in the guise of a magician, doctor, priest, teacher, professor, grandfather, or any other person possessing authority.”

Jung (1945)[6]

“Hence I also see that the psychoanalyst must follow his patient’s apparently “erring ways” if the patient is ever to arrive at his own convictions and be freed once and for all from infantile reliance on authority.”

Jung (1913)[7]

“When, as a psychotherapist, I set myself up as a medical authority over my patient and on that account claim to know something about his individuality or to be able to make valid statements about it, I am only demonstrating my lack of criticism, for I am in no position to judge the whole of the personality before me. I cannot say anything valid about him except in so far as he approximates to the ‘universal man’.”

Jung (1935)[8]

“Mankind, advancing in knowledge and obeying its own law, will find its way across the ruins of faith in authority to the moral autonomy of the individual.”

Jung (1913)[9]


“What’s Jung’s take on leadership? How did he feel about leaders?” A business consultant recently posed these questions to me, and that gave me the inspiration for this essay. Jung did not write directly on this topic but we can get a sense of his attitudes if we scour his works for references to “authority,” “power,” “humility,” and “guru,” as well as to “leader.” In this essay we will begin by defining the term “leader,” and then examine Jung’s usage of the word, his thoughts on authority and the guru, and his image of the proper role of the Jungian analyst. We conclude with a discussion of a scientific law related to leadership.


Definitions of “Leader”


The dictionary definition of “leader” is “a person who leads,” i.e. “guides or directs in action, policy, opinion;” one who influences or persuades; one who goes first, has first place or is at the top; the chief, commander or director.[10] A situational definition defines the leader as a person who has followers, while Harry Truman famously regarded the leader as where the “buck stops.”[11]

Given the competitive nature of our society, we admire those who win, who come out on top, who take command or direct the action. All these actions reflect our Extraverted orientation.[12] Jung was far more nuanced and Introverted in his definitions: The true leader is “the hero,… one who discovers a new way to greater certainty.”[13] In times of turmoil or unprecedented conditions, a true leader is creative, inventive, and able to shore up “the better angels of the nature”[14] of his/her followers. This is possible because, as Jung defined the “true leaders of mankind,”[15] they are “capable of self-reflection”[16] and able to “consciously hold themselves aloof from the blind momentum of the mass.”[17] Very few of our current business and political leaders are what Jung would regard as true leaders.


Jung’s Use of the Term “Leader”


Most of the instances where Jung uses the word “leader” are negatives: “So-called leaders are the inevitable symptoms of a mass movement.”[18] Jung had very little good to say about masses, mass-mindedness and mass movements.[19] Such phenomena usually produce a leader “who infallibly becomes the victim of his own inflated ego-consciousness, as the numerous examples in history show.”[20] Such leaders maintain their position with “ruthlessness… and the cheapest of slogans.”[21]

These figures tend to show up in times “when everything outstanding is leveled down, the signposts are lost, and the longing to be led becomes an urgent necessity.”[22] During times like this people are fearful (which usually shows up in outer life as anger)[23] and Jung felt they are more likely to be “seized by … panic terror,”[24] unable “to cope with the changing times.”[25] All too often in these situations the leader is the “inevitable symptom of a mass movement,”[26] the embodiment “in his whole being [of] the meaning and purpose of the popular movement. … the incarnation of the national psyche and its mouthpiece.”[27] The masses regard this leader as a “superior wise man,”[28] an “undisputed authority,”[29] to whom “they built temples… with the greatest promptitude….”[30] in their desperate need for something, someone to believe in.

By “built temples” Jung is referring to how the masses readily will project their power, intelligence, will and authority on to the revered leader who, thanks to his unconsciousness and egotism, is eager and willing to carry the projection. Jung found the resulting situation “lamentable.”[31] To understand why, we need to examine Jung’s thoughts on authority.


Jung on Authority


As I discussed in an earlier essay,[32] part of the task of individuation (the term Jung used for our major psychological endeavor in life) involves our internalization of three loci: of control, of authority, and of security. The first we should begin to learn as toddlers, with toilet training, i.e. learning to control bladder and sphincter muscles; the second begins to show up with the “Terrible Twos” (learning to say “NO!”) and takes on more adult forms during adolescence. But Jung recognized that some people never do internalize either of these loci: In playing the “blame game” some people never take control of their lives. They complain about all the things in their lives they don’t like, finding fault with others,[33] but Jung had a different response:

“If things go wrong in the world, this is because something is wrong with the individual, because something is wrong with me. Therefore, if I am sensible, I shall put myself right first.”[34]

As for the locus of authority, Jung was blunt about how he tackled that:

“For this I need – because outside authority no longer means anything to me – a knowledge of the innermost foundations of my being, in order that I may base myself firmly on the eternal facts of the human psyche.”[35]

Because he had internalized a locus of authority–deciding for himself what was right or wrong, ethical or moral–Jung did not give much attention to authority figures. He decried as “neurotic”[36] those who “bow down before authority and refuse the freedom to which they are destined.”[37] More than “neurotic,” such people Jung labeled as “infantile.”[38]


Jung on Gurus


Some of the most caustic language about projections of authority Jung displayed in his remarks about guru worship. In the context of this essay on leadership, “guru” refers to the leader of an ashram or other organization of disciples. All too often, Jung felt, the guru-disciple relationship thwarts the individuation of both persons:

“Superhuman responsibility” gets projected on to the prophet, while the disciple “modestly… sits at the Master’s feet and guards against having ideas of his own. Mental laziness becomes a virtue; one can at least bask in the sun of a semidivine being… all responsibility is laid at the Master’s door.”[39]

The Master is seen as possessing “the great truth,”[40] which the devoted disciple receives “straight from the Master’s hands.”[41] There is no independent evaluation of morals or ethics, no possibility of critical thinking. By being put on a pedestal by his followers the Master/prophet teeters precariously and almost inevitably succumbs eventually to the moral evils of power, lust and/or greed.[42] As for the disciple, he or she is infantilized by this perverse form of leadership and winds up sorely disillusioned when his/her guru turns out to have feet of clay.

Jung was not dismissive of all gurus. He had a guru himself: Philemon, an image of his inner Wise Old Man. In a 1948 letter to Father Victor White, a Roman Catholic priest, Jung noted that he knew Philemon “very well: He was my “guru” more than thirty years ago, a real ghostly guru…”[43] who appeared in Jung’s deep meditations during the years he was working on the Red Book and struggling to come to terms with his father complex in the aftermath of his break with Freud. In the years 1913-1928 Jung “felt godforsaken and really lonely, [and] there was my guru… The Divine Presence…”.[44] The image of Philemon appears in Plate 154 of the Red Book.[45]

Inner gurus are not only acceptable. Jung felt they are to be encouraged. Why? Because they help us to rediscover the “genus divinum[46]–the inner divine energy–that lives within and can guide, inspire and protect us. Reliance on this type of guru is a key element in the individuation process, but few people in our culture think of their “ghostly guru” as a potential leader of their lives.


The Image of the Jungian Analyst


One would be more likely to find understanding of inner gurus among Jungian analysts. Ideally, the analyst would be familiar with his/her own inner guide, as well as having a clear sense of Jung’s attitude about the analyst/analysand relationship.

Jung was explicit that, while the analyst spends years training for his/her role, he or she is not to set him/herself “up as a medical authority over”[47] the analysand. The analyst is not to “claim to know anything about [the patient’s] individuality or to be able to make valid statements about it…”.[48] Doing so, Jung felt, would only demonstrate hubris, pride. How so? Because the analyst is “in no position to judge the whole of the personality”[49] of the analysand sitting before him/her. In other words, while the analysand might expect, even want, the analyst to take the lead, be the problem-solving authority figure, and make all the misery go away, the Jungian analyst must “give up all pretensions to superior knowledge, all authority and desire to influence.”[50] Jung admitted that this requirement to “renounce one’s professional authority”[51] is difficult, and makes the profession of Jungian analysis “not exactly an enviable one.”[52]

Without having had personal experience of analysis, one might wonder just who does run the show? Who is the leader? Does the whole task fall on the analysand? No. Because the process is about empowering the analysand, helping him or her to internalize the loci of authority and security, the leader is the psyche, the inner daimon or the inner divine energy which Jung labeled the Self. Both parties–analyst and analysand–are “in the soup together,”[53] both relying on the wisdom brought forth from both analysand (and, in some cases, from the analyst) in dreams, intuitions, synchronicities and “active imaginations.”[54] All this is toward fostering in the patient the recognition of his/her individual uniqueness and trust in the Self. The analyst witnesses, offers suggestions, contributes technical information the patient might not be familiar with (e.g. about archetypes, complexes, dream interpretation techniques etc.) and generally creates a positive, supportive environment conducive to inner work.[55] But the analyst does not take charge, or operate in the ways our culture associates with leadership.


The Law of the Retarding Lead


Jung was a scientist.[56] He used the scientific method–observe, use observations to develop hypotheses, test the hypothesis via experimentation, record the results, and repeat. While he never cited the Law of the Retarding Lead in his works, he likely would approve of it. It derives from the science of ethology, the study of animal behavior.

Working in the wild, in evolving environments, ethologists noted a pattern: Those species that are dominant in an evolving ecosystem tend to lag in their adaptation to new conditions, while those species that are marginal (just hanging on, barely surviving) are much quicker to notice change and adapt to new conditions. This makes sense: A dominant species is well served by and comfortable with the status quo, while those on the margins have an incentive, in their hardship, to take advantage of the changes underway.

Since all ecosystems are evolving (“Nothing endures but change.”),[57] all animal species reflect the operation of this law. While we don’t like to think of ourselves as animals, we are, and we too are subject to this law. It shows up in all fields of human endeavor: politics (in the resistance the dominant elites display in the face of calls to end the extreme disparity in wealth);[58] economics (in the diminishment of such dominant corporations as General Motors, IBM, and Kodak, as Japanese cars, laptop computers and digital cameras cut into their market share); and society (in the resistance many white males display in the face of equality demands by women and people of color).[59]

The Law of the Retarding Lead[60] holds out a warning. Being the leader can be precarious. It can foster complacency (as we saw with the corporations above). It can contribute to a decline in creativity and innovation. It can stifle interest in and exploration of the future and new potentials. In addition, Jung reminds us that leadership all too often can beget a host of dangerous attitudes: pride, greed, lust,[61] ignorance of the lives and realities of those on the margins, and lack of compassion for the poor, the homeless, those just hanging on. In the worst-case scenario, it results in such strong resistance to change over time that massive dislocation (e.g. revolution) becomes inevitable.[62]

Jung hoped humanity would be able to avoid such a dismal fate by achieving widespread consciousness, with highly evolved people arising spontaneously as leaders as needs warranted in communities that put a premium on creating more and more consciousness. Absent such efforts to further self/Self-awareness, Jung remained skeptical of leaders and the degree to which they could play a positive role in society.




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________ (1989), Eros and Pathos. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Hannah, Barbara (1981), Encounters with the Soul: Active Imagination. Boston: Sigo Press.

Jacoby, Mario (1984), The Analytic Encounter. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Jung, C.G. (1961), “Freud and Psychoanalysis,” Collected Works, 4. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1966), “Two Essays on Analytical Psychology,” CW 7. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1959), ”The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious,” CW 9i. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1970), “Civilization in Transition,” CW 10. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1969), “Psychology and Religion: West and East,” CW 11. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Practice of Psychotherapy,” CW 16, 2nd ed. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1954), “The Development of Personality,” CW 17. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1976), ”The Symbolic Life,” CW 18. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1975), Letters, ed. Gerhard Adler & Aniela Jaffé. 2 vols. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

________ (1977), C.G. Jung Speaking: Interviews and Encounters, ed. William McGuire & R.F.C. Hull. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

New England Society of Jungian Analysts (1988), The Analytic Life. Boston: Sigo Press.

Piketty, Thomas (2014), Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Pinker, Steven (2011), The Better Angels of Our Nature. New York: Viking Press.

Steinberg, Warren (1990), Circle of Care: Clinical Issues in Jungian Therapy. Toronto: Inner City Books.

Tippett, Krista (2016), Becoming Wise. New York: Penguin Press.

von Franz, Marie-Louise (1980), Alchemy. Toronto: Inner City Books.

________ (1997), Alchemical Active Imagination. Boston: Shambhala Books.


[1] Collected Works 10 ¶326. Hereafter Collected Works will be abbreviated CW.

[2] CW 17 ¶323.

[3] Ibid. ¶248.

[4] “Letter to Mrs. C,” 21 May 1957; Letters II, 361.

[5] CW 10 ¶329.

[6] CW 9i ¶398.

[7] CW 4 ¶653.

[8] CW 16 ¶2.

[9] CW 4 ¶655.

[10] World Book Encyclopedia Dictionary, II, 1109.

[11] Truman had a sign on his desk as President saying “The buck stops here.” Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1968), 984.

[12] In the Myers-Briggs Type system, 75% of Americans type as Extraverts; Keirsey & Bates (1984), 25.

[13] CW 17 ¶323.

[14] Steven Pinker took this phrase from Abraham Lincoln as the title of his 2011 book; Pinker (2011), xxiii.

[15] CW 10 ¶329.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid. ¶326.

[19] Ibid., ¶719. For more on the dangers of mass-mindedness, see the essay “The Future of Our Too-Big-to-Fail Institutions,” archived on this web site.

[20] CW 10 ¶500.

[21] Ibid. ¶535.

[22] CW 17 ¶248.

[23] Tippett (2016), 180.

[24] CW 17 ¶306.

[25] Ibid.

[26] CW 10 ¶326.

[27] Jung (1977), 65.

[28] CW 7 ¶389.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] See the four-part essay “Components of Individuation” archived on this web site.

[33] E.g. the Swiss “Fräulein N.” who wrote to Jung lamenting her situation and casting blame on others; 23 January 1941; Letters, I, 292.

[34] CW 10 ¶329.

[35] Ibid.

[36] CW 4 ¶653.

[37] Ibid. ¶658.

[38] Ibid., ¶653.

[39] CW 7 ¶s263-4.

[40] Ibid.

[41] Ibid.

[42] CW 18 ¶1398.

[43] “Letter to Father Victor White,” 30 January 1948; Letters II, 491.

[44] Ibid., 492.

[45] Jung (2009).

[46] “Letter to Father Victor White,” 30 January 1948; Letters II, 491.

[47] CW 16 ¶2.

[48] Ibid.

[49] Ibid.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid. ¶23.

[52] Ibid.

[53] This is how my first analyst described our situation as analyst and analysand.

[54] For in-depth descriptions of this Jungian technique cf. Hannah (1981), and von Franz (1980) & (1987).

[55] For the nature and role of the analyst in Jungian analysis, cf. Carotenuto (1981) & (1989), Jacoby (1984), New England Society (1988) and Steinberg (1990).

[56] CW 11 ¶461. He called himself a “doctor and scientist.”

[57] Heraclitus, quoted by Diogenes Laertius and Plato; Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1968), 77. Heraclitus was Jung’s favorite of the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers.

[58] See Piketty (2014) for an incisive analysis of economic inequality and the threat it poses to our polity.

[59] E.g. in the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements.

[60] I first heard of this law from Hazel Henderson at a 1989 conference in Gainesville Florida.

[61] These are 3 of the 7 deadly sins; the others are envy, wrath, sloth and gluttony.

[62] This is the warning in Piketty (2014), 571.

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