The strengths and limitations of a psychoanalytic perspective on current events


By Martin Vogel

Book review: Danse Macabre and other stories: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Global Dynamics By Halina Brunning and Olya Khaleelee. 2021, Phoenix Publishing.

This book examines the political events of the 21st Century through the lens of psychoanalytic concepts. While it takes a global perspective, it is firmly rooted in the experience of the United Kingdom. It consequently lacks focus to the extent that the authors struggle to add depth to the insight that is readily available to anyone who tries to stay well-informed about current events. They’re not helped by having to retrofit the impact of the pandemic, which began at the tail-end of the period in which they were writing. Their analysis of Covid-19 reflects the fragmented knowing that was forming as the virus took hold and looks shop-worn in the context of the continuing uncertainty in late 2021.

But, for what it lacks in depth, Danse Macabre compensates with breadth.

The authors’ main thesis is that citizens have suffered increasing insecurity as the familiarity of the post-war world decomposed. With the end of the Cold War, new forms of splitting and projection arose to replace the binary opposition of capitalism and communism which – for all the threat of nuclear annihilation – had provided a kind of containment. The rise of Islamist terrorism and the financial crash of 2007 translated hypothetical insecurity into imminent jeopardy. Brunning and Khaleelee present the electoral success of nationalist populism – exemplified by Brexit and the Trump’s victory – as providing containment for unsettled publics. But they don’t discuss how this also intensified the lack of containment for the halves of the populations that did not buy into the populist agenda.

For coaches working in business contexts, the book provides a primer on some of the psychological imperatives arising from the social and political contexts in which organisations are located. There is an insightful section on the rise of illiberal liberalism – formerly known as political correctness and currently referred to as woke. The authors note the contradiction between emancipatory social justice aspirations and the authoritarian character of campaigns to police thoughts and words. They characterise this as an expression of the rage of the Millennial generation who – facing economic precarity, pandemic and climate catastrophe – are seizing on an effective way to exercise power over the older generations who have dealt them an appalling hand. With good reason, the authors worry that the totalitarian impulse has spread too far to be reigned back and wonder whether liberal democracies will survive the accession to leadership of the Millennials.

The book strikes an extremely pessimistic tone on the ability of the world to tackle the environment crisis. This highlights the limitation of applying only a psychoanalytic lens. Ultimately, the big challenges the world faces call for political critique. While affecting an apolitical stance, the authors’ analysis seems constrained by the capitalist discourses of growth that, through becoming accepted as common sense, have legitimised the plunder of the planet. It is the younger generations who are reaching for new paradigms. Until they take over, the question is whether the elders can provide enough stewardship in the current decade to prevent catastrophe.

Coaches have an urgent role in helping this to happen – mainly through asking searching questions of the leaders they support. Coaches must have sufficient detachment from the orthodoxy of old to hold leaders to account on how their organisations shape society and protect or damage the ecology. While Danse Macabre provides few answers, it can resource coaches to ask questions of themselves regarding their own contribution to addressing the big challenges of our age.

A version of this article appears in the October 2021 edition of Coaching Perspectives.

*Image courtesy NASA at Unsplash.

Join our ecosystems supervision group beginning in October


Martin Vogel and Hetty Einzig are opening a new round of ecosystems supervision this autumn. Participants have found these groups to be particularly supportive and enriching during this time of global disruption, uncertainty and anxiety.

Stress is heightened by the enforced isolation of lockdown and social distancing precisely when we need contact with others to regulate our nervous system and remain present to ourselves and our clients. The groups answer this need while also challenging norms, assumptions and behaviours.

If you are a coach or practitioner whose work involves supporting people, we invite you to join us. The sessions will be held on Zoom. Depending on circumstances we may be able to offer some face-to-face sessions.

Our innovative approach fosters awareness of the ecosystems in which we are located and the influence we can bring to bear on them as individuals. It encourages an integration of our identities as people, practitioners and citizens.

The pandemic and the economic recession it has triggered, plus the ongoing pressures of the climate emergency and global social disruption provoke a range of often conflicting emotions. Sacrifices will be demanded of us and professional and personal choices will need to be made. Coaching professionals can play in important role in helping people navigate the choices ahead. But we will need to take care of ourselves and be adaptive. Old certainties have fallen away, new openings will emerge.

There is an imperative to find reflective space to support wise interventions, restraining the impulse to forge answers prematurely. We know that the intelligence of the group is greater than the intelligence of the smartest individual. So now is a time to come together as a community of practice, to support ourselves and our work in other communities beyond the group.

We are offering monthly sessions of three hours with a break in the middle. And we will respond flexibly to the group’s needs as situations unfold. The sessions address a mixture of thematic group content and supervision of individual practice issues.

Our approach is values-based, collaborative and experimental – exploring coaching practice within the context of wider societal and environmental considerations. At this time when all of humanity is simultaneously facing trauma at several levels, it could not be more timely. We draw also on our backgrounds in transpersonal coaching, bodywork, creative work, mindfulness, and psychodynamic theory and practice.

Hetty Einzig brings experience from a career encompassing psychotherapy, writing and journalism, and launching and directing a successful non-profit organisation. Her coaching and supervision is informed by ecological and systemic perspectives, psychology, art and literature.

Martin Vogel draws on a career as a former journalist and strategist turned coach and supervisor – integrating critical perspectives of society and politics alongside an interest in narrative and arts-based approaches.

We are both trained in Analytic-Network Coaching, which looks at the orientation of leaders in the networked society.

This group is for experienced practitioners wishing to deepen their connection and contribution through their work at this turbulent time.

For more information, read our explainer article:
What is ecosystems supervision?


The size of the group will be no larger than eight participants. It will run for six sessions from October 2021 to April 2022, meeting from 14:00 to 17:00 on the following dates:

  • Wednesday 20 October 2021
  • Wednesday 24 November 2021
  • Wednesday 12 January 2022
  • Wednesday 9 February 2022
  • Wednesday 9 March 2022
  • Wednesday 6 April 2022

Participants must be able to commit to all six dates and, once committed, will hold responsibility for rescheduling any group meeting which they cannot attend.

Fees will be payable in advance of the commencement of the programme, at a rate you consider appropriate. For guidance we suggest:

  • You take into account the maximum fee which you charge your own clients and the frequency with which you work at this rate.
  • You may also like to consider what fee you would expect to earn for delivering a programme of a similar scale and nature to this supervision group.
  • If your financial circumstances are constrained, please do not feel inhibited from participating in the programme. Pay what you can reasonably afford.

If you would be interested in joining, please contact us to arrange a chat:

Opening to unknowing

By Martin Vogel


Further to my recent posts on applying the orientation of unknowing to coaching, I am opening a new group for experienced coaches to explore this in relation to their own practice.

Unknowing is the practice of letting go of what we think we know, opening to freshness and holding ideas lightly. In these turbulent and unsettling times, leaders need time and space to hold their uncertainty away from the pressure to collude with easy answers. Coaches too can be subject to this pressure. In order to support our clients to accept their not knowing, this space will explore what it is to reside in unknowing – adopting approaches that invite it in rather than resist it.

This is a space for peer-to-peer reflection, drawing on the insights and ideas of everyone in the group. Rather than a tightly held supervisory space, we will approach it as a jointly created process of action research.

Continue reading “Opening to unknowing”

Notes towards practising unknowing in coaching

By Martin Vogel


This is the second of a two-part series on the orientation of unknowing. Part 1 explored what is meant by unknowing. This second part discusses how it might be applied to coaching.

Unknowing can be viewed as a discipline. It is the practice of letting go of what we think we know, opening to freshness and holding ideas lightly. It is hard, because our identities, even our sense of moral worth, are wrapped up in our knowing. As with all disciplines, the more we practice, the more fluent we become.

Most of us have deep knowledge about a few small areas of life. You might call this erudition. Erudition is to be valued – though, even here, it is prudent to hold one’s knowledge open to challenge and revision. But beyond our areas of erudition, our knowledge about everything else tends to be very shallow. So shallow, it is hard to distinguish from ignorance. If we make decisions informed by ignorance, masquerading as knowledge, they can have unfortunate consequences. We might vote in a referendum on an issue we scarcely understand or espouse ways of responding to a novel virus about which (by definition) even scientific experts know very little.

Unknowing is about loosening our attachments to ignorant certainties – bringing, instead, humility and curiosity to the world as we find it. Applied to coaching, it entails relaxing the idea of coaching as solution-focussed and goal-oriented – leaning more towards a view of coaching as a reflective practice, in which coach and coachee explore and make sense together. It can help clients to encounter the world in fresh ways. Paradoxically, by entering a space where the pressure to have an answer is alleviated, the client is more likely to gain clarity about what to do next. What to do next might be to do nothing: to wait to see what emerges, and to be ready to respond.

Continue reading “Notes towards practising unknowing in coaching”

Unknowing: an orientation for coaching and leading

By Martin Vogel

One doesn’t need to work long as a coach to encounter clients who bridle against the profession’s non-directivity ethos and demand answers. “I want tips, not coaching,” one said to me recently. “What’s making you say that?” I replied – impolitely deflecting the request.

In fairness, this encounter arose at a time when I was particularly unlikely to comply. Through the pandemic, I’ve been musing on what I call my unknowing project. I’ve become convinced that we cherish knowing too much – or rather, the feeling of knowing. We live in an era of intersecting complex challenges – globalisation, environmental crisis, social and racial inequities, nationalism. Covid, sometimes referred to as a syndemic, cuts across all of these. Complex challenges are defined by the difficulty of designing a solution. Yet they characteristically call forth simplistic answers from people who are uncomfortable with this fact. Which is to say, most of us. Homo sapiens, the man who knows, prizes having answers. But we are, as Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach have found, more ignorant than we allow.

Any client who comes into coaching feels, at some level, the pressure of the need to know. Coaching risks colluding with the fantasy of knowing in the face of complexity. Perhaps, instead, we can contextualise it. Both coach and client can try to approach the world with some humility about the limits of our knowledge.

Continue reading “Unknowing: an orientation for coaching and leading”

Developing leaders in turbulent times: learning from supervision

By Martin Vogel and Simon Cavicchia

We live in a world of adversity and disruption. The upheavals we are seeing in the social, political, economic and environmental contexts of work are material to how coaches work with their clients. In this article, we explore what kind of leaders and leadership we need for today’s world and ask what can we learn from the practice of supervision to support the development of these leaders?

The 21st Century, so far, has been punctuated by a series of shocks which, cumulatively, have upended our assurance that we live in an orderly, predictable, manageable environment. The terrorist attacks on the United States on 11 November 2001 announced the asymmetric power of Islamist networks whose reach and barbarity seemed to grow exponentially over the subsequent years. The financial crash of 2007 brought the near collapse of global capitalism and planted the seeds of a national populist backlash throughout the Western world. This led in due course to the twin ruptures in 2016 of Brexit in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in America, and the establishment of governing styles which have challenged democratic norms and tested the checks and balances of both countries’ political systems. In 2021, while Brexit has been formally implemented, organisations and society in Britain face uncertainty about how its relations with the rest of the world will be arranged in the months and years to come. Throughout all of this, the dual crises of climate change and biodiversity have grown. As we started the present decade, there was a widespread realisation that the ten years ahead would present the last window of opportunity to avert climate catastrophe – but with no clear consensus on how to co-ordinate action across the globe. Then came the Covid-19 pandemic, providing a crash course on how quickly social and economic life as we know it can be halted in its tracks by natural forces beyond our control. It has driven a wrecking ball through behaviours, routines and leadership priorities that have long been imagined to be solid and reliable. On a global scale individuals have adjusted to changes that, only a short time ago, were not considered necessary or even possible.

Just as we were coming to terms with the implications of this, the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota ignited protests of pain and anger across America (and many other countries) and a clampdown of unaccountable brutality by police, security forces and even private militia incited by President Trump. In the aftermath of the US election, as Trump denied the result, it was not clear that American democracy would hold. On 6 January 2021, a violent storming of the US Capitol building showed that this was no idle fear. At the time of writing, it is not clear that democracy has withstood the test.

Throughout much of this time, discourses on leadership, organisation development and executive coaching have made increasing reference to the volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous nature of the environment in which leaders are working (Stiehm, 2002). But business has carried on broadly as usual. So great has been the disparity between discourse and practice that the idea of the VUCA world has seemed little more than a platitude – an unconscious genuflection that usefully justifies leadership development interventions but has little bearing on either their nature or their impacts. Traditional views of coaching can be seen as a response to an outmoded view of leadership from the modern/industrial era when the world was assumed to be predictable. This orientation is bound by assumptions of linear cause and effect logic, short-term focus on pre-determined goals and an assumption that these can be achieved as intended.

Continue reading “Developing leaders in turbulent times: learning from supervision”

A restoration begins

By Martin Vogel

Sometimes, when you watch an event, it is only when you sleep on it that its significance lands. Last week, I watched with shock but not surprise as America’s Capitol was invaded by seditionists. Even as I watched, and despite the delay in police and security forces containing the uprising, the insurrection looked unlikely to succeed. But, the next morning, the deeper significance sunk in. This was an event that shouldn’t have happened in a mature democracy. Given the connivance of an uncomfortably large number of elected representatives in Congress, with a more competent seditionist than Donald Trump in office, the coup might have prevailed. America, and the cause of democracy around the world, was stained by the insurrection but also saved by an ethos that held when tested.

Yesterday, as Joe Biden took office, the rituals of inauguration seemed familiar but their significance was overwhelming. The words of the presidential oath carried unusual meaning as Biden, with evident decency and determination, promised to uphold the constitution. After dealing with the urgent crisis of Covid, this is his most important task. It’s not yet clear whether the mediation of differences in the United States can be contained within democratic norms. But everything about the inauguration signalled that an attempted restoration is under way.

Continue reading “A restoration begins”

The missing piece in supporting internal coaches

By Martin Vogel and Hetty Einzig

All professionals need to make time regularly to reflect on their work and how they are developing in the role they play in the workplace. This is good professional practice not just to keep their expertise up to date but also for their own wellbeing. It stops us falling into habitual ways of doing things and habitual patterns of overworking or reacting to pressure that may be unhelpful for us and for those we work with. This is even more imperative if your job involves working with others.

Supervision is a means of providing just such reflective space. It’s considered normal best practice for professional coaches to have regular contact with a supervisor to review their work, their practice and their sense of being in the world. In complex and fast-moving organisational settings, where corner-cutting and groupthink can lead to questionable practices, supervision provides a space to find one’s ethical ground.

Continue reading “The missing piece in supporting internal coaches”

What is ecosystems supervision? An explainer

By Martin Vogel and Hetty Einzig

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Ecosystems supervision is a collaborative and experimental approach which explores coaching practice within the context of wider societal and environmental considerations. It combines enquiry in depth into who we are as individuals and as professionals with exploration in breadth of the systems and networks within which – and which shape how – we operate. 

This article explains our approach and what it is like to experience ecosystems supervision. It is by nature a work in progress as we employ an action learning approach in our work, adapting and developing as we learn with participants in our groups. 

Continue reading “What is ecosystems supervision? An explainer”

Is supervision a gendered pursuit?

By Martin Vogel

Who is supervision for? Anybody who would value a reflective space in which to reflect on their practice and encounter fresh perspectives.

Who comes for supervision? Good question. Women, it would seem. At least that is the case for the flavour of supervision that I have been offering with my colleague, Hetty Einzig, for the past year.

Continue reading “Is supervision a gendered pursuit?”