Fantasy of managerial power

I recall a particularly vivid example of this belief about power and authority being made overt. When I was a senior probation officer, our Service had monthly management meetings at a conference centre. They inevitably adopted a characteristic agenda and patterns of behaviour in all concerned.

On one occasion, we were discussing our conduct of these meetings, and in the course of this one of my senior probation colleagues began to speak. This colleague was normally very quiet indeed – his few comments in meetings I remember as largely task oriented rather than reflective, but on this occasion, to all our surprise, he spoke for 10 minutes or so about how he saw the management group operating.

He used the image of a swimming pool and said he saw us all as having set roles in this pool. I don’t recall all the details except most remarkably, he saw the chief officer as a sort of Colossus figure, standing in the deep end of the pool with the water only coming up to his waist. This was astonishing to some of us, since we saw the chief officer as a kind man coming to the end of his career, from a school of probation management that then seemed well past its sell by date. Many of us would have seen him as benevolent and broadly supportive but relatively insignificant in driving the Service forward or in requiring things of staff. By and large, I got on with my work without any direction from senior management at that time. Yet my colleague seemed to have this sense of him as an all powerful figure.

Of course there were chief officers who were less benevolent and I have seen bullying behaviour in some. The anxiety driven choice about authority figures seemed to be between potent hostile figures and impotent benevolence – in this culture there was rarely a middle way. In this respect, as in many others, the probation service seemed to reflect the emotional world of its clientele, many of whose experience of fathering involved exactly this apparent dichotomy.


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