Every now and then one of my leadership coaching clients will want to explore a little more about my own ‘philosophy’ and how it influences my work with them. I don’t have a ‘philosophy’ that I can confidently side with, largely because I have never put sufficient time aside to study the many on offer to feel I can ‘hang my hat’ on a particular approach. However, if there’s one that seems to underlie many of the books and articles that I enjoy reading, the ‘boundaries’ that I try to apply, and the tools and techniques that I draw on, it would be Existentialism.
To start the ball rolling, I thought I would try pulling together a few notes that explain what I understand by this (ie my own slant on it) and the relationship it has to my work.
Existentialism is the philosophical movement that proposed that individual human beings create the meaning and essence of their lives themselves without the need for a ‘transcendent force’ (ie God). [This doesn’t mean that existentialism denies any God – read on before you jump to that conclusion!]
Although it had forerunners in earlier centuries, it emerged as a ‘movement’ in the 20th Century.
According to existentialism, the absence of this force means that the individual is entirely free, and therefore ultimately responsible for their own destiny. It is up to humans to create their own model of their personal responsibility for themselves, without calling on any belief system put forward by others. This personal articulation of their beliefs is the only way to rise above the suffering and death of society, and the finality of the individual.
Existentialism, then, requires a personal journey through which the individual creates their personal belief system based on their own answers to questions as to why death and suffering happen in our society and what the purpose of life is – given that we all ultimately die.
Existentialism was a reaction against traditional philosophies, such as rationalism and empiricism, which tried to impose an ultimate order to the world, either through metaphysical principles or observed structure.
As a philosophical movement, existentialism’s origins lie in the works of nineteenth-century philosophers, Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche, although neither used the term and they pre-dated the movement by about a hundred years. It became quite influential in Continental philosophy, and literary authors such as Dostoevsky contributed to it.
In the 1940s and 1950s, French existentialists especially, such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, and Simone de Beauvoir, popularized existential themes such as dread, boredom, alienation, the “absurd”, freedom, commitment, and nothingness.
Walter Kaufmann described existentialism as, “The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of any body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life“.
Today, existential themes are frequently at the core of what are seen as ‘influential’ literary works and films. It is also at the heart of many of the current approaches to psychotherapy.
Key Themes: Rejecting Rationalism
Descartes had argued that while humans can doubt almost all aspects of reality as illusions, they can be certain of their own consciousness, which is therefore the only truth.
Existentialism rejects this, saying that because they are conscious, humans will always find themselves already in a world, with a prior context and a history that is presented to their consciousness from the moment they are born, and that they can’t simply think away that world.
In other words, the ultimate and unquestionable reality is not thinking consciousness but, as Heidegger put it, “being in the world”.
Key Themes: Existence comes before essence
Existentialism argues that the existence of an individual comes before any meaning that they may have. In other words, humans define their own reality and are not bound to any previous definitions of what “being human” means. Nor are they tied to the circumstances in which they find themselves as they become conscious of the world around them. Regardless of their circumstances there is always the potential to be different.
The Ancient Greeks had always held that the whole purpose of philosophy was to answer the question “What is a human being?” or “What is the essence of being human?” and to use this to determine how human beings should behave.
In his book, “Repetition”, Kierkegaard’s character ‘Young Man’ says to himself:
“How did I get into the world? Why was I not asked about it and why was I not informed of the rules and regulations but just thrust into the ranks as if I had been bought by a peddling shanghaier of human beings? How did I get involved in this big enterprise called actuality? Why should I be involved? Isn’t it a matter of choice? And if I am compelled to be involved, where is the manager — I have something to say about this. Is there no manager? To whom shall I make my complaint?”
A great deal of the angst that many individuals experience in their lives comes from exactly this kind of dialogue – a sense of injustice in their confusion because no-one explained the ‘rules’ of life to them.
Heidegger and Sartre used the term “thrownness” to describe the idea that human beings are “thrown” into existence without having chosen it. Existentialists consider being thrown into existence as coming before any other thoughts or ideas that humans have or definitions of themselves that they create.
Sartre, who coined the phrase “Existence comes before essence”, in “Essays in Existentialism” adds: “If man, as the existentialist conceives him, is indefinable, it is because at first he is nothing. Only afterward will he be something, and he himself will have made what he will be”.
Key Themes: Reason is a defense against anxiety
Existentialists emphasize action, freedom, and decision as being fundamental. They look at where people find meaning and argue that we actually make decisions based on what has meaning to us rather than what is rational. They are therefore opposed to rationalism.
Kierkegaard saw rationality as a mechanism that humans use to counter their fear of being in the world (their ‘existential anxiety’). “If I can believe that I am rational and everyone else is rational then I have nothing to fear and no reason to feel anxious about being free”.
This focus on the feelings of anxiety and dread that we feel in the face of our own freedom and our awareness of death is characteristic of existentialism. Almost anything that is used by humans to deny these anxieties is seen as a hindrance to finding meaning in our freedom.
Kierkegaard too focused on this deep anxiety at the core of human existence — the feeling that there is no purpose. Finding a way to counter this nothingness, by embracing existence, is the fundamental theme of existentialism, and where the philosophy takes its name from. Someone who believes in reality is a “realist”, and someone who believes in a deity is a “theist”. Someone who believes fundamentally only in existence, and seeks to find meaning in his or her life solely by embracing existence, is an “existentialist”.
Key Themes: The ‘absurd’
Existentialism views human beings as subjects in an indifferent, objective, often ambiguous, universe, in which meaning is not provided by the natural order but is created by human beings’ actions and interpretations.
Many literary contributions of the era (such as Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” and Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus”) painted a picture of this “absurd” world as a way of highlighting how artificial the ‘structure’ and ‘order’ are that we impose on our surroundings.
Camus, especially, explains that this “absurdity” comes from the confrontation between human need and want for logic and order and the reality of the illogical and random world.
Again, a lot of the doubts and concerns that psychotherapists are presented with in their day-to-day work with otherwise successful clients, can be seen as a reflection of these individuals’ struggle to come to terms with the irrationality of their own world. Certainly this seems to be true of many of my own coaching clients at certain stages in our work together.
Key Themes: Freedom
Despite the emphasis on doom and gloom typifying the existential philosophy, the idea that people can create and change their fundamental values and beliefs is a liberating approach. Both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche wrote that human nature and human identity vary depending on what values and beliefs humans hold.
While objective truths are useful, detached or observational modes of thought can never truly comprehend human experience. The uniqueness of the human existence means that individuals who become “great” are those who invent their own values and create the very terms under which they excel.
Today, there is a huge industry based on helping people to see that it is only their own “beliefs” and “values” that are preventing them from achieving personal success. Whether it reaches them in the guise of coaching or through self-help literature, the purpose of these interventions is to liberate people from their self-limiting thoughts and to redefine their potential.
Key Themes: God?
To many existentialists, the most fundamental question to address is our personal relationship to, or understanding of, God and God’s role in society. To be an existentialist does NOT mean that you have to deny that there is a ‘higher force’. Some, exemplified by Nietzsche, feel there was a need for a “God” but that this concept is now obsolete.
Theistic existentialists, such as Paul Tillich, Gabriel Marcel, and Martin Buber, hold that belief in God is a personal choice made on the basis of a passion, of Faith, observation, or personal experience. Just as atheistic existentialists can freely choose not to believe, theistic existentialists can freely choose to believe in God and, despite one’s doubt (informed by the extent of suffering and tragic death in the world), have faith that God exists and that God is good.
Other existentialists are agnostics, not claiming to know whether or not there is a “bigger picture” at play; but simply acknowledging that the greatest truth is that which they individually choose to act upon because that is the reality they create.
Most agnostic existentialists would say that to know the “greater picture”, whether or not there is one, is impossible for human minds, and therefore searching for it has little value.
Existential themes appear throughout history. Examples include Buddha’s teachings, the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Book of Job, St Augustine’s Confessions, St Thomas Aquinas’ writings, and those of Mulla Sadra. Individualist politics, such as those of John Locke, advocated individual autonomy and self-determination rather than the state ruling over the individual.
In 1670, Blaise Pascal’s unfinished notes, the Pensées (“Thoughts”), put forward many of the fundamental themes of existentialism. Pascal argued that without a God, life would be meaningless and miserable. People would only be able to create obstacles and overcome them in an attempt to escape boredom, and their token-victories would ultimately become meaningless, because people eventually die. According to Pascal, this was a good enough reason not to be an atheist.
Existential and other modern psychological movements
Many of the theories of Sigmund Freud were influenced by the existentialist Nietzsche, and one of the major offshoots of existentialism as a philosophy is existential psychology.
This area of psychology was introduced by Viktor Frankl (who had studied with both Freud and Jung when he was young), who was interred in a Nazi concentration camp from 1941 to 1945.
In the camp, he re-wrote his first book, whose manuscript had been confiscated at the time of his arrest, from memory. He called his theories “Logotherapy” and the book was subsequently published as “Man’s Search for Meaning”.
Speaking in the early 1990s, Frankl said that in the camp he would pretend to himself that he was actually in the future, remembering his experiences and noting how he was able to survive them. His years of suffering led him to the conclusion that even in the worst imaginable of circumstances, life can be given a worthwhile meaning. This forms the basis of Logotherapy which says that all human beings have a will to find meaning and that serious behavioural problems develop when they cannot find it.
The therapy helps patients handle the responsibility of choices and the pain of unavoidable suffering by helping them to decide to give life meaning.
An early contributor to Existential Psychology was Rollo May, who was influenced by Kierkegaard. One of the most prolific writers on the techniques and theory of existential psychology, and highly regarded for his self-reflection is Irvin Yalom. In the UK, a European style of existential psychotherapy has emerged from the writings of Emmy van Deurzen.
With complete freedom to decide, and through being responsible for the outcome of these decisions, comes anxiety — or angst — about the choices made. Anxiety’s importance in existentialism makes it a popular topic in psychotherapy. Therapists often use existential philosophy to explain the client’s anxiety. Psychotherapists using an existential approach believe that their client can use their anxiety constructively. Instead of suppressing it they are encouraged to use it as a reason for change. By accepting anxiety as inevitable, a person can use it to achieve their full potential in life.
More recently still, humanistic psychology also shares many of the fundamental tenets of existentialism, and the rapidly developing area of study, “Terror Management”, looks at what researchers claim to be the implicit emotional reactions of people that occur when they are confronted with the psychological terror of knowing they will eventually die.
So there we have it. Not a definitive portrait of my approach to leadership development, nor a comprehensive review of existentialism, but hopefully it will provide sufficient material for anyone who is interested in what helps to inform this particular coach!