The Risk Taker As Shadow: A Psychoanlytic View Of The Collapse Of Barings Bank*

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Abstract

This paper examines the collapse of Barings Bank in 1995 as a consequence of the activities of Nick Leeson, a 27-year-old trader. It seeks an explanation for this event using psychoanalytic concepts and their application to organizational dynamics. It is argued here that the anxiety associated with ‘Big Bang’– the deregulation of the UK financial sector – drove Barings’ senior executives to engage in primitive basic assumption thinking which involved the seeking out of a ‘saviour’ who could be depended on to ‘rescue’ the bank. Further, their concerns about their own conservatism led these senior executives to create as ‘saviour’ an opposite or ‘shadow’ to themselves. They therefore set up the highly risky ‘Baring Securities’ operation, unwittingly creating a damaging cultural split between it and the conservative heart of the bank. Then – in choosing Nick Leeson to embody the ‘shadow’ role within Baring Securities – they selected an extreme risk taker least able to ‘save’ the bank. In the event, Leeson’s fraud ruined the bank. It is further argued that Leeson was burdened with unconscious guilt, thus leaving clues about his activities with the hope that someone would halt him. However, basic assumption thinking within Barings prevented this from happening.

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