. . . there is surely no need
to get so wrought up about trifles like this.
Yourself you have never been at all;
Then what does it matter, your dying right out?
Henrik Ibsen’s dramatic poem, Peer Gynt , focuses largely on the concept of self and identity. The main character, Peer Gynt, spends his whole life seeking to prove his self or identity to others, and only when he is a very old man does he realize with shock that he is like an onion picked off the moor: layer after layer of pretense and affectation with nothing at his heart.
The final act of the play brings to light a premise: the idea that one’s identity is defined by one’s commitments. In his life, Peer Gynt has taken on many roles: he has been a button-molder, an exile, a prophet, a slave trader, and much more. However, he has never committed himself to any of these roles, and so, by the end of his life, his identity is still undefined.
The task of leadership is the creation of identity. A leader must attempt to inspire commitment to his or her own vision, which becomes, as a result, the vision not only of the leader but of everyone involved. Through these commitments, the identity of the leader and the followers is defined. Consequently, if a leader has no commitment to a particular goal or way of being, then he or she has no defined identity at all.
If a leader has no identity, it is impossible to succeed in the creative task of leadership. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “to be at all you must be something in particular,” and a leader without commitment to a goal and to a set of beliefs is nothing in particular.
Ibsen’s character, Peer Gynt, has lived his whole adult life by a philosophy that he learned from the king of the trolls. The Troll King tells him that what separates man from the beasts is man’s philosophy, “to thine own Self be true.” The trolls’ counter-philosophy is “to thy Self be enough,” and by living with this philosophy as his guide, Peer Gynt becomes more troll than man.
The trolls are not worried about what occurs deep inside Peer Gynt’s heart. They tell him,
. . . faith is free, it carries no duty.
The signs by which you can tell a Troll
Are his outward appearance—the cut of his coat.
Once we’re agreed about customs and clothes,
You’re free to believe things that we find revolting.
In short, Peer Gynt’s personal dreams, commitments, beliefs—or lack of them—are of no interest to the trolls whatsoever. The trolls are merely concerned with Peer Gynt’s mode of dress and his lack of a tail, and while Peer Gynt at first finds this attitude delightfully liberating, it returns to haunt him as he finally begins to wish for some deeper definition to his identity. The trolls teach him that he needs no commitment at all to be a success, but he does need the right clothes.
This advice becomes very damaging for Peer Gynt. Feeling free to do as he pleases and have responsibility for no man other than himself, he neglects his sick, poverty-stricken mother and abandons his wife who loves him for years on end. Furthermore, living his life free of commitment or responsibility catches up with Peer Gynt when he meets the Button-Molder, who tells him that his soul has been “rubbed out” with no definition at all.
The Button-Molder has come to take Peer Gynt’s soul and melt it down in his ladle like a piece of scrap metal, to be remoulded in time. Terrified of this fate, he searches desperately for someone to confirm his identity, but no one can do this. Peer Gynt has no identity: he is neither a troll nor a man.
Just as the Troll King’s advice is damaging to Peer Gynt’s character, it is equally damaging to a leader. A non-committed leader, or a leader who is only concerned with outward appearances, damages the people in an organization, causing their work to seem undefined and meaningless. In addition, if a leader sets the precedent of being uncommitted and responsibility-free, with everybody free to believe what he or she wishes as long as appearances (or results) are maintained, there is no centring goal or vision for people to identify with, and the human spirit is unfulfilled. The leader’s lack of identity passes an emptiness into the workplace.
Having a sense of self is not the same thing as having a clear identity. Peer Gynt argues quite vehemently that he has a self and, moreover, that he knows quite well what his self is. However, he is deluded about his true self because his true self is as yet undefined by commitments.
Thus the play raises an uncomfortable suggestion: that it is possible for us to fail to become who we are. When the Button-Molder suggests to Peer Gynt that he has never been himself, Peer Gynt is devastated. The suggestion of failure is terrifying in itself, but the possibility of failing to become is all the more upsetting.
If a leader fails to become who he or she is, and consequently fails in the creative task of leadership, an organization has no chance of committing to a goal or of gaining an identity. Therefore, not only is an uncommitted leader damaging to an organization, but a leader with a deluded sense of self is equally damaging.
If it is possible to be deluded about our selves and, as a result, fail to become who we are, we must attempt to come to a correct understanding of self. Ibsen’s play suggests that the way for one to become acquainted with one’s true self is to examine closely those things that hold our loyalty. In short, we will know who we are by our very specific priorities. Ibsen’s play offers a number of different notions of self with different priorities and commitments.
Peer Gynt sums up his own idea of self when he pompously describes to a colleague the essence of the “Gyntish Self”:
it is a sea
Of fancies, cravings, and demands;
In short—what stirs inside my breast
And makes me live my life as Me.
However, an identity cannot be based on what one wants for one’s life; it can only be based on what one does. Having never really done anything except crave new things, Peer Gynt has no real understanding of identity or self.
Another notion of self revealed in the play comes through a great boyg on the moor. A boyg is a mythical creature from Norwegian folk-tales, and it is a kind of troll-like monster. A boyg lives on the moors, and his main prerogative is to make travellers change course. He is a malevolent and unpleasant creature. When Peer Gynt meets the boyg, he calls out “who are you?” The boyg answers, “My Self. Can you say as much?”
The boyg clearly has a more defined self because he, more so than Peer Gynt, knows his purpose. He is committed to forcing travellers off course, and his main priority is to confuse Peer Gynt.
However, the boyg is clearly not the self we want to become—malevolent, sinister; he does not change the course of travellers for their own benefit or safety but for his pleasure in confusion. Leaders may need to change the direction of an organization and its people but for a deeper benefit and not for selfish ends.
The trolls, likewise, have a clearer understanding of self and identity than Peer Gynt because they know what makes them trolls and not men. They have loyalties and commitments: to clothing and customs. However, they are not a good example of self either because they prize external appearance whereas a leader needs to prize the heart and mind.
Thus Ibsen’s play provides us with characters who vary in their understandings of self and in their commitments. However, none of them stands out as the ideal self. Ibsen has refused to provide a character with an ideal self and identity for the very reason that he wants us to examine ourselves very closely and determine on our own who we are as leaders and who we are becoming.
You may also want to listen to