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Thinking Out Loud

Leadership Notebook 3: Fables, and Other Truths and Untruths

by Michael Jinkins | Oct 10, 2014
Editor’s note: Periodically throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, “Thinking Out Loud” readers will receive blog posts that address the idea of leadership. Best practices, challenges, rewards and lessons learned from different models of leadership are the focus of these special blog posts. We’d love to hear what you have written in your “leadership notebook.” E-mail us!

Because of its influence, especially in congregational leadership, the first theoretical model we’ll look at is family systems theory.

Friedmans FablesA domino saves all the other dominoes in the long row from falling just by remaining standing. An “uncouth” animal observes that if you want a ferocious beast in your forest and you don’t want the small animals terrorized or eaten, you’re going to have to build a cage. A man who, in his desire to motivate his wife to play tennis with him, ends up running back and forth on the tennis court playing both sides of the net. A very sensitive, sadly afflicted fellow who has learned to use his sensitivities to run over others, until his wife has finally had enough. Fables.

Whenever I think about Edwin H. Friedman, who died in 1996, I do not think first of his extremely influential book, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: Guilford Press, 1985). Nor do I think first of his posthumously published A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 1999/2007), his popular DVD and study guide Reinventing Leadership (New York: Guilford Press, 2007) or even the intensive workshops he led around the country. I think first of Friedman’s Fables (New York: Guilford Press, 1990) where his remarkable gift as a storyteller and his insights into human nature come together.

Edwin Friedman and the family systems theory, which Friedman developed and applied to the leadership of religious organizations, was arguably, at least for a season, the most influential force guiding pastors of a certain ilk (my own ilk, mainline Protestant, especially those of us who had some training in pastoral counseling) as we sought to be better congregational leaders. We flocked to work with him. We read his books. We did our genograms. We joined groups of other Friedman fans assiduously examining our own families of origin and analyzing the organizations we led. Those of us who taught in seminaries put his books high on our list of required texts and framed many class exercises to help students learn the best of what Friedman taught.

The first thing that must be said about all of this is that it was, in the main, extremely beneficial.

Any pastor or other leader of a congregation will benefit from learning how to achieve genuine “self-differentiation” while also remaining “in touch” with her or his congregation. It is a fundamental of good leadership to be a “non-anxious presence” in the midst of the organization you lead (there’s no “faking” non-anxiety). And it is valuable for everyone to be able to identify emotional triangles and to learn how to de-triangulate oneself from them. I remain convinced that if a pastor or other leader can do these three things consistently, s/he is giving the church an inestimable gift of emotional and spiritual health that can form a foundation for real community.

Friedman’s occasional comments and asides were almost as valuable as his big theoretical insights. For example, he often noted that in highly anxious systems it tends to be the least mature group members who exert the most influence, thus preventing the group from actually achieving its goals. He often said that, in spite of the best intentions of highly rational people, insight does not change unmotivated people. And he observed that adventure and lightheartedness are far more valuable in actually moving a group forward than safety-seeking and over-seriousness. For Friedman, vision was an emotional phenomenon. Persistence and stamina, especially in the face of mutinies, was the gold standard of good leadership. Self-regulation of one’s emotional responses was the only way to deal effectively with sabotage, because reactivity only stokes the fires of the emotionally immature, while self-differentiation and reflection hold the best chance of inspiring more mature group members (and potentially mature group members) to participate positively and to counteract sabotage.

Friedman’s key insights derived from his own experience as a rabbi and as a therapist who had grown disenchanted with the highly individualistic approaches long popular in psychotherapy. Along with others like Murray Bowen, Michael Kerr and (though he is not strictly speaking in the same family of family systems therapists) Salvador Minuchin, Friedman sought to understand how our systems function emotionally often drawing or even forcing people into roles for which they are then blamed.

This was largely for the good. However, there was a tendency among some who applied family systems theory to accentuate its authoritarian side. While self-differentiation actually allows for greater freedom in a healthy system, some in leadership used it as an excuse to say “My way or the highway” to those who didn’t agree with them. For them, it was often much too easy to paint as immature or even saboteurs anyone who disagreed.

There was also a rather strange need on Friedman’s part to generalize his insights into universal truths - strange at least to my post-modern ears, and unnecessary. Anyone who ever participated with Friedman in his intense workshops also observed the mischievous twinkle in his eye when he provoked someone with a particularly insensitive remark. It was hard to tell if he really meant what he said in one of his more outrageous utterances or if he was simply (like many good teachers) saying it to provoke thinking on the part of his students. In contrast to the genuinely and deeply beneficial insights offered by Friedman’s brand of family systems theory, these are all relatively minor concerns. I would be the first to say that if you really want to see for yourself just how valuable family systems theory can be for you as a leader or just to be a healthier and saner human being, you would be well served by reading Generation to Generation.

However, when it comes to communicating to others the most important of his insights, you can’t do better than Friedman’s Fables. Whether working with families in workshops or intensive retreats or with groups of pastors or students more interested in understanding leadership, again and again I have seen the light of self-recognition appear in someone’s eyes as they heard the fable of “The Bridge” and realized in their soul, “I need to free my hands from this rope,” or who suddenly realized that they are the fish in the fable “Burnout,” who swims incessantly at the bottom of the pool eating up everyone else’s excrement until it is too much to bear.

Recently someone asked me if family systems theory was the answer to getting their organization to move out of its rut and to move ahead. It is possible, but that’s not really the primary interest of this approach to leadership. The basic thesis of family systems theory is that unhealthy behavior (a lack of self-differentiation, being driven by anxiety, participating in triangulation, and so forth) on the part of an organization’s leadership dooms an organization to the same. The healthier the leadership, the greater chance the organization has of getting healthy and remaining healthy.

Family systems theory isn’t a manipulative tool to motivate other people to do what you want. It offers an opportunity to embrace sanity, at least for leaders of organizations. I would argue that this is no small thing.

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