As I stated in my topical expertise essay last year, “If Murray Bowen was the Father of Family Systems Theory, then Edwin H. Friedman was its Great Rabbi. Friedman, an ordained rabbi and family therapist, applied the family systems theory to the church and synagogue as an emotional unit.”
In his uncompleted work, “A Failure of Nerve,” Friedman forms much of the language that continues to shape organizational psychology today, such as self-differentiation, emotional triangles, leadership presence, and being a non-anxious presence. His main idea is on the self-differentiated leader, knowing where I, the leader, ends and the organization begins. A self-differentiated leader understands the power of presence and clearly defines herself with strong emotional intelligence (not a Freidman term), not contributing to the anxiety of the organization but living into clearly understood personal goals. Furthermore, as organizations can be heavily dysfunctional systems, the leader’s role is not contributing to the emotional impulsivity of conflict by not stepping into emotional triangles, differentiating between conflict and personal connections, and seeking to be a peace-monger.
As I reflected on Friedman’s work, I relived several critical moments over my vocational journey in which I succeeded and failed at being a self-differentiated leader.
At University Baptist Church (UBC), I have dealt with few emotionally challenging individuals. I am used to personal attacks in over 20 years of vocational ministry. I get that some people direct their frustration, anger, lack of control, and fears onto organizational leaders. I thought I prepared for this one particular church member, but I was wrong.
Within my first six months at UBC, we had reimaged the culture of our Sunday morning, restructured our ministry personnel model to build for the future, and began a discernment process to utilize our bountiful campus for space partnerships with a missional purpose and to generate revenue to support the ministry budget of the church. One of these initiatives, let alone all of these, would have been enough for anxious and slow-to-adapt persons to become frustrated. One church member, in particular, was surprisingly hostile towards me. However, we had not had any uncomfortable or unfriendly interactions. On the contrary, I thought I had shown generous support for the ministry area she helps lead.
But I quickly found that things were not as they appeared as I sat in her home with her and her husband berating and labeling me as an autocratic leader. This was a first for me. I have been called many things, but an authoritarian and repressive dictator was new territory. Furthermore, they were angry about the changes being made, stating that the congregation did not have a say in what was being done and believed that all of this should come to a vote in a business meeting.
The reality was that the congregation had given shape to all of these initiatives, with both our governing body and the congregation voting on all of the initiatives. This came down to that they were the minority voice and didn’t like the fact that no one else agreed with them. I hoped that this interaction would resolve their anxiety, and we would move forward positively. Unfortunately, this incident would lead to a more public personal attack, of which I was caught off guard, displaying less controlled emotions and regrettable responses.
My failure to self-differentiate has led to continued friction with this individual. However, knowing her level of toxicity has allowed me to create healthy boundaries and adapt to how I approach my relationship with her.
As Friedman so powerfully put it, “Leadership through self-differentiation is not easy; learning techniques and imbibing data are far easier. Nor is striving or achieving success as a leader without pain: there is the pain of isolation, the pain of loneliness, the pain of personal attacks, the pain of losing friends. That’s what leadership is all about.”
 Friedman, Edwin H., Margaret M. Treadwell, and Edward W. Beal. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 233.