Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Failure of Self-Differentiation

Written by: on October 6, 2021

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.”[1]

  [1] 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. 


About the Author


Andy Hale

CBF Podcast Creator and Host, Senior Pastor of University Baptist Church (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), & Professional Coach

10 responses to “A Failure of Self-Differentiation”

  1. Andy, I deeply respect what you’re doing and how you stay with pastoral ministry after all these years. Staying in that space has obviously required a great deal of self differentiation. I’m genuinely curious, what practices/rhythms/process/people have helped you develop your love of differentiation?

    • mm Andy Hale says:

      I’d say the most significant influencers are my mentors and wife.

      I’ve always tried to lead ASAP that the organization is healthier after I am done and can continue to function in my permanent absence. What helps in the Baptist tradition is that the congregation exists beyond my role, and my leadership should be directly connected to this ideal. So I can lead with a balance of courage and respect for what is not mine.

  2. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Nice essay, Andy. Personal attacks are inevitable when an individual assumes a mantle of leadership. It was helpful how you described to learn and set healthy boundaries and adapted to new approaches in dealing with difficult people. Leadership can be isolating and even lonely at times.

  3. mm Eric Basye says:


    Great summary of the book. Well said. Boy, I would imagine that just about anyone in leadership can identify with your story. Your quote the end is particularly powerful – “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.” I would say it has been these experience that have been very taxing to me. In fact, I still am a little gunshy when it comes to “pastoring” due to similar experiences as yourself. The point: leadership is costly, not only to the individual, but to their families as well.

  4. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Andy, as I read your post, it sounded very familiar. As I have sought to lead change, I’ve been called many things, including autocratic. I have to admit, there have been times of anxiety within me in those times. I hope I have learned and grown through those experiences. I hav come to believe that some things are only learned experientially, including self-differentiation. Keep leading well!

  5. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Andy, your summary is fantastic. As a side note, I think Friedman would say (emotional)maturity to your emotional intelligence 🙂
    As others have admitted, your personal story sounds all to familiar. Healthy leadership is not for the faint of heart.
    I would be interested to hear from you if after reflection on Friedman if you would have a more full sense of what this couple was anxious about other than not getting their way? Before reading Friedman I would have said it was about power, but now I would say something different. You admitted your “displaying less controlled emotions and regrettable responses.” If faced with this again what would you do differently?
    I celebrate that you did not have a failure of nerve to continue leading the congregation into a new vision. You clearly have the courage to cross invisible equators!

    • mm Andy Hale says:

      What would I do differently?

      First, I would try to do a better job of reading the temperament of the individual. This would have clued me to the fact that I should have never had a two-on-one meeting at their home.

      As a result, I will not meet with either of these individuals without someone else with me, and it has to be at the church office.

      Second, knowing how they function from the first meeting, I would try to adapt more quickly so that I would be prepared emotionally and mentally for their games in all future interactions. I knew this going into the second horrible encounter. And yet, I gave into my emotional impulses.

      • mm Nicole Richardson says:

        Andy I completely understand the impulse to react out of emotion. So many times I have done that….unfortunately. I’d love a process to work toward that self-control that Friedman talks about.

  6. Elmarie Parker says:

    Andy, thank you so very much for your engagement with Friedman and transparently sharing your own learning curve with differentiation. The leadership pain you have experienced, as others have said, is all too familiar. I’m grateful for the grace of heart-courage that has been cultivated in you. I’m wondering if “Failure of Nerve” has given you any new practices to add to your skill set? And if so, what is most resonating with you at this point in your leadership journey?

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