Differentiated Leaders During Transition
Joy, anxiety, peace and many other feelings, are often passed on from person to person. Dr. Murray Bowen refers to this as “Triangles” and he claims it is the basic building block for any emotional system. In a “triangle” system the health of a family unit, or organizational system, depends upon the “triangles” capacity for anxiety, or a leader that is able to differentiate from the “triangle” and lead the group another direction. According to the Bowen Theory, any emotional system without differentiation is bound to become toxic and harmful when dealing with anxiety.
In my study of pastoral transitions, particularly the impact on church health when a long-term founding pastor exits and ways an elder-led church can walk through the process, I’ve been drawn to family therapy and the Bowen theory. The Bowen Theory deals with Family systems, triangles, anxiety, and the need for differentiating leaders. It shouldn’t be surprising to us that when one member of our family is stressed and anxious, their feelings can easily transfer to other members of the family. While this is common it doesn’t mean it is healthy. This is why I was pleasantly surprised when reading Edwin H. Friedman’s book, A Failure of Nerve, and see Friedman highlight the Bowen Theory and the importance of differentiation.
As I personally prepare for the exit of my church’s founding pastor I am well aware of the anxiety this creates for others. While studying church health through transition, I know it’s important for the incoming leader to be a differentiating leader. Friedman defines a self-differentiated leader as one who has a “…capacity to be a non-anxious presence, a challenging presence, a well-defined presence, and a paradoxical presence. Differentiation is not about being coercive, manipulative, reactive, pursuing or invasive, but being rooted in the leader’s own sense of self rather than focused on that of his or her followers.” Friedman goes on to explain how differentiation is an emotional concept, not a cerebral one and how it has less to do with a person’s behavior than with his or her emotional being.
Friedman’s work combined with my study of the Bowen Theory has led me to ask a handful of different questions. What emotional “triangles” exist in the church? Can an elder-led team be the differentiating presence in the church or does it just rest on an individual, most likely the Senior Pastor? Is it possible to function in a family unit or an organizational system, that is differentiating or are differentiating leaders just that, individual leaders?
I tend to believe that differentiation is only an individual concept but I will undoubtedly be spending a lot of time studying this concept and how it relates to the health of churches in transition.
 Roberta M. Gilbert, The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory (Falls Church: Leading Systems Press, 2006), 47.
 Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: SEABURY BOOKS, 2007), 183.
 Ibid., 183-186.
7 responses to “Differentiated Leaders During Transition”
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Nick, it also seems that Senge’s idea of the “fifth discipline” of systems thinking weighs in here. Distress or joy in one individual’s circumstance will undoubtedly impact the distress or joy of another to the degree that they are all inter-connected. So, In light of that, I wonder how much inter-connectedness we should strive for after all? Or is there a way to maintain a healthy sense of inter-connectedness while being aware of the toxicity present as a result of others in the organization? Can inter-connectedness and differentiation exist in the same leader?
Thanks Jon. I still haven’t read Senge’s book but it sounds like one I need to add to my list. I’ve been wrestling with the idea of differentiation and the ability to still emotionally connect with people and their struggles. I think inter-connectedness is really valuable but an emotionally healthy person has the ability to connect while also not being overburdened. I think it’s possible but it’s a tricky balance.
Nick, Upon first receiving my bundle of books for this semester, I happened to crack open “The Failure of Nerve” and found this definition/quote. “…capacity to be a non-anxious presence, a challenging presence, a well-defined presence, and a paradoxical presence. Differentiation is not about being coercive, manipulative, reactive, pursuing or invasive, but being rooted in the leader’s own sense of self rather than focused on that of his or her followers.” I really liked the kind of leader it projects and maybe even especially the kind of leader it condemns. It is great to hear more about your topic and how our course reading is fitting in. Looking forward to next week when we can talk much more!
I’m interested to see where your research takes this. When I read your post, I thought about how family systems work. To be healthy, there must be a good balance between inter-connectedness and independence. Often, health or unhealthy ways of functioning impact an individual’s ability to find this balance. It is always interesting to watch leadership at play within families, and to see how some family leaders seem to have calming influence while others breed drama. The healthy environment often dictates the ability for children to grow and develop into future family leadership roles.
Hey Nick. I too believe that it is important for an individual to be that leadership force although they can lead different groups who have individual leaders. I don’t see how a group of leaders can effective lead because the dynamics of leading to me must reside in a person who has that vision. I was studying on the concept of group leadership. But someone has to call the shots and be ultimately responsible. And you cant teach a person your vision and have them lead with it. They have to have it or they dont! Blessings see you in Hong Kong!
Nick, It just seems that the reality of the church creates a tension that his especially hard to navigate. That tension is “we are a family”. In reference to leadership there is a pressure to treat the church more as an organization, in reference to the shepherding the pressure is to treat it more as a family. Frankly if it’s a family that includes the leadership function. So I think looking at leadership health and the potential emotional dysfunction, considering family theory is hitting the nail on the head.
You bring up one of the points I skipped over, but really has had a tremendous impact on some of my anthropological understanding. The fact that we quickly move to triangles is so damaging. Your awareness of that tendency will help you not only in your dissertation but in your own transition. What a way to stay attentive to what God is calling you into, Nick.