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

Differentiated syncopation

Written by: on November 8, 2018

Let’s begin with some background music to set the stage for this blog post. Start the music, and continue reading…

You’re now listening to a familiar tune called ‘Take Five’.[1] Catchy, isn’t it? If you’re not a musician, you might have a hard time putting your finger on what makes this song so alluring. Music historian Tony Sarabia states,

“In 1961, Dave Brubeck told Ralph Gleason on the TV program Jazz Casual that jazz had lost some of its adventurous qualities. He said it wasn’t challenging the public rhythmically the way it had in its early days. “It’s time that the jazz musicians take up their original role of leading the public into a more adventurous rhythm,” he said. Brubeck said it’s a good idea to shake things up a bit, and that’s exactly what he did with the song “Take Five.””[2]

Dave Brubeck was a brilliant artist that wanted to lead down brave new pathways, so he crafted this song in 5/4 time. Most jazz music up to then had been written in 4/4. His fresh verve introduced a new take on jazz to the mainstream. Brubeck’s bold refusal to obey the conventions of the era have today become an iconic jazz tune for one’s classic library.

Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve likewise messes up conventional wisdom on leading well. It comes just at the right time in my personal and organizational life and bleeds over in a compelling way into my thesis research. Over the past several weeks in preliminary research I’ve been encountering Bowen therapy, Kets de Vries, Steinke, and other authors that champion the value of family systems thinking. (So, thank you, Jason, for including this resource.) I’m adding it to my working bibliography to enrich my research on the transfer of leadership for family philanthropy. Let me explain why.

Friedman and the others discuss the key concept of self-differentiation as being critical in a healthy movement forward for families and organizations. The failure of nerve happens when we cave under the pressures toward sameness and homogeneity. Unfortunately, in our current cultural environment of emotional regression we fear tall poppies that grow higher than the rest. The answer, says Friedman, is not to conform to the expectations of others or blame problems on everyone else, but to know ourselves, to have a dream, and to pursue that dream boldly. He exhorts, “You have to get up before your people and give an ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.”[3] In leading from a well-differentiated centre, we focus on strength and vision, rather than the multiple pathologies of the systems where we lead from.

Characteristics of these sick and gridlocked systems include:

  • “An unending treadmill of trying harder;
  • Looking for answers rather than reframing questions; and
  • Either/or thinking that creates false dichotomies.”[4]

As a well-differentiated leader begins this journey, life will not all come up roses. In fact, we will usually encounter sabotage, subterfuge, and name-calling. Using an example where a wife is becoming self-differentiated, Friedman shrewdly states, “Whenever your husband calls you a bitch you are probably going in the right direction. See if you can get him to say that more often (my italics).”[5] The goal in those moments is not to get sucked into emotional power games, but remain centred with a non-anxious presence knowing yourself and your calling forward.

Family philanthropy revolves around family systems, and money is the gunpowder in the mix. It’s a volatile cocktail. How can wealthy families work together for maximum impact without blowing themselves apart? Using approaches from Friedman, one might suggest that in order to not separate, we must learn to be separate. Valuing the contributions of each member, honouring their individuality, learning to listen, giving space when needed, and not insisting on sameness are all ways forward.

For organizations the message is similar. “Anyone who has ever been part of an imaginatively gridlocked relationship system knows that more learning will not, on its own, automatically change the way people see or think…. In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from the emotional processes that surround them before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently.”[6]

Dr. Murray Bowen suggests as we lean into a differentiated approach, we won’t reach perfection, and at times we will fail. “It is a lifetime project with no one ever getting more than 70 percent there.”[7] But surely, we need to start the process now. And with creative risks and an adventurous spirit, like Brubeck, we may be able march to the beat of a different drummer and make some beautiful music together.


[1] Inspired by a reference to the song in Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 199.

[2] Tony Sarabia, “The Story of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’”, The NPR 100, November 19, 2000, accessed November 8, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2000/11/19/1114201/take-five.

[3] Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 23.

[4] Friedman, 38.

[5] Friedman, 197.

[6] Friedman, 35.

[7] Friedman, 195.

About the Author

Mark Petersen

Mark Petersen is the CEO of Stronger Philanthropy, a Canadian firm specializing in maximizing family philanthropy. He leads a diverse group of visionary individuals, foundations and organizations to collaborate in leveraging wealth for charitable impact.

12 responses to “Differentiated syncopation”

  1. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mark,

    I enjoyed the music!

    Thanks for your highlighted list: “An unending treadmill of trying harder;
    Looking for answers rather than reframing questions; and Either/or thinking that creates false dichotomies.”

    I wanted to focus on the third one–either/or thinking. Black and white is not what this world is about, lots of gray. Would you agree?

    Hard to do with money though, it seems to make people want to go right to either/or thinking (black and white). “Not insisting on sameness” was the connector point for me. Thanks for sharing that!

    • Jay,

      Either/or thinking could be manifest in family philanthropy when the founder insists on a specific use for the money while not bringing in her/his descendants (who must continue to administrate that giving) into the strategic planning and implementation of the vision. I’ve heard many examples from descendants who have been left with a disempowering philanthropy – what was originally designed to empower, bless and encourage has become a drag, a burden, and an obstacle to realize one’s passions.

  2. Mark, this is great. I see how useful Friedman could be to your project! Will you suggest the book for your cohort to read?

    How do you, too , have to be well differentiated as you advise and lead these philanthropists?

    • Jenn,

      The book is definitely on my shortlist for my clients!

      I have to consciously choose to extricate myself from the triangles that often pop up. For example, with our collaborative grants program, I offer my due diligence and if it’s a negative recommendation, I know that if they choose to go ahead with funding, that that is their choice. I try to stay emotionally detached from the money and its power.

  3. M Webb says:

    Nice use of music to set the stage for your post on Freidman’s leadership book. The title, using the words “failure” and “never” do a good job of creating the context and assessment of the author against today’s leaders.
    As I grew up in leadership, especially in the high-risk low frequency aspects of public safety and military operations, I saw the raw data streams of violence, destruction, natural disasters, and more that required quick leadership action to protect and preserve life and minimize property damage. Life over property was always the rule, but even with that recognized rule in place we would have officials and politicians press the risk of life to save property. So, the leader must be what Friedman calls differentiated, so he or she can know the level of training and experience of the people involved and make calculated, gut calls, on who you risk or do not risk. These experiences give the leader a long lens and view of life. Great post!
    Stand firm,
    M. Webb

    • Mike,

      Yes, I can see how your role must be clearly differentiated. In the heat of battle or fog of war, one must know themselves and make solid recommendations founded in values-based judgments that preserve life over property.

  4. Dan Kreiss says:


    Your posts are always so imaginative and challenging. I am still listening to the song as I begin to write a response. I feel cool!!

    I think your area of expertise presents a particular challenge for the differentiated leader. Money and/or use of resources has a tendency to raise the stress levels of all involved. What have you found to be the best ways to help families navigate through issues often fraught with feelings of insecurity, greed, desire for control, etc.?

    • Dan,

      I am still trying to figure that one out!! Thus the need for this program. My artifact will include a toolbox of resources designed for members of families to navigate themselves into self-differentiated places of empowerment. Off the top of my head, two things come to mind: family meetings where clear communication and planning occurs, and a written strategic plan where vision, mission, goals and objectives, tasks and persons responsible are articulated.

  5. Great post, Mark!

    You sold me with the great jazz.

    You state, “The failure of nerve happens when we cave under the pressures toward sameness and homogeneity. Unfortunately, in our current cultural environment of emotional regression we fear tall poppies that grow higher than the rest.” This statement is perfect.

    I recently spoke in Charlotte, NC and opened up my talk by asking the audience, “What would you do if you could not fail?” Many within the room felt like I was handing them a million-dollar check without strings attached; however, they soon realized that reception without risk wasn’t worth their time. The same is true of leadership. Friedman delves into differentiated leadership and challenges his readers to understand the reasoning behind our reactions and to lead bravely in the face of sabotage. Do you find that the church struggles with this the most because we’re taught from a young age that self-deprecation is the same as humility? Are we creating cultures of herds within our communities because we’re afraid to produce differentiated leaders?

    Excellent read!

  6. Greg says:

    Mark…Mark…. Mark….I had a hard time reading your blog because I LOVE GOOD JAZZ….wait a minute while I finish the song……oooo…..yea……ok I am back :-).

    Appreciated and frustrated by the quote, “It is a lifetime project with no one ever getting more than 70 percent there.”  How Biblical is this to see the journey toward holiness (Christ-likeness) to not be discouraged by the journey or the lack on “arrival” but rather the journey of striving.  I also appreciated the call to uniqueness and creativity the is inherently part of all your writings.  

  7. Trisha Welstad says:

    Mark, I dig the music. Thanks for setting the stage with a creative metaphor. I was so looking forward to reading your post because of your studies on Family Systems Theory. After writing my own post I have been diving further into it myself and landed on Bowen’s Theory webpage and the 8 concepts. Have you read about those as well? The whole thing is so interesting to me and I am having a hard time not immediately diving into both personal and work at the same times, there are so many points of crossover. I am looking forward to hearing how family systems and differentiation work themselves out in practical ways in your work (and life). 🙂

  8. Kyle Chalko says:

    love the jazz. the unorthodox rhythm was distracting as well as energizing. So how does your wife feel about the idea that being called a ‘bitch’ is a good thing? 😀 Mine probably wouldnt agree.

    good post mark. Every post on this book is challenging. I think my anxiety is being revealed a little more by each blog post I read.

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