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

Friedman Struck a Nerve

Written by: on October 7, 2021

Several years ago, I had a counselor tell me that many evangelical organizations and churches function like an alcoholic family. It struck a nerve and has stayed with me since. I’ve shared it and processed the implications of it with several members of leadership at the Christian institution I work at, as I can see it play out in several avenues. What I have found in those discussions, is that the leaders that I perceive to have a more challenging time leading well and towards health grew up in alcoholic (or similar systemic abuse) families. Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve only emphasized and broadened my understanding of the statement my counselor made all those years ago. His focus on self-differentiation, emotional capacity, and utilization of empathy provides an alternative approach to management than what is widely seen today.

Friedman defines the self-differentiation of a leader as “his or her capacity to be a non-anxious presence, a challenging presence, a well-defined presence, and a paradoxical presence” (244). He continues that it is less about the leader focusing on their followers and more about how established the leader is in their own sense of self. While it is easy for me to identify leaders that lead from a place of insecurity, low self-differentiation, or without empathy, I am challenged to reflect upon my own leadership and find the areas that need attention for the health of myself and those I lead now and in the future. With an abundance of personality tests available today, the one I have found the most insightful for my personal is the Emotional/Spiritual Health Inventory by Peter Scazerro. Found in his book, The Emotionally Healthy Church, the inventory looks at seven key components of emotional and spiritual health and then identifies if an individual is an emotional infant, child, adolescent, or adult in each category. Scazerro defines an emotional adult in a similar manner as Friedman’s self-differentiated leader with key factors being self-awareness and self-control.

Friedman’s book has felt very personal as it reflects so much of the professional context I find myself in. Loyal to a university that I have been deeply connected to my entire adult life and love dearly, I often feel that we function in such a dysfunctional manner, largely creating our own obstacles. Knowing that I am where the Lord has asked me to be for now, I sit with more questions, mostly surrounding around how these systemic leadership patterns can change towards the good. And then I think of Nehemiah, my favorite illustration of leadership in the Bible and realize that it starts with how I lead. I can work on my self-differentiation, the utilization of empathy in the areas that I have impact on and ensuring that I tend to my own emotional health. Regardless of how the larger institution functions, I am responsible for the health of the team that I lead. Perhaps in doing so, those next to me will do the same and begin a domino effect. Like the rebuilding of the walls, there will likely still be people that will benefit from the end result that never contribute towards it. But at the end of the day, I am responsible for myself and what the Lord has given to me to steward. In the same way that my husband and I have intentionally worked hard to break certain familial systems and patterns for our own family, I can do the same for the areas that I lead, ensuring those under any aspect of my influence are exposed to a flawed leader that continually walks towards health.

Scazzero, Peter. 2015. The Emotionally Healthy Church (Expanded). Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

About the Author

Kayli Hillebrand

Associate Dean of International and Experiential Education

9 responses to “Friedman Struck a Nerve”

  1. I’m curious to hear more about your experience of leadership within higher ed. What are some of the ways you’re seeing the lack of differentiation play out?

    • Kayli Hillebrand says:

      Hi Michael, I would say the overall themes that I see across areas of leadership within my institution and others are a lack of self-awareness, insecure leaders that limit the effectiveness of their teams, and low trust that then requires all decisions be funneled to the top. Another common thing I see is a hesitancy in making decisions which leads to many meetings becoming the same conversation about needing to make a decision about any particular subject, but never actually doing it. I’m often confused as to why certain leaders hire for positions when there is not an empowerment of appropriate authority to really fulfill the functions of the role. If cabinet has to function as a final decision maker of all things, then utilizing deans, associate deans and even directors makes the effectiveness and usefulness of those roles obsolete. Would be happy to chat more about this offline as I feel this topic is a ball of yarn.

  2. mm Andy Hale says:

    This is a powerful read.

    I have served several times in unhealthy organizations and felt powerless to make healthy change. I’m inspired by your thoughts on being a healthy leader to the people you directly lead.

  3. mm Eric Basye says:

    Very interesting! Like Michael, I would be curious to hear more too.

    The illustration of an alcoholic family is vivid and powerful. The reality is neither the church, nor Christian organizations, nor we ourselves for that matter, have it all figured out. So, how do we lead in the midst to a great good and hope?

    Press on!

    • Kayli Hillebrand says:

      I think similar to what Friedman explains, we need to go after the healthiest of the bunch and empower them even more. As I have had to learn to differentiate myself from my family systems over the years, it’s amazing when I can come out of a situation or conversation and I know that I didn’t get on the rollercoaster, but engaged from the stability of the platform. Similarly, I have seen when leaders of churches and organizations do the same, you see the whole begin to follow suit. I don’t think it will ever be perfect this side of heaven, but I do believe that the more we can walk with Jesus towards health and cultivate that in others, the more we will experience and embody the non-anxious presence that welcomed everyone to the table.

  4. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Kayli: I like your reference to Nehemiah’s leadership as a great example to emulate. We all have some walls to rebuild in our professional and personal life. Self-differentiation is being talked about a lot in these posts but it is such a good point and one I didn’t really think about that deeply before this read. Thoughtful post, thank you.

  5. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Kayli, your counselor’s analogy of the alcoholic family to Christian organizations is spot on! And Yes I agree Friedman paints the picture as to why that is so. Self-awareness and self-control (regulation) are so key to healthy leadership for sure.

    As you described the inability of leadership within the university, I quickly thought of Friedmans argument in the imaginative gridlock…that systems that are chronically anxious desire for security and the sure thing, so the very thought of a misstep paralyzes the system. The system’s need for more data in order to make the “correct” decision further feeds the anxiety and paralysis…ANALYSIS PARALYSIS!
    I would encourage you to look at Friedmans argument around empathy because that too could inform the struggle.
    I would love to hear more about you and husbands decision to separate from unhealthy relationships. What would Friedmans recommendation be for you?

  6. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Kayli, I can really agree with you about the alcoholic family analysis. And the pseudo empowerment that is often given to individuals in positions that actually have the greatest investment in the outcome only to be bogged down by bureaucratic processes. I wonder if this could be because often times the people responsible for running these institutions are more prone to maintain and sustain then they are to process, growth, and adaptable change? Another words, where are the risk taker, adventurers in upper leadership?

  7. Elmarie Parker says:

    Kayli, thank you for this thoughtful post. I resonate with the challenges of being in an unhealthy organization! In your reply to Michael, you describe the low trust dynamic and so all decisions have to be funneled to the top. Yes! It is so disempowering. More than once I have wondered…hmm, why did they create my position if I’m being micro-managed the entire time? I really appreciate the commitment you have to posture yourself in your organization in as healthy a way as you can, and your vision for how this will ripple out to impact others…as Friedman acknowledges in his writing. What next step do you feel is most important to make toward that end (you list several). May God give you daily wisdom and strength for this journey.

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