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.