I was in an academic department meeting this week. These are meetings that I endure rather than enjoy. I even find myself taking notes in code sometimes: WAIH (Why am I here?); WISSA (Why is she speaking so much?); O & O (One and on); LHM (Lord have mercy). Our department chair is a good man. I respect him very much. He had a long agenda for this meeting, and when he sent the email invitation for the gathering, he specifically requested that this meeting be one that would cover the long agenda in a short time. But out of ten agenda items, we finished only five, which is a record. Why such a frustrating meeting? Two reasons. The first is that this group spends most of its time complaining about how hard their jobs are and badmouthing the other departments and the college administration. This is one of the most dysfunctional groups I have ever been a part of. The second reason is that our department chair is a nice guy, maybe too nice. Although he is never a part of the griping, he rarely takes charge and puts a halt on the unnecessary conversation. He is a good leader, but like all of us, he has some things to learn about leadership.
In this knock-you-between-the-eyes book, Edwin Friedman provides some fodder for thought (new thought for me) regarding leadership. Friedman first emphasizes the fact that leadership is “…essentially an emotional process rather than a cognitive phenomenon.” He spells out his explanation when he writes:
In any institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true one hundred percent of the time [italics mine], regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the top of that institution is a peace-monger. By that I mean a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consensus, a “middler,” someone who is so incapable of taking well-defined stands that his disability seems to be genetic, someone who functions as if she had been filleted of her backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas—one whiff, on goes the emotional gas mask, and he flits. Such leaders are often “nice” if not charming.
I was taken back by Friedman’s commentary. Are leaders not supposed to be nice and consensus-driven? What else does he have to say?
Friedman then introduces what he calls a well-differentiated leader. He talks about this leader being clear in his or her life goals and is one who is, “…less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about.” He is talking about a leader who is “separate while remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence.” What I get from this is that this kind of leader is very emotionally intelligent, which is reminiscent of our last week’s reading, The Leadership Mystique. We are all emotional beings, but good leaders stay out of the fray of others in the organization. This does not mean that they do not confront issues or are afraid of conflict; rather, it means that they are intelligent enough to stay out of the sewer that others so gladly swim in.
So how does Friedman define this concept of differentiation? In Chapter Six, Autocracy Versus Integrity: The Fallacies of Self, Friedman paints his definition of differentiation as he likens a leader to the “immune system” of the institution or organization that the leader heads. He writes:
Differentiation is the lifelong process of striving to keep one’s being in balance through the reciprocal external and internal processes of self-definition and self-regulation. It is a concept that can sometimes be difficult to focus on objectively, for differentiation is the capacity to become oneself out of one’s self, with minimum reactivity to the positions or reactivity of others. Differentiation is charting one’s own way by means of one’s internal guidance system, rather than perpetually eyeing the “scope” to see where others are at. Differentiation refers more to a process than a goal that can be achieved.
Friedman then helps the reader to learn that rather than a state of being, differentiation refers to a direction in life. He further defines differentiation as follows:
Differentiation is the capacity to take a stand in an intense emotional system.
Differentiation is saying “I” when others are saying “we.”
Differentiation is containing one’s reactivity to the reactivity of others, which includes the ability to avoid being polarized.
Differentiation is maintaining a non-anxious presence in the face of anxious others.
Differentiation is knowing where one ends and another begins.
Differentiation is being able to cease automatically being one of the system’s emotional dominoes.
Differentiation is being clear about one’s own personal values and goals.
Differentiation is taking maximum responsibility for one’s emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context.
Friedman also points out, as stated earlier, that differentiation requires clear headedness and that it is an emotional concept, not a cerebral one. It is a lifetime project with “no one ever getting more than seventy percent there.” Again, these are not easy pills to swallow and are concepts that require deep thought and rigorous determination and practice.
Yesterday, I was in my weekly meeting with my supervisor. Unlike the department meeting mentioned earlier, these are meetings that are always refreshing and productive. I showed my supervisor the book for our reading this week, thinking I would introduce some new deep concepts for her. To my surprise, she told me that she teaches a doctor of education class at another university that uses this book as its primary text; in fact, she wrote the syllabus for the course! Then she told me that sometimes “differentiated leadership” could have some bad press due to the fact that it might appear that such leaders are hard-hearted and self-absorbed. I could see her point. However, if one is balanced, I believe that the concepts in Friedman’s text are essential for understanding how to be a mentally and emotionally healthy leader. I also see how refreshing it is for a person to be interdependent rather than codependent in regards to workplace and family relationships.
In addition to the dysfunctional department meeting this week, I was also challenged this week with another department chair who accused me of not communicating clearly enough with her. She wrote me a very curt and accusatory email that made my blood boil. In relating these two stories to my supervisor, I will never forget her encouragement to me. “Bill, you need to be above the dysfunction and be a differentiated leader.” She was exactly right. So as I left her office, I committed myself to do just that. It was one of the best days I have had in a long time. By the way, it is a joy to work with a differentiated leader. I know; I work with one.
 Edwin H. Friedman. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 2007)
 Ibid., 13.
 Ibid., 13-14.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 183.