DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Above the Dysfunction

Written by: on October 31, 2014

Failure of Nerve


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[1], 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.”[2] 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.[3]

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.”[4] He is talking about a leader who is  “separate while remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence.”[5] 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.[6]

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:

  1. Differentiation is the capacity to take a stand in an intense emotional system.

  2. Differentiation is saying “I” when others are saying “we.”

  3. Differentiation is containing one’s reactivity to the reactivity of others, which includes the ability to avoid being polarized.

  4. Differentiation is maintaining a non-anxious presence in the face of anxious others.

  5. Differentiation is knowing where one ends and another begins.

  6. Differentiation is being able to cease automatically being one of the system’s emotional dominoes.

  7. Differentiation is being clear about one’s own personal values and goals.

  8. Differentiation is taking maximum responsibility for one’s emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context.[7]

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.”[8] 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.

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

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid., 13-14.

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 183.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

About the Author


Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

7 responses to “Above the Dysfunction”

  1. mm John Woodward says:

    Bill, your wonder and joy at every new discovery shines through in your blog posts. I especially like your stories of your meetings, and how leadership qualities really do shine out during those long, laborious discussions (or monologues). Your department head sounds like my director, who is very much “creative, artist type.” He is director over our ministry, but comes to meetings with no agenda and then dominates the conversion, going off for an hour at a time about his visions (and oh, the visions he has), which has nothing to do with the present needs and realities of our ministry. It is so frustrating when there is so much to be done and not getting any clear direction from our leader who is wasting time telling stories. Here I see the value of Friedman’s differentiated leader, who is clear in their goals and direction. Friedman also helped me to see that the dysfunction in our organization is a result of the issues and position of our leader, who I think has been personally burnt so many over the years that he is now afraid to hit any issues head on. Avoidance of substantive issues and problems in the organization by talking endlessly about non-consequential topics is how we deal with things. So, Friedman does provide a wonderful lens to better understand leaders and organizations that rings very true in my experience…as it sounds true in your experiences too! I too hope to be a leader who doesn’t add to my ministry’s dysfunction…how’s that for high goal in life?

  2. John,

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. Actually, my department chair is a very good man: smart, emotionally intelligent, and healthy. The problem lies more with the “gang mentality” of the department members than it does with him. He is a strong leader, but he has a tough time being a differentiated leader at time, just like me. The cool thing is that I can talk to him about my perspective on the meetings and how I feel about the whole thing, and he listens to me. Thus we have a good relationship overall.

    I love when you say, “Avoidance of substantive issues and problems in the organization by talking endlessly about non-consequential topics is how we deal with things.” Unfortunately, this is often true in the department I work with. If this group (all Christians by the way) would come to grips with their own ca-ca, the meetings would have a much different flavor — and smell. It is sad to see adults acting like children. My prayer is that each of these folks would eventually see that their behaviors are ineffective to our institution and to the kingdom of God.

    • Richard Volzke says:

      Your situation with your organization’s leader is similar to what I experienced at my last church. I worked under a sr. pastor who reminded me of your director. Many times I would attend staff meetings and we would talk about the same things over and over, and never agree on a solution on how to handle the issue. The problem is that this is a common issue throughout the church world, and I struggle on understanding how to change this fact. There are many in positions of leadership that have allowed the power to go to their heads, or that lack any backbone to do the right thing. Look at Mark Dirscoll and what his leadership has done to Mars Hill Church. After he left, the church board had to disband the entire organization and is now selling its property. In it’s hay day, Mars Hill had over 10,000 members and several campuses. It had a strong outreach ministry throughout the world and now it is all gone, because of bad leadership…

  3. mm Ashley Goad says:


    Like John, I love reading your posts, and though I may not comment every week, I nonetheless read every week. Your frank and honest just like Friedman, and at least in my conversations with you, you have never been afraid to tell it like it is. It sounds like that is exactly who you have the opportunity to work with, too – your supervisor!

    I was struck, like you, with the EQ that continued from last week’s reading. One of the pastors and I were meeting this week, and he said he sees a counselor once a week, and has done so for 22 years. It reminded me of my favorite airline saying… “Put the oxygen mask on you first, then assist those nearby.” You have to take care of yourself first before you can take care of others. Isn’t that, in fact, EQ, taking care of yourself? Maybe the lesson here is we should all be in therapy 🙂

    Hugs, Bill!

  4. Ashley,

    Thanks for your lovely comments. You are so cool.

    My problem is that I probably put on everyone else’s masks first and end up dying. Ten weeks into the semester, that is what I am feeling — like I am dying. I think this week’s reading has given me some insights that I needed to hear. These last two books, actually the last three books, have been gifts to my soul. I think they were well chosen for this time.

    My desire is that I could become one of these kinds of leaders. I haven’t always done well with criticism and negativity. This book paints an accurate perspective that these things are par for the course as far as leadership goes. The answer is not “if” we deal with these things; rather, the answer is “when” we deal with these things. And if we are emotionally intelligent enough — as well as learning to be interdependent rather than codependent — we can manage this whole world of leadership.

  5. Michael Badriaki says:

    Bill, what a great post! Always, you share stories that help put the study material in perspective in refreshing and real ways. I appreciate the way you have discussed Friedman’s concept of a self-differentiated leader.

    It is awesome to read about your relationship with your supervisor and how both of you have the opportunity to discuss the qualities and praxis of a healthy and humble leadership approach.

    Thank you

  6. mm Clint Baldwin says:

    A very helpful post.
    Thank you.
    I especially appreciate the idea that clearheadedness is an emotional more than a cerebral phenomenon.
    That should keep peoples’ heads spinning for a bit. 🙂
    Friedman’s writing — though written from a very different “place” — reminds me of Thich Nhat Hanh’s holistic approach to being. Friedman approaches the whole topic more brazenly, but much of the suggestions and outcomes are similar.
    Thanks again for your post.

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