Extraordinary Leadership: Thinking Systems, Making a Difference

Posted: January 29, 2014 by Todd in Books, Ministry
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extraordinary leadership


Extraordinary Leadership: Thinking Systems, Making a Difference

Roberta Gilbert

Finished September, 2012.

Best parts to re-read: Top level map of book at end of xvii and xviii.  A fair amount of the book is looking at conflict, cutoff, distancing, triangling, underfunctioning, and overfunctioning through different lenses.  The different lenses are helpful, but have diminishing returns.  Read 160-163 before funerals.

What I learned: Much of this relates to Richard Rohr’s talks/writings on the importance of “containers” in the spirituality of the 2 halves of life.  I think I have been slow to see the value in container spirituality, I’m not even sure I know how to offer it.
Healthy relationships are: separate, open, equal
Sick people exhibit: conflict, distance, underfunction, overfunction, triangulate
Bowen theory aimed to “enable the study of the human to become a science.” (xi)
According to Bowen, the “family and not the individual, was the proper unit of study.” (xi)
“Bowen theory nudges people slowly but surely into positions of leadership.” (xiii)
{Todd: (xiv-xv) Gilbert seems to be of the “society’s going to hell in a handbasket crowd,” much like Ed Friedman seemed to be in Failure of Nerve}
The core of systems leadership is understanding emotional systems and how they work. (xvi) [more…]
Chapter 1 – Emotional Systems and How They Work
What effects one member of a system, affects all. (6-7)
Anxiety is also a product of fusions. (7+) (I don’t understand this internally yet)
Anxiety provokes response: fight, flee, freeze, or caretake.  (8)
In human behavior these are called (1) conflict, (2) distance, (3) cutoff, (4) overfunctioning/underfunctioning, (4) triangling. (8-9)
These responses reduce anxiety in the short term, but add to the problem in the long term. (9)
In conflict, individuals focus on blaming others rather than looking at themselves. (10)
Distance often happens due to circumstance or becoming tired from conflict. (11)
Cutoff is a more extreme form of distancing but “because the negative symptoms…appear so long after[wards]…they don’t get identified with it.” (12)
In overfunctioning/underfunctioning relationships, the dominant person “gains self from the other, who loses it.” (13)
Triangling is the ever-present tendancy of relationships to bring in another person.  Anxiety always circulates in triangular relationships. (14)  Triangles are a fact of life and natural to human society.
A common solution to all emotional problems is to make calm contact with the anxiety. (15)
Replacing a pattern doesn’t ensure a better pattern will emerge.  (15)
Chapter 2 – Congregations as Emotional Systems
Congregations are like families, but are not families. (19-20)
Spending time together results in the formation of “emotional systems.”  (20)
Like parents need time together, leaders do too.  (21)
“The best leaders try to get a one-on-one relationship with as many people in their extended family system as possible.” (22)
10 Guidelines for High Level Leaders
  1. Keep in touch with all the families
  2. Bowen theory describes “ideal relationships.”  Separate, equal, & open
  3. See the triangles and address them
  4. Encourage and incubate creativity in the group
  5. Understand immaturity but don’t side with it
  6. Bowen  theory is for living, not for preaching
  7. Defining what you are and are not willing to do
  8. Making contact with anxious “problem” people
  9. Manage emotional process in meetings
  10. Who are we working on, the group or self?
Working on self in the context of one’s family is the shortcut towards personal and systemic growth. (29)
Chapter 3 – How Groups Shape Individuals
Family sibling/gender position influences us to a great extent
Some typical “positions”
  1. The “good” one
  2. The “rebel”
  3. The “sick one”
  4. The “caretaker”
  5. The “family therapist”
  6. The “star”
  7. The “comic”
  8. The favored child
Similar dynamics occur in organizations either because of individuals family of origin birth order or a similar sort of dynamic based on when they came in the organization and the focus they receive in the organization.
Chapter 4 – A Natural Systems View of Hierarchy
There is more stress at the lower end of hierarchy.  Ultimately, hierarchy is “a derivative of over- and underfunctioning reciprocities in relationships.”
Part II – The Self
Chapter 5 – Human Variation
In each of us is a pull towards togetherness and a pull towards individuality.  (65)
“At higher levels of functioning, the emotions and the intellect are more separate. (67)
Three parts of the brain are: (1) reptilian brain, responsible for survival, (2) paleomammalian brain, similar to other primates, (3) cerbral cortex, unique to humans, including things like plan, empathize, create, etc. (68)
The basic self is the differentiated part of an individual. (72)  The pseudoself is the undifferentiated self that is leaky and takes on self from others. (72)
[Todd’s thought.  Does this mean that all exterior influence is bad?  It would seem that there is such a thing as good influence – everything that is good within me isn’t internal.]
High level leaders work to be in calm contact with: (1) their own families, (2) congregational leaders above and below them, (3) congregational families, (4) “virtual families” (74)
Things that can be done to grow in self-differentiation:
  1. Learn theory

Manage anxiety (learn to relax in face of anxiety)

  1. Gain more self in significant systems
  2. Work on guiding principles (observe, think/plan/rehearse, do)
Changes based on observation are made in the self, not in the system. (76)
Chapter 6 – Extraordinary Relationships
Three keys to healthy relationships:
  1. Separateness (emotional)
  2. Equality (in interactions)
  3. Openness (in communications)
Characteristics of healthy communication:
  1. Open talk with relevance and meaning (not distant or cutoff) (85)
  2. Should be non-reactive (85-86)
  3. Should be direct (86)
  4. Should be mutual (87)
Do not take “emotional responsibility” from/for others. (88)
Clues that communications is high-level and healthy: (89)  It is:
  • focused
  • creative
  • thinking-based
  • meaningfulness (two distinct selves)
Chapter 7 – Extraordinary Leadership
“High level leaders are high on the scale of differentiation of self.” (93)
Type of low-level leaders:
  • Overfunctioners (94-95)
    • bullies
    • knows all the answers
    • doesn’t delegate
    • overworks
    • poor listener
    • has to have the ideas
    • easily threatened
  • Underfunctioning (95)
    • feels inadequate
    • unprepared
    • procrastinates
  • Conflictual (96)
    • reflexive opposition
    • constant competition
    • criticizes others without openness to criticism from outside
    • frequently assigns blame
    • nit-picks
  • Distant (96-97)
    • not answering communication
    • daydreaming
    • not listening
    • changing the subject from uncomfortable things
    • non engaging in conversations
    • neglecting important relationships
    • not finding ways to stay connected during periods of absence
    • “With a distant leader, the group is at loose ends, getting nothing done, or else going off in several ineffective directions.” (97)
  • Triangling (97-98)
    • talking about others who aren’t present
    • worrying about the responsibilities of others
    • gossip & rumors
    • too intense of friendships with congregation members
    • telling one’s spouse confidential information
  • The emotions/intellect fusion (98-99)
    • scattered thinking
    • poor decision making
    • impulsive
    • no clear distinction between emotion and logic
High level leaders show less anxiety through:
  • less underfunctioning (99-100)
    • talk no more or less than they listen
    • don’t insist on own ideas, but ensure enough time for a “thinking through process”
    • on time & prepared
    • attend to own health
  • staying out of conflict as a pattern by:
    • gentle in disagreement
    • know when to take a break
    • able to reframe out of conflictuality
  • not distancing by:
    • stays active intellectually
    • stays connected even when away
    • consults appropriate people
  • managing triangles well by:
    • talking to both angles of a triangle
    • keeps confidences
    • calm contact with trianglers, not rumor or issue
The “ability to stay calm when others are not – to choose one’s mood – is the mark of a person functioning at a high level on the scale.” (102)
Leaders will not always be liked, especially when setting limits.  But periods of dislike will be short lived for high level leaders setting appropriate limits. (104)
Leaders can become more competent by working on differentiation in their own families of origin.
3 years+ training in “systems thinking” didactic experiences is a minimum to really internalize Bowen theory. (106)
Chapter 8 – Formal Communications
“anxiety interferes with thinking.” (112)
Anxious patterns in speaking and writing:
  • Distance (113) – not looking up, sing song rhythm, monotone, dropping off at end of sentences
  • Conflict (114) – engage in argumentative comments
  • Overfunctioning (115) – know it all, grandstanding, self-promotion, name dropping
  • Underfunctioning (115) – not well prepared, too soft tone, drop off at end of sentences
  • Triangling (116) – tell stories about others w/o permission, talking about more interesting places, overquoting authorities,
Part III – The Self in the System
Chapter 9 – Clergy Leadership in Today’s Systems
Characteristics of “extraordinary leaders”:
  • Competent (124-125)
    • well educated
    • stay abreast in field, but not afraid to deviate from orthodoxy
  • Relationship masters (125)
    • Family systems theory as guidebook for relationships
    • separate, equal, open
  • Problem-solvers (126)
    • curious (make a habit out of asking questions, go in with questions)
    • observers (don’t fix too quick, observing takes one “out” of the emotional entanglement)
    • define thinking to group
  • Facilitators and promoters of guiding principles (130-131)
  • Vision, mission and purpose facilitators and promoters (131-132)
  • Networkers with the wider system, neighborhood and world (132-133)
Possible points for increased anxiety in congregations: (134)
  • a key person leaves or enters the system
  • key events causing anxiety in families can get spread to systems
  • anxiety events in the life of the leader
  • large community changes
  • unresolved anxiety in leadership teams
  • shrinking numbers
  • denominational anxiety
On “difficult” people: “systems thinkers will try to ignore the diagnoses and blame, seeing them simply as barometers of increased anxiety of the group.
“Living in the midst of an anxious system is an opportunity to pull up one’s level of functioning.  Whenever one pulls up in functioning, the group will react, temporarily, in a negative way.” (137)
Chapter 10 – Clergy Counseling
Important parts for clergy coaching:
  • Calming anxiety (143)
    • encourage direct communication with coach
    • encourage thinking over venting
  • Connecting with the family emotional system (144)
    • ask questions
    • parents are best coaches for their kids, don’t usurp this role
    • fixing marriages (open, equal, separate) helps kids
  • Observing systems (144-145)
  • Coach manages self (145)
    • Coaches help more by staying out of emotional field, but connecting intellectually
  • Defining self “through the lens” (145-146)
    • Gently apply Bowen theory to situation
    • Knowing Bowen theory is really important
  • When and where to refer for further coaching (147)
    • family needs more than you can or want to give
    • someone may get hurt
    • family asks for a referral
“One of the most useful ‘how-to’s’ is, when there is more than one person in the consultation, asking people to speak only to the coach and not to each other.” (150)
Chapter 11 – On the Importance of the Clergy
8 functions of ministry (through systems lens):
  1. Benefits of being part of a congregation – there is value in belonging to an emotional system
  2. The weekly service – rituals and I positions of leaders are both beneficial and important
  3. Weddings – redefines triangles in families
  4. Christening, dedication, baptism – bonding with clergy and couple/family; opportunity for parent training
  5. Teaching – teachers should take an equal posture with learners; teach for thinking-through, not mere information distribution
  6. Visiting the sick – brief visits of understanding better than empathy; prayer; family of the ill; bear with the questions; congregational support shows high functioning group
  7. Funerals – encourage openness, showing emotions, involving children, understand the “emotional shock waves,” unequalness of death, stay connected to family of deceased is important (162)
  8. Community outreach
“Giving is life-giving.  It is never overfunctioning when assistance is needed!  in overfunctioning/underfunctioning, one person ends up anxious and minimized.  But when need help is given, bot the helper as well as the helped feel good, gaining energy.” (164)
Chapter 12 – Clergy Thinking Systems – Theory Confirmed
Principles of high-functioning clergy leadership:
  1. Take time for staff relationships: “The leader needs to create one-on-one time for each staff member – alone, unrushed, on a regular basis, focused and attentive, if the relationships are to be what the organization needs from the leadership (169).”  Similar meetings with lay leadership are good too.
  2. Stay in contact with your family system: “If we keep our family relationships in working order…relationships at work go better also (170).”
  3. Manage emotional processes, especially in meetings.  Set the tone of the meeting, stay in calm contact with relevant groups.
  4. Don’t be afraid to say “No” to the immaturity.
  5. Choose your emotional tone.
  6. In a regressive society, you may be different.
  7. Be a relationship master. (equal, open, separate)
Epilogue and Some Surprises
Gilbert’s clergy lesson surprises:
  • Clergy learn systems theory fast
    • “A number of others, whose wives had become so depressed they could not function, found, after they stopped having the answers for their spouses, defined self and took more of an equal posture, that their wives’ depressions disappeared (179).”
  • Clergy acting as counselors is important
  • Large systems are emotional systems too
  • Clergy are not alone in dealing with the immaturity of the group
  • Denominational officials are lost and need a compass too
“The clergy are society’s most important profession (183).”

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