Catalytic Leadership

Catalytic Leadership

By Carla Toenniessen.

Has the need for differentiated leadership ever been more obvious than in our world today?  Daily troubles, misery, entanglements, confusion and dysfunction abound.  National and world events on display reveal fascinating case studies of what failed leadership looks like in vivid detail and on the other hand, the impact that differentiated leadership can have on a crisis.

Take the recent shooting of police officers in Dallas this past July.  Practically overnight, local congregations and civic leaders, including Mayor Mike Rawlings and Dallas Police Chief David Brown, mobilized and gathered together for prayer and to consider the best way for the city of Dallas to move forward in the wake of this tragedy.

Rawlings, Brown and local pastors gave interviews and provided words of calm and hope as well as holding an interfaith memorial service which Pres. Obama attended and offered words of challenge and focus for the work ahead. From day one, I was struck by the cohesive leadership in Dallas – a network of leaders from both government and faith communities working together and purposeful.

I later learned from my pastor who served at Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, that this coalition of leaders didn’t just happen overnight, but grew over many years from intentional effort. That is a good example of how the presence of leadership can make a difference.

It goes without saying that one of the biggest contributions Ed Friedman made to the field of BFST was to apply theory to show how a well-differentiated leader can affect the emotional process in families, organizations, cities and nations.  For Friedman, leadership was an emotional phenomenon – not a matter of intellect or status or college degrees or even being well informed.

In his book A Failure of Nerve Friedman discusses the organic and systemic power that the functioning and presence of such a leader has on the emotional field, insights that changed the way he worked with clients, families and work systems. Instead of focusing on issues and data, he began searching for the person with the most capacity for self-expression, for taking responsibility for her/his own being and destiny and for being a leader in terms of self-definition, self-regulation and connection.

The Magic of a Catalyst

I’ve been doing some research about this organic and systemic power of leadership that Friedman referred to.  How does it work and why?  What parallels can be drawn to other processes in the natural sciences such as biology, chemistry, physics and neuroscience?  Take a catalyst for example.

Enzymes are biological catalysts.  Nearly all reactions that occur in living cells require these catalysts or enzymes for without them, life would be impossible. A catalyst is an agent that stimulates a reaction, development or change, without being changed or consumed itself. With a catalyst, reactions occur faster, require less activation energy and in some cases, without the catalyst, reactions might not have happened at all. A simple example is if I want to light a match. There is a chemical coating on the match and on the matchbox, but a striker is required to provide the energy or friction to set off the reaction causing the match to light.  In this case the striker or catalyst would be me.

In work systems, rather than focusing on teambuilding and trouble-makers and polling folks, Friedman began working with the one or two leaders at the top and supporting the strengths in the system. The result? He concluded that this new approach had such an impact that it was as if the rest of the system was in therapy without ever entering the door. This observation birthed the leadership seminars he began at the Center for Family Process in Bethesda, MD.

In any system “there must be a catalytic family member prepared to take advantage of catalytic family moments.  Such a “family leader” must love his/her family, have a genuine desire to be with (at least some of) them and possess a sense of responsibility that enables him or her to resist resistance. Yet that sense of responsibility cannot be borne so seriously that it destroys his or her ability to introduce the playful and sometimes downright ludicrous initiatives that are necessary for maintaining a non-anxious presence.” Friedman, The Myth of the Shiksa, p.144

So according to Friedman, a well-differentiated leader can affect a reaction or change just by the leader’s presence and being in the system in a similar way that catalysts stimulate a reaction. And along the same lines, the presence of such a leader affects and influences the field and the functioning of persons and their relationships within it, in the way that the sun’s gravity affects the other planets in the solar system. For example, how is it that differentiated leaders tend to naturally encourage more community just by inviting the self-differentiation of others?  Friedman has even claimed that when leaders, whether a parent, president, CEO or pastoral leader can function in a well-differentiated manner, chronic symptoms and ailments may likely just disappear as if never there in the first place. Is this why Friedman referred to differentiation as a broad-spectrum antibiotic?

Friedman poses the challenge that “What is vital to changing any kind of “family” is not knowledge or technique or even pathology, but rather the capacity of the family leader to define his or her own goals and values while trying to maintain a non-anxious presence with the system.” Friedman, Generation to Generation, pp.2-3

Carla Toenniessen serves on the faculty of Leadership in Ministry workshops. She presented on “the catalytic leader” at the fall 2016 LIM workshops.

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