A Repertoire for Leadership in Anxious Times
May 23, 2016—Functioning at a high level of self-differentiation is the golden fleece sought by organizational and congregational leaders who are students of Bowen Systems Theory. Especially during times of acute anxiety and systemic reactivity, effective leaders will work on focusing on the repertoire that will help them navigate the storm. In no particular order, here’s “The Repertoire” experienced systems leaders tend to follow:
- Monitoring their own internal emotional process (visiting the genogram is a good strategy)
- Observing their functioning (at work and at home)
- Regulating their anxiety (any psychosomatic symptomology?)
- Avoiding reactivity (no matter how much you want to, don’t call that acting out deacon a jerk or tender your resignation letter)
- Getting clarity about their guiding principles and values (“Remind me again, why did I take this job?”)
- Seeking out resources (call your coach or therapist).
It may help to write down “The Repertoire” and keep it in your wallet or tape it to your desk at the church office as a reminder for when acute anxiety bubbles up in the system. Acute anxiety will tend to focus on the person in the position of leadership (that’s you), so it will feel personal. The common reaction is to feel under attack or betrayed. When that happens, our most important resource goes out the window: our capacity to think through the problem, realistically assess what is going on in the system, and responding out of guiding principles and insight.
Three Responses to Differentiation
Assuming we’ve followed “The Repertoire” successfully and have managed to differentiate from within our position of leadership in the system, we need to also take into consideration its aftermath. Experienced systems leaders know enough not to expect anyone to say “Thank you!” There are three predictable responses to a leader’s act of self-differentiation in the midst of an anxious system:
- Those who have the capacity will be able to self-regulate and also begin to practice differentiation of self. That deacon you wanted to call a jerk may now be saying, “Wow, I don’t know what happened to me. I got caught up in something and went crazy for a moment there.” These people are now resources for you and the system.
- A second group of persons will tend to fuse with you. A self-differentiated leader is “attractive,” especially to those who lack a capacity for self-definition. Fusion can be seductive. It feels great to have a room full of people nod at your every word and eagerly agree with your every opinion. However, this group of people are not a resource to the system—the next loudest voice can just as easily draw their passions.
- The third group of persons will be the ones who will withdraw or cut off from you. Clarity about one’s stance will feel like a line drawn on the sand to some folks. Self-definition demands a response and responsibility on the part of others. For those who lack resilience in thinking, or who are too insecure or too rigid in their beliefs, cutting off may be their only repertoire.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H), and Theories of Learning for Christian Educators and Theological Faculty.