Connectional Leadership and the Self

Connectional Leadership and the Self

Experience has not changed my belief that when the leadership (“L”) position is filled by a leader (or leaders) who is moving forward in his/her own process of self-differentiation, any system stands the best chance of dealing creatively with, rather than simply reacting to, change and challenge.

However, because I am increasingly aware that such creative responses do not come easily or quickly, I am learning to add a word of caution.

They may not even come at all.

The presence of self-differentiated leadership offers “the best chance” of such a possibility happening, but it is not a guarantee that the system will respond instead of react.


Self-differentiating leaders work at self-regulation and self-definition while maintaining a connection to their relational systems.

They realize that they cannot affect an emotional system of which they are not apart.

It is important for newly arrived leaders to take the time to become connected to their new system.

It is especially important to maintain this connectedness when resistance is encountered because of the leader’s self-differentiating behavior.

At such times a leader is tempted to either give up or cut off.

If the leader persists, does not withdraw or quit, but rather remains connected and on course, a system stands the best chance of dealing creatively with challenges.


It is my experience that leaders who are working at their own self-definition are better able to resist the temptation to will others into compliance with their ideas and goals.

Whatever is meant by the phrase “the will of God,” it does not mean that God violates the freedom and responsibility that is part and parcel of our God-created humanity.

When willing others to “be” or “do” is the posture of a leader, trust in self-definition has been abandoned and a path of coercion that can only lead to a conflict of wills has been chosen.


The payoff of leadership through self-differentiation may not be what we think such a supposedly more insightful understanding of leadership ought to deliver success of the endeavor and approval for the leader.

This understanding of leadership focuses upon the leader and not upon the outcome of the leader’s efforts.

Viewed through the emotional process lens of family systems theory, “leadership” is not about “them” or “success” but about self, self-regulation, self-definition, self-differentiation.

The payoff is self.

Adapted from Lawrence E. Matthews, “Leadership Through a Bowen Systems Lens,” in Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context. Dr. Matthews founded the Leadership in Ministry workshops. Since 1992 the workshop has trained hundreds of clergy and organizational leaders in Bowen theory as a “theory of practice for ministry.”

The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in five locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, Kansas City MO, and Lynchburg, VA. To learn more about the Leadership in Ministry workshops.


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