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Dr. G. & Friends  |  

Resources for personal leadership

Purists of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) tend to eschew notions or frameworks of individualistic perspectives to therapy or interpreting families or organizations (like “personality type” or “traits” schemas).

They prefer a consistent “systems” approach that focuses on the structural emotional system over the personality of individuals in the system.

More weight is to be given to the position and functioning of an individual in a system than on his or her personality because both are more a product of the system than of the individual.

By and large I lean toward that perspective, but I think there is something to be said for the capacities that reside in the individual.


After all, one of the most significant contributions of BFST is the concept of self-differentiation (or, the “differentiation of self”).

At the end of the day, that’s a product of the individual rather than the system.

Especially for leaders, differentiation of self is what enables one’s capacity to influence the system—to lead from a principled position rather than as a cog in the system, to act with vision and purpose rather than reactivity, and to foster maturity and responsibility in others.

As such, I think there are five personal resources every leader needs to develop.

I call these personal resources because in stuck systems they are not the product of the system, but of the individual leader.

And let’s face it, most systems, most of the time, are stuck in their homeostasis.


Here are the personal resources:


This is different from “vision,” that other important function of the leadership position.

Perspective is the result of the capacity of the leader to stand outside the system’s emotional milieu.

While leaders will always be in the flux of the emotional process of the system they also need to develop the capacity to “step outside” their emotional context in order to gain enough perspective to understand what is (really) going on.



Leaders need to be willing to stand at the point and be exposed.

They need to not only be vocal about the vision and goals for the system, and visible in being present, but also, willing to be challenged, targeted, misunderstood, and criticized.



Leaders who challenge the system toward health (development), growth (change) and integrity (responsibility) will automatically invite resistance, sabotage, and rejection.

It hardly matters the “reasons” or motives for those reactive stances, they are merely the functions of anxiety and reactivity related to a challenge to homeostasis.

Effective leaders need to cultivate the personal resource of persistence to take on the reactivity and hold the course.



Leaders often are surprise at the mindless (unthinking) tenacity of reactivity.

Often leaders will successfully address an issue and mistakenly assume that it’s been resolved.

But the fact is that the most willful persons or groups in the system just don’t let up.

Leaders need to cultivate the resource of stamina to endure those issues that come back time and again.

And sometimes, the only way to change a system is to outlast those who remain entrenched.



Whether you’re a fan of Machiavelli or not, the fact remains that one of the most important personal resources of any leader is ruthlessness.

Being ruthless does not mean that one practices the torched earth strategy as a singular approach.

Nor does it mean that one’s primary stance is adversarial.

But when, on occasion, it is called for, leaders must be ruthless when facing the willful toxic forces whose mindless pursuit is to destroy the system or attack the leader.

When there is no reasoning with the unreasonable, leaders must be the ones to restrict, contain, or cast out the toxic elements.


To learn more about systems theory related to congregational or organizational leadership, see the Leadership in Ministry workshops of the Center for Lifelong Learning, part of its Pastoral Excellence Program.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia seminary. 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 & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.

His books on education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).

Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to its teaching and learning blogs.

Dr. G. & Friends