March 11, 2019—Few have helped re-frame the understanding of leadership in organizations within this generation as has Edwin Friedman. Expanding Bowen Family Systems Theory from its clinical therapeutic context to the contexts of religious institutions and organizations, Friedman’s writings have offered a new frame of reference for what it means to be a leader. A brilliant mind, sharp wit, and occasional curmudgeon, Friedman is often as insightful as he is subversive. Below are ten quotes on leadership from his writings worth pondering.
1. “The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. Communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.”
2. “Leadership can be thought of as a capacity to define oneself to others in a way that clarifies and expands a vision of the future.”
3. “The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change.”
4. “In any type of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true one hundred percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the very top of that institution is a peace-monger.”
5. Leaders need “… to focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than through techniques for manipulating or motivating others.”
6. “Sabotage . . . comes with the territory of leading…. And a leader’s capacity to recognize sabotage for what it is—that is, a systemic phenomenon connected to the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system and not to the institution’s specific issues, makeup, or goals—is the key to the kingdom.”
7. “…leadership is essentially an emotional process rather than a cognitive phenomenon…”
8. “…’no good deed goes unpunished’; chronic criticism is, if anything, often a sign that the leader is functioning better! Vision is not enough.”
9. “Living with crisis is a major part of leaders’ lives. The crises come in two major varieties: (1) those that are not of their making but are imposed on them from outside or within the system; and (2) those that are actually triggered by the leaders through doing precisely what they should be doing.”
10. “..the risk-averse are rarely emboldened by data.”
Sources: A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Seabury Books, 2007); Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (The Guilford Press, 1985).
Want to hear more great quotes from Ed Friedman? The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in five locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, Kansas City MO, and Lynchburg, VA. Learn more about Leadership in Ministry workshops.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological 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.