From Crisis to Order: Part 2

From Crisis to Order: Why presence and being is always greater than technique and method.
Edwin Friedman insists that leadership is essentially “an emotional rather than a cognitive phenomenon.” In other words, leadership comes from your soul, not from a book or academic degree. This becomes especially clear in crisis. To bring any group of people through crisis to order, leaders must give far more attention to presence and being, than to technique or know-how. The problem is that leaders want to be (and are too often taught to become) problem-solvers and saviors. This false notion of leadership compels them to rush headlong into the vicious cycle of chronic anxiety only to find themselves reinforcing the emotional symptoms driving the crisis. Such leaders are quickly overwhelmed, fall into quick-fix solutions and succumb to a “failure of nerve.” The person with the greatest capacity to lead through crisis, Friedman advises, will not be the one who relieves pain or provides a quick-fix solution, but the one who can take responsibility for his or her emotional state of being, thereby helping others to do the same. Social psychologists have a term for this: self-differentiation.

What is Self-Differentiation?
All people struggle to find a healthy social identity. When you were a child, for example, you learned how to navigate the favorable and unfavorable pressures of family, friends and other social groups, such as at church or school. Each new social group brought pressure to conform and the desire to be accepted. You learned how you think, act and feel about yourself in relationship to others, how you are different and how you are alike. Your personality was developed, positively or negatively. Self-differentiation is the result, your identity, your self-understanding of who you are with others and how you view yourself as an individual. Since every person is unique and complex, there is a wide continuum of differentiation where you could fall. For our purposes, we will look at the two extremes.
A poorly-differentiated self is one who depends heavily on the acceptance and approval of others. They are people-pleasers, always inquiring, acquiescing or conforming to the needs and wishes of others. If you are like this, you probably see yourself being compassionate and full of mercy: a person who really cares about others. On the other hand, poorly differentiated people can also be bullies, people who are rigidly dogmatic, seeking group acceptance in unhealthy, coercive ways. In either case, poorly-differentiated people have a low threshold for pain and disagreement. To eliminate these threats, they constantly seek symptom relief with quick-fix solutions rather than fundamental change. They will assign blame or claim victimization rather than take emotional responsibility.

A well-differentiated self is one who recognizes and embraces social connection while being confident about, and taking responsibility for, one’s own values and goals. This is a delicate balance not often achieved: to be emotionally connected without being emotionally overwhelmed. So, in crisis for example, a well-differentiated person can identify and assess genuine anxiety while staying calm and clear-headed, confident in one’s own identity, purpose and values. You recognize the presence of pain, but you can separate yourself from, and resist being overcome by, chaos. Focus is key. You do not focus on the emotional crisis. You focus on principles and goals. This allows a well-differentiated leader to think clearly in crisis, neither wishy-washy and bowing to pressure, nor trying to coerce. More than anything, the well-differentiated leader offers presence and personal responsibility. She can stand alone, be vulnerable and endure criticism because her decisions are guided by values and vision, not emotional turmoil or self-interest. These are the marks of a healthy leader.

Chances are you find yourself somewhere in-between the two extremes of self-differentiation.
Perhaps you see yourself leaning more toward poor-differentiation and emotional attachment. If so, the closer you are to the extreme the more likely you will be overwhelmed and unable to lead effectively in crisis. Recognizing this deficit is the first step to change. The second step is soul-work. Differentiation is not something you can will-up or learn from a book. It is a spiritual process that takes time and a lot of work to reorient the way you think, feel and act. But there is no other way if you are called to lead. Until you go through your crisis of self-understanding, you will not be able to lead others through theirs. Get started by seeking out godly mentors who can help you explore who you are in Christ. God is calling you to change the way you lead, away from human acceptance and approval and into His presence and being.

–Jim Van Yperen

A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the Quick Fix, Friedman, Edwin H., Seabury Books, page 13.