I learned a long time ago that the leader of an organization needs to spend about 80% of her time in the future. The day-to-day is important, but somebody needs to know where the organization should go to fulfill its mission, whether that’s saving souls, saving the world or making a profit. If you don’t have vision, the organization (or whatever part of it you lead) will flounder. Without a vision, people will focus on doing things the way it’s always been done and that’s recipe for a slow, agonizing death.
Worse yet, when you, as the leader, don’t have vision, people get anxious. That’s because people want to be led. They want to know where things are headed. It doesn’t mean they’ll always follow. It DOES mean they will be less anxious than if there were no vision.
But, vision by itself is not enough. You need to stay emotionally connected to your followers for the vision to make a difference. This is especially true if there are resisters. This is hard. When you are trying to lead, the last thing you want to do is to stay connected with those who don’t agree with you or, even worse, with those who are trying to stop you in your tracks. But, not staying connected is narcissism.
A key element of narcissism is the lack of empathy. A narcissist disregards the feelings of others.
An effective leader is able to share her vision while giving others the freedom to disagree.
When you give others the freedom to disagree you are staying emotionally connected. You are showing that you understand how they feel and that it’s OK to disagree. That is leadership through self-differentiation. Here’s a reminder of Edwin Friedman’s definition from his book, Generation to Generation:
“The basic concept of leadership through self-differentiation is this. If a leader will take primary responsibility for his or her own goals and self, while staying in touch with the rest of the organism, there is more than a reasonable chance that the body will follow. There may be initial resistance but, if the leader can stay in touch with the resisters, the body will usually go along.” (Generation to Generation, p. 229)
When you articulate your vision, you are taking responsibility for your own goals and self. But if you are doing it without emotional connection, especially with those who resist, you are asking for trouble. The resistors will get more anxious, will find ways to obstruct what you are trying to accomplish and will make leading difficult, if not impossible.
People often misinterpret Friedman to think that leadership through self-differentiation is all about defining self and moving full-steam ahead. In his article, “Misreading Family Systems Theory,” Leander Harding describes what is known as the Yeager Theory in family systems. He writes:
“Friedman uses the metaphor of General Chuck Yeager and the sound barrier. When the sound barrier was being approached the aircraft would experience more and more turbulence as the plane closed in on the critical speed. Pilots would drive their aircraft to what they thought was the limit and then, afraid that the airplane would shake apart, back off without breaking the barrier. Yeager believed a physicist friend that it would be smooth on the other side of the barrier and put on speed just when most pilots were backing off and became the first to break the sound barrier.”
Yeager was correct. He had the courage to increase his speed at the point when the other pilots backed off. Once he pushed through the sound barrier, he experienced smooth sailing.
Friedman uses the sound barrier metaphor to describe what one experiences when leading change. There WILL be resistance. If one can maintain a non-anxious presence the resistance will likely dissipate. “Presence” is the key. It means staying emotionally connected.
Harding maintains that there is a tendency to misinterpret this metaphor by leaders who lack an understanding of family systems theory and, more importantly, do not make the difficult journey of doing their own work. He coined the term, the “Yeager Heresy” to describe leaders who are unable, or unwilling, to discern the difference between taking a principled stand and becoming rigidly inflexible. Those who fall for this heresy see the family systems approach as a “technique” for achieving their goals.
Leaders who are taught that sabotage and crisis are inevitable when they begin to lead through self-differentiation are also taught that they need to avoid getting wrapped up in content and need to understand the emotional processes involved. What he cautions against is taking a stand in a way that leaves others no room to do the same thing. When you are a non-anxious presence, you create emotional space where others are also able to self-differentiate.
You give others the freedom to disagree.
When we see leading through self-differentiation as a technique, we miss the opportunity for real conversation. We are unable to discern between those who are able to self-differentiate and those who are engaging in sabotage. Harding describes it this way:
“They have not heard the challenge that leadership involves staying emotionally connected to the members of the system, especially those with whom they are most emotionally uncomfortable. They have not heard the warning that this leadership theory is primarily about controlling one’s own emotionality and not a recipe for handling or manipulating others. The result is a generation of leaders on all sides of the current polarization who think that leadership consists of taking a bold stand and persisting in a damn the torpedoes full steam ahead mode. When resistance arises and the ship threatens to shake apart they are convinced that smooth skies are just ahead and they pour on the speed. They will not be able to perceive that they have not done the personal and relational homework necessary to really make a positive contribution until the wings come off as they now are.”
What Harding points out is that those who misunderstand leadership through self-differentiation ignore the fact that it requires emotional connection with those who resist. It’s not enough to know who what you believe. You also need to do the hard work of dealing with your own anxiety so that you can be a non-anxious presence for others.
So cast your vision. Follow God’s leading to the best of your ability. But, stay emotionally connected. Especially with those who disagree. It will be hard. But if you want to lead change, it’s the only way.