Tag Archives: family systems

Leadership, Stress, & Triangles

Triangulation defined, courtesy PonderAbout.com.
Triangulation defined, courtesy PonderAbout.com.

What if stress is less about working too much or too hard, and more about how we function in relationships? If you are a leader (check and see if anyone is following you if unsure), Ed Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve is a must-read.  Subtitled “Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” Friedman’s final work (completed by family and colleagues posthumously) applies his theory of family systems to leadership.  The Psychiatrist-Rabbi offers this provocative claim near the end of the book:

“A leader’s stress and his or her effectiveness are opposite sides of the same coin…not because failure to be effective creates stress, but because the type of leadership which creates the least stress also happens to be the type of leadership that is most effective.”

Of course, it is possible to be stressed from overwork; it’s not as if there no limits a leader’s stamina, regardless of how wise her or his functioning might be.  “There are limits to everyone’s strength,” says Friedman, “but it takes less weight to strain your body if you attempt to lift the object from certain positions.”  So it is with our position in relational systems.

For Friedman, the primary relational unit of concern is the triangle: a triangle is a relationship between any three persons, organizations, or entities.  Two parents and a child, or a husband, wife, and mother-in law, or you, your supervisor, and the company – all of these are examples of triangles.  As you may guess, they are all around us.  Friedman insists that it is how we function in these relational triangles that determines our effectiveness as leaders (which, as we’ve established, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from stress).  Here’s where leadership, stress, and triangles come together:

“The stress on leaders (parents, healers, mentors, managers) primarily has to do with the extent to which the leader has been caught in responsible position for the relationship of two others. They could be two persons (members of the family, and two sides to an argument) or any person or system plus a problem or a goal. The way out is to make the two persons responsible for their own relationship, or the other person responsible for his or her problem, while all still remain connected. It is that last phrase which differentiates detriangling from simply quitting, resigning, or abdicating.  Staying in a triangle without getting triangled oneself gives one far more power than never entering the triangle in the first place.”failure of nerve

In other words, there is a “sweet spot” for leaders, somewhere between being aloof and unconnected and being over-identified and in the muck.  Friedman describes this this carefully negotiated relational position as “differentiation,” in which one is connected to two others in conflict while maintaining a healthy sense of self with the boundaries which that entails.

Friedman’s language is somewhat arcane, and you would need to read this and/or Generation to Generation to grasp the full lexicon.  Hopefully this sample is helpful, and encourages you to go out and read more for yourself.  A Failure of Nerve tops my list when other pastors and leaders ask me for book recommendations.

For now, think of it this way: how much of your work or family stress is related to undo ownership for the relationships of others?  When I think about my early ministry, that question is downright scary.  But I’ve found Friedman’s concept of differentiation to be immensely helpful to me as a leader, as I negotiate a variety of triangles and seek maximum effectiveness.  We’ll give Rabbi Friedman the last word:

“Leaders who are most likely to function poorly…are those who have failed to maintain a well-differentiated position. Either they have accepted the blame owing to the irresponsibility and constant criticism of others, or they have gotten themselves into an overfunctioning position (that is, they tried too hard) and rushed in where angels and fools both fear to tread.”

P.S. For further clarification on Friedman’s theory of leadership, check out this very helpful (and brief) video:

Source: Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury 2007), 219-221.


Empathy – the Enemy?


I read an interesting piece by Mark Steyn recently that questioned to oft-vaunted “empathy” of the Left.  The occasion for this discussion was the horror that some members of the media showed when Rick Santorum explained the circumstances around the death of an infant child.  In brief: though told that the baby would live only hours outside the womb, Mr. and Mrs. Santorum decided to take the child home so that the family could meet him.  Basically, he decided to treat his non-viable child like…a life.  How strange.

Steyn points out the irony of the “empathetic” Left showing horror at this occasion:

The Left endlessly trumpets its “empathy.” President Obama, for example, has said that what he looks for in his judges is “the depth and breadth of one’s empathy.” As he told his pro-abortion pals at Planned Parenthood, “we need somebody who’s got the heart — the empathy — to recognize what it’s like to be a young teenage mom.” Empathy, empathy, empathy: You barely heard the word outside clinical circles until the liberals decided it was one of those accessories no self-proclaimed caring progressive should be without.

Of course, the irony goes deeper than this instance.  The Left’s empathy ends when it meets people with whom it disagrees:

The Left’s much-vaunted powers of empathy routinely fail when confronted by those who do not agree with them politically. Rick Santorum’s conservatism is not particularly to my taste (alas, for us genuine right-wing crazies, it’s that kind of year), and I can well see why fair-minded people would have differences with him on a host of issues… The usual rap against the Right is that they’re hypocrites — they vote for the Defense of Marriage Act, and next thing you know they’re playing footsie across the stall divider with an undercover cop at the airport men’s room. But Rick Santorum lives his values, and that seems to bother the Left even more.

All this has me wondering if empathy is much good at all.  I recently completed Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve.  If you aren’t familiar with systems theory, you probably should be.  His basic argument in this book is that leaders lead best who lead themselves.  That is, the best leaders are able to remain connected while staying differentiated (not “bound up” on a core level with those one leads).  Doing so enables leaders to take well-defined stances that, if maintained, encourage growth on the part of those around her or him.

Empathy, as it turns out, is counterproductive to this model of leadership (and maturity).  Friedman points out that “empathy” entered our language very recently, and yet in its short history has come to be viewed as indispensable in all kinds of professions and contexts.

“As lofty and noble as the concept of empathy may sound, and as well-intentioned as those may be who make it the linchpin idea of their theories…societal regression has too often perverted the use of empathy into a disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for failure to define a position, and a power tool in the hands of the “sensitive”…I have consistently found the introduction of the subject of “empathy” into family, institutional, and community meetings to be reflective of, as well as an effort to induce, a failure of nerve among its leadership.”

The basic assumption of empathy is understanding.  The classic illustration is that sympathy can look down on someone from above with pity, but empathy puts us right next to the person in trouble.  Friedman’s argument – and he is not a reactionary arch-conservative but a Reformed Rabbi and counselor – is that the empathetic stance is actually counter-productive to the growth and “self-regulation” (read: maturation, development, positive change) of the others we seek to help.

The bottom line:

“Forces that are un-self-regulating can never be made to adapt toward the strength of a system by trying to understand or appreciate their nature…it is self-regulation, not feeling for others, that is critical in the face of entities which lack that quality.” (133-135).

What do you think?  Is empathy actually holding back our churches, families, and communities?  Is empathy the enemy?