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“Differentiation means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding pressures; to say “I” when others are demanding “you” and “we”.” – Edwin H. Friedman

“Self-differentiation always triggers sabotage.” – Edwin H. Friedman

9781596271678_p0_v2_s260x420 And the ninth book on my list of 15 Spiritual Formation Books that have influenced me is A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, written by Edwin H. Friedman. Friedman (1932–1996) was Jewish Rabbi and family therapist. Before his death he was well respected among both religious (Jewish and Christian) and secular establishments as a therapist and leadership consultant. He took the concept of “Self differentiation” and family systems theory, as developed by Bowen, and applied them to congregational leadership systems and leadership in general. His book, Generation to Generation, was so influential that it is now required reading at many Christian Seminaries across the country. The book was written primarily for congregational leaders for the purpose of helping them develop in three areas:

  • Being self differentiated
  • Being non-anxious
  • Being present with those one is leading

Friedman defined self differentiation as, “Knowing where you begin, and others end”:

“Differentiation is the lifelong process of striving to keep one’s being in balance through the reciprocal external and internal processes of self-definition and self-regulation. It is a concept that can sometimes be difficult to focus on objectively, for differentiation means the capacity to become oneself out of one’s self, with minimum reactivity to the positions or reactivity of others.”

This, “reactivity to the positions or reactivity of others”, has to do with anxiety. Friedman believed that how a person handled anxiety, their own as well as the anxieties of others, was a maturity issue, and had more to do with the success or failure of an organization than simply learning data and techniques, whether the “organization” was a family, business, or Church. One illustration he’d use (I cant remember which of his books I read it in), is that of falling dominos. The anxiety that organizations experience when confronted with change is like someone knocking over a domino. The domino falls, causing other dominos to fall in succession. One by one each domino falls…UNTIL, one domino chooses to stand firm. The self differentiated leader is a principled leader who knows himself, and is in healthy control of his emotions, so he does not “react” to the anxiety of the group. Friedman, however, is clear to point out that such a leader:

“…is not an autocrat who tells others what to do or orders them around, although any leader who defines himself or herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny… is someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about…. is someone who can separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence… is someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.”

In the presence of such a leader the dominos stop falling. The snowball effect of escalating anxieties, and the sabotage that others engage in, are lessened as people learn to stand upright in the face of a crises.

Of course, for such a leader to have this kind of influence, they must be present. It’s easy to be non-anxious if one removes themselves from the company of others. The idea is to absorb the anxiety, to remain non-reactive in the presence of instability. Friedman taught that, “Nurturing growth always follows two principles. One is: Stay out of its way; you cannot ‘grow’ another by will or technique. But the second is: Do not let it ‘overgrow’ you.”

In A Failure of Nerve, Friedman further developed the ideas he presented in Generation to Generation, presenting to us a vision of the self-differentiated leader as someone who:

  • is able to detach from the emotional reactions of others
  • is principle centered and clear about their vision
  • is transparent and willing to admit areas of weakness
  • has the stamina to withstand resistance from others
  • is able to regulate his own emotions in the face of sabotage

Although this is marketed as a book on leadership, it has done more to expose my lack of spiritual and relational maturity than maybe any other (the only other leadership book to affect me in a similar way was Dan Allender’s Leading With a Limp). A Failure of Nerve exposed the reasons I had failed in many areas of my life, not just relationally, but also in accomplishing goals that were important to me. It continues to challenge me to grow into maturity, and one of the most important ways it does this is by reminding me that we are only as mature as our relationships reveal us to be, and the importance of staying connected to those we love and serve, even those that are difficult. The concept of self-differentiation, and the role anxiety plays in our relationships, and the need to manage it well, has been life changing to me. No. I have not mastered it, no one ever arrives at being fully differentiated, only Jesus can lay claim to that, but this book has helped me to be quite a bit more resilient in the face of crises, to cultivate healthier relationships with others,and to focus on walking in my own integrity. I’m also better able to stay connected with others even while remaining my own separate self, and regulating my own emotions in response to the reactivity of others; how to not only help others take healthy responsibility for themselves, but maybe just as important, how to stay out of the way of the growth of others. We leaders have a way of thinking we know more than everyone else, at least more than those we serve, and the temptation is to try and lead others by trying to change those who do not want to change, or control them. One of the lessons Friedman has taught me is that:

“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.”

In the face of change, or other crises, its easy to allow anxiety, our own or others, to overwhelm or distract us, diverting us from that which God has called us to be or do. Or maybe we resort to quick fixes as we try to control and change others as a way of accomplishing our goals. It takes courage, or “nerve” to choose another way to be and lead.

If you are interested in a quick, and entertaining, visual illustration that summarizes some of the principles in this book, here’s a link to a fun video that does an excellent job. Check it out:

“Let us Trust in God’s love more than we believe in the Fear that paralyzes us!” – Edwin H. Friedman

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