Leadership Approaches – Emotional Systems, Self-Differentiation

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Part of the follow ministry resources: Christian Leadership, Empowerment, Transformational Leadership

Closely related fields: Leadership and Intuition, Feelings, and Values; Leadership and Emotional Intelligence, Primal/Resonant Leadership

Emotional Systems, Theory

A significant block of leadership literature is based on the principles of emotional systems theory. This stresses that leaders are participants in systems of interdependent relationships that create an emotional field or environment. Disruptions to the status quo test the strength of a system, causing it to shift either into unhealthy reactivity on one hand or perhaps productive growth-oriented behaviors on the other. During these times, leaders “influence the field.” They may be highly anxious and push the system into viral behaviors. Or, they may be the “less anxious presence” who provide calm and courageous guidance. The key to being less anxious is self-differentiation, i.e. the ability to remain emotionally connected to anxious people but self-managing enough to remain free of anxious reactivity in themselves. This allows leaders to inspire hope and challenge people to significant levels of growth.

Emotional systems theory says cultures experience periods when anxiety surges and brings widespread uncertainty and unrest. Our era would qualify, some of it due to the radical shifts inherent in postmodernity, and some of it stemming from the unraveling of many institutions and structures that have traditionally provided cultural stability. In these times, people begin to act out their anxieties through extreme, polarizing behaviors that may even come to be regarded as normal. For example, they may staunchly resist change on one hand or champion ill-conceived quick-fix solutions to their problems on the other. Since the demands of growth are so challenging, people become entrenched or “stuck” in unproductive patterns of behavior. This is often protected by an overemphasis on empathy and consensus instead of principle-centered direction. This environment can be toxic for leaders, causing many who lead simply to adapt to immaturity. This is in contrast to the self-differentiated leader who can be “together” with the people’s concerns yet with the emotional capacity to be “separate,” manage one’s own anxiety, and challenge and equip people to grow beyond their present limitations.

Emotional systems is based on the theory of the late Dr. Murray Bowen and the organization that now bears his name, Bowen Center (formerly Georgetown Famil Center). Leaders of churches and other institutions still frequent the center for trainings that have continued long after his death. The application to religious organizations was best expressed by Rabbi Ed Friedman and his landmark text, Generation to Generation: Family Processes in Church and Synagogue. As one of the educators at the Georgetown Center, he impacted many other religious authors.

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Emotional Systems and Emotional Intelligence, How are They Alike and Different?

A key to becoming the self-differentiated leader as described in emotional systems theory is to understand the emotional processes learned in one’s family of origin and other life circumstances, and to help others do the same.

A closely related field is Emotional Intelligence (EI), with its leadership expression, Primal/Resonant Leadership. Emotional Systems and EI are similar in that they both deal with emotional processes. They are also different in at least three ways. First, Emotional Systems sees all of our interactions in relationship to others in the system, especially in units such as “triangles.” EI is somewhat more individualistic. Second, Emotional Systems grows out of an interest in the emotional wiring one receives in family-of-origin and early life experiences, and how the use of genograms and other methods increases self-awareness. EI respects these dynamics, but focuses more on skill development to improve a leader’s identification with emotional processes. At the risk of over-simplication, one might say that Emotional Systems focuses on altering behavior from the inside out through understanding one’s deep-seated emotional wiring, and EI focuses on altering behavior at the level of growth exercises. Third, Emotional Systems stresses “self-differentiation” where leaders, while indeed “connected” to others’ emotions, must “separate” by focusing not on others, but on one’s own functioning in the emotional system. EI, on the other hand, stresses identification or “resonance” with the emotional needs of others, and thus functioning as a more empathetic presence. Both make important contributions to the tasks and relationships of leadership.

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Resources on Emotional Systems

This Ministry Resource Guide focuses on books that are most useful for congregational leadership. A separate section is devoted to EI Primal/Resonant Leadership. They are listed in alphabetical order, not by preference, as each makes a unique contribution to the field.

Understanding Churches as Emotional Systems:

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Applications of Emotional Systems Theory to Congregational Leadership:

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Guides for Leaders to Understand Family-of-Origin and Emotional Processes:

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Training in Emotional Systems

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