Differentiated Leaders in an Anxious World

Dear Friends!

One of my favorite authors on leadership is the late Dr. Edwin Friedman. This Jewish rabbi was a family counselor turned international speaker who went against the grain suggesting that leadership was not based on inborn traits or learned knowledge, but rather an emotional process he called ‘differentiation.’ 

Differentiation is essentially knowing where one ends, and another begins.

He suggested that we, as biological creatures, are not only made up of of differentiated cells, but we function like them. We navigate naturally towards community, whether it’s our biological family, our church, community or nation. A healthy individual is one that doesn’t get lost in the system, or the emotional stress of the structure but rather maintains their integrity or shape, and grows to become comfortable with the discomfort or stress of others without taking it on themselves. In fact, all of human progress, and even survival depends on recognizing and remaining differentiated from outside, foreign contagions.

If you get the corona virus for example, you’d better hope your immune system is differentiated enough to recognize it, and fight it, otherwise the host becomes the virus which ultimately results in death. Our bodies, thankfully come built with an immune system which preserves the integrity of our ‘selves’. To know what that we are not the virus, not the chronic anxiety around us, is the first step in becoming differentiated in an anxiety filled system.

He suggested that our post-modern age, much like in the 14-15th Century when the world was shifting and mental models of reality were coming unglued through discovery (e.g. Galileo, Magellan), is chronically stuck in old mentalities which work against the explorer and progress itself. In times of mass migration, global virus fears, and a host of other changes, chronic anxiety enters the social system, like a cancer, and reveals itself through a variety of characteristics:

1. Herding: a tribal, group-think over individuality. Those that go against the herd will be resisted and shamed. A “are you in or out” way of seeing things which produces a host of false dichotomies.

2. Quick Fix: instead of dealing with the root of the issues, anxious social structures have a low threshold for temporary pain for long term gain. Just give me a pill, a new political leader or pastor, anything but require me to under go adaptive growth!

3. Blame Displacement: In unhealthy systems, nobody wants to take responsibility for themselves and finger is continually pointing to the other.

What was once considered immovable in Western society is moving, the pillars of ‘sound reason’ seems to be shifting like sand. Conversation, especially online, has become theater and nobody seems to remember how to listen. In chronic anxious systems, learning, which is requires vulnerability and an acceptance that we don’t in fact know everything, suffers the most.

Friedman talks about this unhealthy grasping for certainty, versus open handed learning, when the ground begins to shake. We seem to avoid the adaptive pains at all cost. When the new world was discovered, instead of excitement, mass fear gripped the hearts of villagers and they migrated to the city centers. It’s incredible to read the history of the explorer’s, the resistance and blind ignorance in the system. Even Galileo, who was ultimately imprisoned for suggesting the earth wasn’t the center of the universe, couldn’t even get his detractors to look for themselves through his telescope! Real progress takes risk, upsets systems, and goes against the grain. We need more explorers.

When anxiety rules the day, we have to ask ourselves what does real leadership look like?

I believe Jesus of Nazareth was the most differentiated example in the history of the world. This man stood against the fierce hatred and coercive power structures and remained calm, spoke truth and was perfectly confident in His identity to do so. He knew where He came from, He knew the Father, and as the political and religious systems began to crack open, not even a Roman cross was enough to deter Him. In fact, He turned the system upside down by using that very cross of suffering, revealing love as the most influential power.

Jesus didn’t run or hide, but became an emotional immune system everywhere he went. He didn’t take on the stress of the system, but allowed it to tremble, ache, and eventually topple as it was forced to give way to a better and more beautiful reflection of how we should be as a people – enter the Church!  This missional, family-centered community that undermines the anxious structures of the world, must remains calm, centered, and bring hope through the very same suffering, patient love. When we take on the structures of the world, the victory is lost. When we put on Christ, we lay down worldly weapons for something much greater.

We don’t need to be right. We are loved. We aren’t defined by our beliefs, we are valued by the Father as seen clearly in the Son. There’s such freedom on the other side of certainty. Salvation is a Person and knowing Jesus is eternal life, not fact believing or belonging to the right herd. I think this will only get worse, and those who are differentiated will be increasingly persecuted for ‘lacking empathy’ or ‘causing division’. Friedman says when the anxious system reacts, it’s actually a sign that you are doing well as a leader – causing people to take responsibility for themselves verses taking on the enmeshing anxiety of the group.

So stay calm. Deep breath. The stress of others is an opportunity for them to grow, it’s their gift, not yours. You have enough troubles of your own without taking on someone else’s unhealthy anxiety. Your gift to the world is to remain differentiated, loving folks toward growth. This results in a beautiful unity of differentiated individuals who relate to one another meaningfully – versus this unhealthy herding that robs individuality.

Let’s remember who we are, and who we are not. We are sojourners who are not to be infected with the world: the herding, the anxiety, the quick-fix mentality around us. Our God calls us to shine as lights, we must not lose our saltiness. The Father’s love over each of us brings peace to our storm, and like Christ, allows us to stand in resistance to the worldly forces around us. We can’t do it on our own, this is about surrender and the dangerous duty of believing the love of God over your life. We cannot give to those around us something we are not experiencing ourselves.  We are the spiritual and emotional immune system this world needs – we cannot allow ourselves to be absorbed into the cancerous forces attempting to invade the integrity of our individual and communal faith.

You can read his book too: Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman. Let me now what you think!

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