I teach leadership in both undergraduate and graduate programs at my university. Additionally, I provide leadership development and management consulting in the private and public sectors. So much of what happens in both settings revolves around providing tools and specialized knowledge that facilitate leadership development and effective leadership and management execution. Without exception, students and/or clients are looking for tools, resources, strategies, and specialized knowledge which will allow them to help resolve barriers, facilitate, growth, and maximize performance.
Clearly, there is a burgeoning hunger to know what it takes to be the type of leader that effects change in people, performance, and systems. This is certainly worthy and critically important. We are in constant need of women and men who have the knowledge, expertise, and imagination required to effectively lead our complex organizations and the people who serve within those organizations.
So, why, despite all their expertise, education, and knowledge, do so many leaders (and consultants) experience frustration over what appears to be their insignificant impact on organizational performance and the behavior of those who serve within those organizations?
There is often a critical missing component which seems to exist well off the popular “leadership conversation grid” but which may be the ultimate arbiter of leadership and management effectiveness. This component becomes especially important in light of the rising tide of anxiety and emotional reactivity felt within society and expressed within many of our established institutions, religious bodies, and businesses. What is this component? The self-differentiated leader.
I first came across the concept of the self-differentiated leader through the writing of Edwin H. Friedman in his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (1999, 2007). The more I read Friedman’s book the more it resonates with what I see, what I experience, and, unfortunately, what I often succumb to in my own work as a professor and consultant. He provides clear, consistent, and unapologetic reminders of what is required in order to become a self-differentiated leader.
For the sake of brevity, I list below 7 themes, drawn from Friedman’s work, that may indicate the lack of self-differentiation within a leader.
- An obsession with technique and data over a concern for the development of the self and the “presence” of the leader. This leader focuses only on technique, data, and style leaving people and the systems in which they operate untouched and unchanged. This leader addresses “people” issues and problems using technical expertise and data-driven solutions. She often finds herself frustrated because, despite her expertise and competence as a leader, “people do not, will not, or cannot change.”
- A focus and priority placed on adding tools and skills to one’s professional portfolio and experiences to one’s resume while ignoring the leader’s own emotional development when it is the latter, not the former, that creates the most significant impact on the performance of people and organizations.
- A concern to “fit in” rather than address the destructive patterns of the emotional systems around the leader. These leaders lack a clear voice and uncompromising stance that makes them vulnerable to weakness and inaction. These leaders, when faced with resistance, will acquiesce, rather than stand opposed, to the destructive behavior of others.
- An inability to regulate one’s own emotions and to quickly get “infected” by the anxiety, impatience, or reactivity of others. These leaders “cave in” to other’s needs for safety, quick fixes, demands for certainty, and the elimination of ambiguity.
- A tendency to blame people and other external variables for their problems and challenges. This includes an ongoing vigilance that highlights and obsesses over weaknesses and pathologies, rather than the strengths, of people and organizations.
- A willingness, and even an eagerness, to behave invasively with others. A complete failure to honor the boundaries and autonomy of others and a demand for sameness and alignment.
- A consistent and continual display of empathy when taking a stand and speaking to the toxic actions, assumptions, and “herd behaviors” of others is both needed and required to bring change.
All of these factors, and others mentioned by Friedman, contribute to a leader who has “lost their nerve.” Essentially, leaders can be ineffective because, despite being bright, educated, and talented, they fail to identify and influence the emotional systems in which they and others operate. Perhaps the fatal flaw is that for those of us who call ourselves leaders, educators, and consultants who often find ourselves frustrated over the lack of progress in people and organizations despite our best efforts, we have failed to begin working with the most important person in this equation: ourselves.
Freidman, E. H. (2007). A failure of nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix. New York: Seabury.