Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Leading Amidst Reactivity

Leadership may be a romantic notion for the naive and inexperienced, but in reality, it's a tough business. Few do it well, fewer still excel at it. In large part, I think this is because, as Edwin Friedman posited, leadership is more a function of emotional process than expertise or competence. Simply put, leadership is about dealing with people, not things. And when you deal with people, you have to deal with emotional process.

Perhaps no other quality is more determinative of an effective leader than the capacity to deal with reactivity in emotional process. Reactivity is a product of anxiety. Leaders who work in chronically anxious systems will be most challenged by this fact, and, I suspect most leaders function in chronically anxious systems. As such, the capacity to lead in the midst of reactivity is one of the keys to effective leadership. Author John Galbraith stated, "All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership."

The prerequisite for dealing with reactivity in an anxious system, however, is the capacity of the leader to manage her or his own reactivity in the context of an anxious system. In essence, it is the ability to differentiate oneself as leader amidst the swirl of emotional process, especially in times of reactivity.
Reactivity vs. Sabotage

Leaders can help manage their own anxiety by discerning the difference between reactivity and sabotage. Reactivity is a merely an unthinking, automatic, anxious response to perceived or actual threat. Any time a leader proposes change in a system, you can expect it to be perceived as "threat" at some level, and, it will be accompanied by some level of reactivity. So, the first step in self-regulation for the leader is to just expect it--it's the norm.
Often all that is needed from the leader is to recognize reactivity: "Ah, there it is." What form reactivity takes, and who in the system manifests reactivity through automatic repertoires may be a product of the context and culture of a particular system. Because reactivity is an unthinking automatic response, it's not creative. Reactivity gets "patterned" in systems, to the point one can predict, to some extent, the ways (and sometimes who) a particular system is likely to "react" to threat, perceived or actual. Insofar as one is able to do so, a leader can develop his or her repertoire to respond to reactivity. Since reactivity is unimaginative, it almost does not matter WHAT the leader does, and matters more that the leader responds in non-reactive ways to the reactivity in the system (do not add fuel to the fire).

Helpful Responses to Reactivity:

  • Develop discernment of emotional process. Accept that reactivity is a normal response to threat.
  • Practice perspective-taking. Keep the end in view and accept reactivity as the first step in the process of change.
  • Cultivate self-awareness. Focus as much on your inner emotional process as on the emotional process of the system. Regulate your own anxiety and increase your capacity to make appropriate responses.
  • Develop a repertoire of responses. Your repertoire can span the options of ignoring it to providing a rationale response, but one necessary response is staying connected.

  • Sabotage, in contrast to reactivity, is another thing altogether. It goes beyond being an unthinking response to perceived threat. Sabotage is a willful act which has intent to subvert or undermine. It must be addressed because willfulness introduces toxicity in the system, detracts from the issue at hand, and derails process.

    Helpful Responses to Sabotage.

  • Cultivate persistence of vision. To help the system get to where it's going, you'll need to navigate through all that's in between here and there. Focus on the there.
  • Follow your guiding principles, live up to your standards. "Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anybody expects of you. Never excuse yourself," said Henry Ward Beecher.
  • Raise your tolerance level for pain. Remember that when reactivity is directed at the leader, it's not about you, it's about the leader.
  • Remember your leadership function in the system.
  • Be flexible, and if necessary, prepare to be resilient.

  • Leaders need to learn to function in the midst of reactivity. In fact, their capacity to do that well may be the most valuable gift they provide to the systems they lead. Douglas McArthur said, "A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. He does not set out to be a leader, but becomes one by the equality of his actions and the integrity of his intent."

    Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of Perspectives on Congregational Leadership, and The Hidden Lives of Congregations. He contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.



    1. Lovin that family systems theory...a reliable guide for keeping self between the ditches. Thanks for posting.

    2. Excellent. Thanks for sharing this.

    3. An interesting article. As an LMFT I appreciate the systemic view of church leadership. I wonder, though, how the suggested responses to anxiety could be better fleshed out in order to better reflect the level of differentiation Bowen suggests for those working with anxious systems. One's level of differentiation will play a significant role in their ability to implement your suggestions.