Monday, July 21, 2014

Six "Tells" of the Differentiated Leader

I had an interesting conversation with a doctoral student during a recent trip. He was at the proposal writing stage of his study but struggling with putting his thoughts together. He said he wanted to "study something about differentiation of self and pastoral leadership." I said it sounded like he was at "the fuzzy stage of research," that point where we have a notion about what we want to write about, but not really sure what, exactly.

"Yes!" he said, "that's exactly where I'm at!"

 We talked some more about his ideas. I found it an enriching conversation, and it sparked in me some thinking on the issue. Recently, someone else had asked me "How can leaders know if they are functioning in differentiated ways?" That's a great question given (1) the limitations of our own subjectivity; (2) our propensity for self-referencing; and (3) the challenge of Bowen Family Systems Theory to "stick to observable facts" when interpreting emotional process.

One common error is the misunderstanding of striving to "be a self-differentiated leader." That is, achieving some mythic state of being. Leaders will do better to focus on what Murray Bowen called the "functional level of differentiation." I think that means that the "tell" of a differentiated leader is more about one's capacity to function in context and relationships and less about an over-focus on some internal state of being arrived at through gnosis, expertise, or practices.

Here are six ways to"tell" one is functioning as a differentiated leader: 

  1. Assess your pattern of functioning over time. Is there evidence of consistent self-regulation and effective functioning over a span of periods of high-anxiety, crises, stress, and times of relative calm? 
  2. Assess your repertoire for responding to rather than reacting against anxious behaviors and situations. Do have have a wider range of responsive options than you did previously? Can you both act differently and think divergently? 
  3. Assess to what extent and in what ways your functioning directly influences toward the better the functioning of people most closest to you. 
  4. Assess your capacity to consistently take a more principled position and hold it against the opposition of important persons in the system. Do you function consistently out of your values than out of what is expedient? 
  5. Assess the extent to which your functioning is increasingly mature and non-reactive in the face of stressors that used to trigger reactivity and poorer functioning. 
  6. Assess the extent to which other people close to your leadership position exhibit higher levels of functioning and less reactivity (fewer cutoffs, less enmeshment, less seriousness, reduced gossip, less secrecy, etc.). 

My new doctoral student friend thanked me for our conversation. He reported being encouraged and having some new ideas after our talk. I think he'll do well with what sounds like an interesting research project. I look forward to his research. I hope he'll discover additional evidences of a differentiated leader. I think we can always use a few more.

 Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Ministry (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.


  1. Very practical way to help assess the differentiation of one's self. Of course, it's very easy to assess it in others. ;)

  2. Thank you Israel for your work in this area, I always find that your comments invite me to think about the theory in interesting ways. I wonder though is there a danger in some misunderstanding the "tells" as mere techniques that one can master without working through the concepts in one's own family of origin as well as in other relational systems. What continues to fascinate me about BFST is the way it forces me to go back to my own family, whenever my immaturity and reactionary self hinders my relating to others.