Becoming a better leader
Imagine yourself sitting in the stands in a high school gym, waiting for the start of a basketball game.
I know, in this time of the coronavirus and social distancing, you might have trouble even imagining what it is like to be in a big crowd of people indoors, but give it a try.
Let’s imagine it’s a game between two rivals and the stands are full of excited parents, students, and fans.
There’s a buzz in the air as the two teams warm-up, excited to take the floor against their arch-rivals.
Take a moment to soak in the environment.
There’s the cheerleaders over in the corner, the students sitting courtside, and the parents coming in late from work, hoping to make the tip-off.
You look across the court and see the players huddling and the coaches pacing nervously along the sidelines.
Oh, and last but certainly not least, there are the officials, those men and women in striped shirts who will be officiating the game. They’re going through their own pre-game rituals and routines and the prepare for a game they know will be hotly contested.
When we imagine this scenario, what we likely see is different individuals, different people.
Players, fans, coaches, and officials.
All individuals alone on their own islands (John Donne).
Or, are they?
For 9 years, that was me. I was a basketball official. And, if you or your kid played HS basketball anywhere in the metro area over the past decade, there’s a chance I officiated one of your games!
And, early on at least, as much as I thought of myself as a unique individual, there were many times that I learned that I was far less separated than I thought!
When the coaches would get mad, when the fans would scream, when the players would get frustrated—I would find myself being affected by their energy!
And, as an official, this is problematic.
When there is a pivotal moment in the game and a collision occurs, I have to be able to make a decision based on what the rule book says,
Not based on how I think the players will complain, the fans will respond, and the coaches will scream.
In theory, it’s a simple thing to do.
In training, we read the rule book and have to commit each infraction to memory.
But, in the heat of the moment, when the players are complaining, when the fans are yelling, and when the coaches are screaming it can be hard not to succumb to the pressure of the moment.
And, this whole idea of being an distinct, separate individual sort of goes out the window.
If you’re at a game, and you see an official hemming and hawing, struggling to make a call—often it’s not that they don’t know the rule—it’s that they’re anxious about facing the wrath of the players, fans, and coaches.
We as people are far more connected to one another than we’d like to think.
I’d bet we’ve all found ourselves making decisions based on what other people would think, because we’re worried about how they’d react, or because we’re feeling the pressure of the moment.
And, if you don’t think you’ve done that, especially during this Covid-19 crisis, you’re not telling the truth.
So much, so much of the social unrest happening in regards to mask wearing, social distancing, and even to some extent protesting has been people simply reacting to the heightened anxiety of others, rather than operating out of deeply help values and beliefs.
If you’ve found yourself in such a situation.
Worrying about the reactions of others.
Feeling the pressure to conform.
If you want to be a better leader and decision maker in your work, your family, or your life, keep reading.
I am talking about something called Family Systems Theory.
Family Systems Theory was developed by a Psychiatrist named Murray Bowen who recognized that people often behaved differently around different groups of people.
In short, family systems theory is a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the complex interactions in the unit. It is the nature of a family that its members are intensely connected emotionally.
Often people feel distant or disconnected from their families, but this is more feeling than fact. Families so profoundly affect their members’ thoughts, feelings, and actions that it often seems as if people are living under the same “emotional skin.”
The phrase, “If momma isn’t happy, then nobody is happy,” I think speaks well to this basic idea.
The basic concept is that we are far more influenced by the emotions of those within our family unit then we might think and that more often than not, our own actions are simply reactions, rather than well thought out decisions.
Now, while Murray Bowen first applied this line of thinking to families, others have expanded this work into other fields.
For instance, I study family systems theory in the church context. One Rabbi named Edwin Friedman took Bowen’s principles and noticed how religious congregations tend to act and behave a lot like a family.
And, while maybe you’re thinking to yourself, I don’t go to church or my family isn’t around anymore, the basic principles are still relevant to you.
Whether an actual family, organization, or business, when people come together for any length of time, they tend of behave in rather predictable ways.
Family Systems Theory has eight core concepts that attempt to describe these patterns.
Now for the sake of time and attention, I’m not going to go into all eight, rather I’m just going to look at one, differentiation of self.
“Families and other social groups tremendously affect how people think, feel, and act, but individuals vary in their susceptibility to a “groupthink” and groups vary in the amount of pressure they exert for conformity. These differences between individuals and between groups reflect differences in people’s levels of differentiation of self… People with a poorly differentiated “self” depend so heavily on the acceptance and approval of others" (http://thebowencenter.org/theory/eight-concepts/).
Think back to my opening about the basketball game.
The official struggling to make their mind up, caving into the pressure of the players, fans, and coaches is an example of a poorly differentiated self.
For the first few years of my officiating career, as much as I knew the rules, as much I completed the training, and as a great of shape as I was in, there were still times where an angry coach or upset fans could rattle me.
And again, maybe you’re thinking to yourself,
“Loren, I have no intention of ever officiating basketball games,” or
“my family isn’t even around anymore, I’m not sure how this applies to me.”
Whatever our situation, whatever our context, unless you’re a hermit—and I know we might all feel like that during Covid—but the reality is that we all interact with people.
Let’s say you’re a realtor trying to sell a family’s home. Obviously they want to sell it for a good price, but when a good offer comes in and they refuse because their holding out hope of a golden goose falling in their lap, you’ve got to be able to manage your own anxiety about wanting to make a sale with their anxiety about selling for top dollar and calmly and respectfully advise them that they shouldn’t turn down said offer.
Or, maybe at work, your coworker or business partner wants to take the business in a different direction. You feel like their desire for change is an overreaction, but you’re afraid to upset the apple cart further, so you cave into their desires.
Or, let’s says you’re a small business owner and you’ve got employees you can’t afford. They’re begging you for more hours but your sales have been struggling due to Covid. You know that if you overextend your payroll, you could put the entire business in jeopardy, but you don’t want to alienate your employees, so you keep them on fulltime—even though you can’t afford it.
Now, let me be clear,
Turning down the offer on the home or keeping employees might be the right thing to do.
But, as a leader, and you are a leader, you need to make these decisions based on your own values and beliefs.
Not simply because you’re afraid of the other person’s reactions.
This avoidance of conflict is something we’re all likely aware of on some level.
It’s natural to want to avoid stress and anxiety.
It’s the reason I always try to haggle with someone whenever I make a purchase from Craigslist or the like. Because I know that often, people won’t want to come into “conflict” over the purchase price and will instead acquiesce to my offer.
As leaders in our fields of business. And yes, you are a leader—or at least can be a leader, there are three basic things we can do to become better leaders.
Some people will call this “non-anxious leadership,” which is a bit of misnomer because we all have anxiety.
The important point is that in the midst of conflict or uncertainty, we need to first be able to recognize our anxiety around a situation and respond appropriately rather than react instinctually.
So, there are three basic principles suggested by Edwin Friedman
1. Be differentiated.
“A person with a well-differentiated “self” recognizes his realistic dependence on others, but he can stay calm and clear headed enough in the face of conflict, criticism, and rejection to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotionality.”
Now, I’m a pastor. And if there’s anything that matches the emotionality of a family, it’s got to be a church. When it comes to people’s long-held values and beliefs, that can be an extremely tricky thing to come in as a leader and say, “we need to start doing things differently.”
The church I pastor is an LGBT+ affirming church, meaning we fully welcome and include LGBT+ persons. Now, you’re likely aware that historically in our country, Christianity hasn’t been that welcoming of such persons. And, I’ve had several conversations with people who where aghast that my church held such an opinion.
Several months ago, I remember calling one organization that focused exclusively on helping church form their legal and business structures. After a couple initial phone calls, they seemed eager to help out my church too.
But a couple days later I got a random call from another representative in the organization saying they weren’t a good fit with my church’s values. Bummer.
Even though my church hasn’t been around that long, there have been countless opportunities where I’ve had to make hard decisions that weren’t always well received by everyone.
Early on in fact, when as a new church the goal is to attract and retain as many people as possible, I’ve had to say to folks, “look, this is what the church is about. I want you to be a part of this, this is how it’s going to be,” and then I’ve seen those same people leave.
Now, in situations like this, when people come up and hassle me at ThorntonFest, or businesses refuse to work with me, or church members continue to want to run the show, it’s easy to say, forget it, I’ll go it alone, and leave everyone else behind.
But, the moment we leave everyone behind we stop being a leader.
We can’t be a leader—we can’t be in business—if we refuse to associate with anyone who disagrees with us.
Now, I’m not saying we stay in a relationship with people who are abusive or manipulative, whether it’s a business partnership or a marriage, but we’re often to quick to end relationships or partnerships because we can’t handle the anxiety between the two of us.
2. The importance of staying connected.
We’ve got to stay connected with those people who disagree with us.
One of the unique things about my church is that we don’t have a list of rules or beliefs we require each person to attest to. Now, as I like to say, that’s a feature, not a bug.
We have some core principles and beliefs that are important to us, but one of those core principles is that we welcome everyone who seeks to follow in the way of Jesus.
Often I talk to people about my church and they’re curious how me or my church feels about X,Y, or Z. What I usually tell them is that while X,Y, or Z isn’t something we emphasize at our church, we’re not going to exclude anyone because it’s important to them.
Furthermore, I know there are people even within my church who hold varying opinions and beliefs on matters of faith and practice. I’m okay with that. I’m comfortable saying who I am and what I believe, and not needing total acquiescence to my beliefs.
If you’re a realtor and you break off the contract every time you have a disagreement with a homeowner over selling price…
If you’re a small busines owner and you refuse to hire anyone who doesn’t have 100% alignment with your business principles…
If you’re a salesperson and you refuse to sell to anyone who has a Trump or Biden bumper sticker on their car…
But the point is, we’re not going to be in business long if we can’t stay connected to the people we find ourselves in disagreements with from time to time.
As a realtor, being able to calmly say to the homeowner, “I understand you want top dollar, but waiting for the ultimate offer may end up costing you in the long run,” is non-anxious leadership.
As a business owner, being able to calmly say to your employees, “I understand you have bills to pay and kids to feed, but if we don’t cut somewhere, it may end of costing the entire business,” is non-anxious leadership.
As a pastor, being able to say to a disgruntled community member, “I understand what you think the Bible says, but I believe differently,” is non-anxious leadership.
Again, this isn’t sacrificing your values and beliefs, it’s instead saying, “this is who I am, this is what I believe. I’m willing to work with you, but I’m not going to stop being me.”
3. Watch out for the sabotage.
Now, if you’ve made it this far, you’re probably thinking to yourself, “hey, I’ve made it, I’m a leader.”
See, the thing about systems, whether they be families, businesses, churches, or even nations, is that we don’t like change, and we instinctually revert to the status quo.
Edwin Friedman called this sabotage.
And, as much as I like to think that people are deviously devising plans to sabotage me and my efforts, the vast majority of the time, people are simply reacting mindlessly in accordance to their emotions.
So, the final principle of leadership is simply to beware, to watch out for sabotage.
Whether they mean to or not, when you start behaving differently, even if its because of your intentions to act less-anxiously and more inline with your values and beliefs, people will notice. You’re making a change in the system, and changes create ripples…
But, now, more than ever, you need to keep holding the line.
So, to summarize, be your own person. Be aware of your own emotions and anxieties. Understand what can trigger you. In officiating, we’d talk about being aware of what coaches could say to “hook us.”
Know yourself. Pay attention to your thoughts, feelings, and emotions in the moment.
Be willing to face your anxiety and the anxiety of another to act in accordance with your values and beliefs.
Second, stay connected. You’re not leading anyone if you’re walking alone.
Third, watch your head! Nobody likes change, and therefore we’ll do everything in our power to resist it. Stay the course!
If there’s one thing I’m sure of in this world, it’s that we need more good leaders.
Leaders who won’t react anxiously, but will respond based on deeply held values and beliefs, even in the face of disagreement.
Be you, stay connected, watch out!
The more you grow as a person, the better leader you become.