“He relished feeling cool and in control of his life, and it was disturbing to discover that there was this other thing in him, this reservoir of rage, this complex of family feelings that could suddenly explore and take control of him….It made him wonder who his real self was; and this was very disturbing.”
– Jonathan Franzen
Edwin Friedman writes, “What stood out (in leadership seminars)…is that to the extent leaders are successful in their differentiating efforts in their own family of origin, there is immediate carry-over to their functioning in the organizations (or families) which they lead.”
This should stop us dead in our tracks. It should be the voice in our ear, the whisper of a great truth, altering and influencing every interaction, every reaction and every move.
Among the great and harmful myths in the great American Business Culture Model has been the implicit belief that there is, and should be, a demarcation line separating our lives outside our jobs and our lives in vocation and occupation. “Don’t bring your family problems to work”. “Leave your office problems at the office”.
More enlightened organizations undertake to provide access to private and personal counseling services when employee performance appears to be affected by “personal” problems assumed to originate outside the work environment. But these strategies are designed to mitigate the impact of personal problems on work performance more than help employees successfully wrestle private demons and, importantly, explore the links between family history and work experience.
In his research, Friedman found a connection between leaders’ abilities to bring an understanding of the emotional factors affecting the functions of their families of origin and their success in becoming self-defined as leaders.
The practice of self-differentiated leadership – as opposed to reactive leadership – is clarified through the tough, scary, challenging and necessarily courageous work of understanding emotional systems in family of origin.
Understanding one’s emotional family systems sounds good, in an academic or theoretical context. The actual work of drilling, exploring, exposing and accepting the features of those emotional systems – of life self-examination – can turn one’s determination to jelly. (I see this play out in conversations with some of my clients. Exploring family of origin connections to leadership behaviors is “interesting”, but things get wobbly when the actual exercise is undertaken.)
My experience with clients in leadership is that many are spending time and energy trying to figure out how to react to challenges which they face, rather than defining their positions directly and clearly in the midst of those challenges. Figuring out how to react rather than self-defining means the key work of understanding family emotional systems has yet to be done.
We believe this work is more important than anything else.