Are You a Self-Differentiated Leader? If Not, You Need to Become One

Leadership is an important topic for me. I spent years in leadership in various ministry positions, and I continue to take on leadership roles within my newer vocation of marriage and family therapy. But leadership has become more and more of an important topic for me these last couple of years because I know I have not always led well.

Unfortunately, I probably made the mistake of many leaders by “imbibing on data and technique” rather than working on the central task that makes a leader…well, a great leader.

What is the central task that leaders need to be working on? Themselves. By working on themselves, resolving their personal and emotional issues, they then lead out of a more effective and differentiated place than leaders who do not.

I’ve written on the importance of self-differentiation on several occasions. I wrote about the difference between authenticity and differentiation. The role of family of origin work in pastoral leadership. That leaders are only as successful as their levels of differentiation.

Most recently, I wrote an article for Catalyst on Anxiety and Church Leadership.

I think Edwin Friedman’s work on differentiated leadership and his focus on the emotional process of leader (especially how they regulate anxiety) is what sets him apart from many other leadership theories. I also think it sets him above most leadership ideas because he gets to the heart of leadership which ultimately emanates from the leader. And the leader who is differentiated can more effectively lead. Friedman says this about differentiation and how it compares to collecting data and gathering more technique:

It was at this point that I began to realize that before any technique or data could be effective, leaders had to be willing to face their own selves. Otherwise the effect of technique was like trying to build up energy in a spring where the initial twists store up more potential and then suddenly, with one twist too many, the entire spring unwinds. If this sounds similar to the recover problems of alcoholics, there may be more to the association than we would care to admit….the chronic anxiety in American society has made the imbibing of data and technique addictive precisely because it enables leaders not to have to face their selves. (pp. 21)

I highly recommend reading Friedman’s works if you have not. I think it’s a must for all leaders. Check out A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, also check out Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue.

Both of these books will revolutionize how you think about leadership.

For now, take a look at this video which tries to sum up some of Friedman’s views on leadership in a simple way.


  1. by MK @ Teach Sunday School on March 19, 2012  10:06 am Reply

    I feel just like you do—leadership is a very important subject of conversation for me, as I’m one of my church’s children’s ministry leaders. I’m always interested in learning how to be the best leader possible. I love your comment that the central task that leaders need to be working on is themselves—what a simple yet complicated thought! Thank you for sharing this post—it gave me a lot to think about.

  2. by Gary Reed on March 27, 2012  8:15 am Reply

    Rhett, I agree 100% with you on this post. I am baffled why ministry leaders focus more on data and techniques than how truth directly affects their relationships. Then I remember my own willful and human tendencies in processing ministry data rather than facing my own emotional disturbances from life and relationships. Yet again, in this post I see myself and liked the video application that reminds me to be emotionally surrendered that helps me be self-differentiated when in stressful situations and relationships.

  3. by Thomas Babington Macaulay on May 25, 2012  11:31 am Reply

    Interesting Article, I am a news correspondent & writing an article on Gabriel of Urantia . As far as I got know, he is serving society from many years. He has established sustainable communities and ecovillages in the world with multiple artistic organizations and service programs for humankind.

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