The Thoughtful Leader

Author Archives: Leslie Ann Fox

Music as a Metaphor for Business Leadership

I was pleased to read in the New York Times last Sunday that music continues to offer a useful metaphor for business leaders, who have often turned to musical groups like New York’s Orpheus Orchestra, and to a conductor/cellist like Benjamin Zander, author of “The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life” (Penguin Books 2002). Jazz pianist John Kao apparently ,delivered a message to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last Saturday as part of a jazz performance, according to reporter Steve Lohr (“Bright Ideas: The Yin and Yang of Corporate Innovation,” NYTimes, Business Section, 1-29-12, p. 3).

In his performance John Kao told business listeners that jazz “demonstrates some of the tensions in innovation, between training and discipline on one side and improvised creativity on the other.” In a jazz combo there is a free flow of leadership that passes among the various instruments, with each taking a turn at exploring the tune with unique features of sound, texture and dynamics. But underlying those improvised solos is a solidly competent group of players and a shared rhythm, melody, and harmony that shape the whole direction of the tune.

In classical performances, like those of string quartets where the music is written down (and is “interpreted” within much more clearly defined boundaries than in jazz), the leadership can also pass around depending on the personalities of the performers. Often the cellist, who has the lowest line in the music and sets the harmony, will lead the other players in setting the tempo for the whole piece. The first violinist, with the highest part, will make sure everyone else is “in tune” before the performance starts.

In every kind of musical performance, whether jazz or classical, all the players must have “training and discipline,” as Kao notes. They have to be able to play their instruments cleanly and effectively, producing a good sound on their own, before they join the others. When they do join the others is when the “creativity” part begins, whether it is jazz improvisation or interpretation of a written classical score. If everyone has the training and discipline to begin with, they can then begin to “cook” together – letting their imaginations soar, catching the energy from each other, and really making music.

I’m a classically trained violinist and I regularly play in a string quartet, so I know what this excitement can be like, but I also know how hard I have to practice my own part before the group gets together. Without this kind of practice, the quartet would sound awful! And I know many jazz musicians who have the same experience as they seek a balance between training/discipline and creativity.

So how does this metaphor apply to the business world? What’s your experience with the balance between training/discipline and creativity in your workplace? Clearly people are hired because they are qualified to walk in the door, sit down at their desks, log onto their computers and begin to do the work of the day. But when does the creativity kick in? Does it emerge from the synergy of the work team? Does it come from excitement with the content of the work itself? From having individual and shared goals for productivity, achievement, and success? Getting to the end of the song and loving it?

What kind of music gets played at your workplace? I assume that your colleagues have the right training and discipline, but do they also play in tune with each other and do they share the harmony and the rhythm?

Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD


The Tending Instinct: An Alternate Stress Response

Book Review of The Tending Instinct: How Nurturing is Essential to Who We are and How We Live by Shelley E. Taylor (Henry Holt and Company, 2002).
Shelley Taylor is a professor of psychology at UCLA who specializes in research on stress. Several years ago she and some doctoral students were attending a lecture on responses to threat in laboratory rats. The lecturer emphasized the usual “fight or flight” response that we think of as typical reactions to threat or stress. As Dr. Taylor discussed the lecture with her students afterwards, she realized that she had often observed different reactions to stress when studying humans. One of her students commented that, “You know animal researchers study only male rats… Female rats have such rapid hormonal changes that you can’t get a clear picture of their stress responses.” Another student noted that, “Most of the biological studies of human stress use only men, too,” apparently for the same reason.
The male bias in stress research had been “a well-kept secret” for Taylor, and when she looked into it more deeply, she discovered that “prior to the mid-1990s, only about 17 percent of the participants in studies of biological responses to stress were women.” This led her to further research on female responses to stress, and she found that “females of all species, including humans, have been the primary caretakers of offspring, and females’ responses to stress… have evolved so as to include some measure of protection for their children” or others they care for. She also found that women turn to social groups in times of stress. She and her students began to broaden the accepted definitions of stress to include what they had come to see as common female behaviors when under threat, including protecting offspring and turning to friends for support. According to their discoveries, the stress response had to include “tending and befriending,” as well as “fight or flight.”
Taylor’s book, The Tending Instinct, explores this discovery in much fascinating detail, as she describes her subsequent research on the evolutionary and hormonal underpinnings of these patterns in women. The book includes chapters on “tending in marriage,” women’s friendships, the “social context of tending,” and then a final chapter on “the tending society.” This last chapter is perhaps most relevant for readers of Leading a Business in Anxious Times.
Taylor references an article from Business Week that reviews several surveys of male and female behavior in the workplace: “Whereas men and women were equivalent in strategic planning skills and issue analyses, women consistently outperformed men in motivating others, fostering communication, and listening to others,” skills dependent on knowing how to “tend and befriend” that women acquire through their biological responses to life stress. It isn’t that men don’t also have these capacities, but their hormonal make-up leads them more in the direction of “fight or flight” responses to stress. Taylor quotes a business consultant as saying that men try “to live up to an outmoded stereotype of what a male leaders should be like – aggressive, controlling, dictating solutions to problems, instead of building consensus.”
Systems-based leadership wouldn’t draw such sharp contrasts in human behavior based on gender differences alone, but would also include the level of differentiation of self in assessing stress responses. Our assumption would be that men and women who are low on the scale of differentiation would probably react to stress within the traditional frameworks of gender stereotyping. However, men and women who are higher on the scale have access to a broader range of stress responses than those who are lower on the scale. A highly differentiated male or female business leader would be able to choose whether or not to tend, befriend, fight or flee, depending on what was appropriate to the situation. He or she might also see other options when under extreme stress, such as managing self calmly and non-impulsively, looking for a broad-based assessment of the situation before reacting, searching for constructive, problem-solving alliances with colleagues, and negotiating differences effectively.
Taylor’s book raises fascinating challenges to traditional views about the stress response, but also leaves out the variation in maturity that comes from the families we grew up in and the learning we have acquired in meeting life’s challenges. It’s well written and anecdotal as well as scientific, so I encourage you to read it, broaden your own lens about the stress response, and think about where your stress responses at work might fit, if the scale of differentiation were included.
Katharine Gratwick Baker

Recent Debates in Congress

In trying to figure out what the emotional process was that swept through the U.S. Congress over the past few months, I came across an article by Stephanie J. Ferrera, MSW, called “Collective Intelligence and Differentiation of Self” (Family Systems Forum, Volume 13, Number 2, pp. 3-4).  Ferrera describes the difference between the way an anxious group makes decisions and the way a “collection of individuals” makes decisions.  In an anxious group “the combination of togetherness pressure and emotional reactivity plays out in a thousand ways: focus on others, comparing self with others, status sensitivity, low tolerance for differences…, pressure on leaders to take charge but undermining them when they do.”  With a “collection of individuals” each person can be calm, flexible, have a defined mission, focus on goals, and try to develop a climate of “thoughtful collaboration.”

A “collection of individuals” can also take responsibility for their own individual problems, tasks, and opportunities; communication among them is open and clear; and they monitor their emotional process so that they can work effectively together.

This seems to be a pretty good description of the way one would want the U.S. Congress to function when making important political and financial decisions for the country, and yet many of our elected representatives in Washington have apparently veered off course into anxious reactivity, as they express rigidly polarized “positions,” and have a very low tolerance for differences.  The sources of societal anxiety these days are huge, including an economy in a long-term downward slide, high unemployment, housing foreclosures, climate change, resource depletion, and the winding down of two wars.  It’s easy to be critical of the responses of leaders who are faced with making important decisions while under so much pressure to “do the right thing.”  How can one keep one’s feet on the ground, maintain clear, calm thinking, and collaborate responsibly with one’s fellow decision-makers when the stakes are so high, and mistakes have such long-lasting consequences?

How would you be doing, if you had been in Congress this year?  Would societal pressures have swept you into either automatic agreement or automatic opposition to the issues at hand, without giving yourself time to define your own thinking and decide how you could collaborate most effectively with your peers?  Of course it is incredibly hard to predict our own reactivity when the stressors are really high.  We like to think that our “better selves” would prevail, but who knows.

Meanwhile we must all think carefully about who we want to have representing us and making the big decisions in Washington, as political, economic, and social intensity mounts in the coming years.  The beauty of a democracy is that there is a regular evaluation process.  We need to elect and re-elect representatives who are high on the scale of differentiation, whose decisions are rooted in well-defined principles, who can manage their anxiety when under pressure, and who can collaborate effectively as a “collection of individuals.”  We won’t always agree with all their decisions, but we must insist that they are people of integrity and long-term vision, who are not just reacting to the anxieties of the moment, while jumping through hoops to please the voters and get re-elected over and over again.

Who are these people?   What can we learn about how they handled major life challenges growing up?  What does that tell us about their emotional maturity level and their capacity to keep thinking and resisting the contagion of anxiety in other settings?  What kind of leaders have they been in the past that will give us a clue as to the kinds of leaders they will be in the future?  It may be hard to find the answers to these questions, but as voters we must look beyond the superficialities of campaign literature, news headlines, and TV commentary, and seek substantial verifiable facts about the long-term functioning of our elected leaders.  Those we choose will inevitably reflect our own maturity level as a society, and we are ultimately responsible when they fall short.

Please reread Chapter 5 in our book, “Leading a Business in Anxious Times.”  It is entitled, “Differentiation: The Key to Leadership in Anxious Times,” and it may perhaps remind you of the qualities that will serve you best in your own role as an organizational leader, as well as the qualities we want to see in our societal leaders.

Katharine Baker

Leading a Country in Anxious Times?

Over the past few weeks the news has been all about Egypt and the infectious nature of leadership change throughout the Middle East. This part of the world may seem very distant for business leaders in the United States, but what can we learn about leadership from watching anxiety in the street and in the palace? What are the similarities and differences between societal anxiety and workplace anxiety?
We know that anxiety in business leadership can take many different forms, including excessive adaptation to pressure and a lack of clarity about where one stands and what one believes. Anxious business leaders can also move toward increased rigidity and a need for absolute control or micromanaging of the tasks of others – what we call “over-functioning” in business. In an anxious workplace with poor leadership there is usually a lot of in-fighting among employees at every level, as well as competitiveness, gossip, absenteeism, passivity, lack of responsibility, a disconnect between leadership and employees, and generally the creation of an environment in which the business is not effectively doing the business of the business.
What about anxious leadership at the societal level? How do national leaders need to manage themselves in order to serve the needs of their people? When anxious do they also move in the direction of over-adaptation or over-control? We have seen anxious leadership throughout the Middle East in recent days and weeks that has moved toward brutality, repression, and control, a disconnect between leaders and the citizens of the country, and the creation of an environment in which the leadership is not serving the needs of the country.
In the chaotic upheaval of national leadership change, it’s not yet clear how things will turn out, but clearly a process has started in which new patterns of accountability are going to be necessary. Leaders in the street seem to be asserting a commitment to non-violence. Can they also maintain a calm thoughtful approach to decisions about leadership change that will keep an open channel between the new leaders and citizens of these countries?
During our recent national celebration of Martin Luther King Day back in mid-January, I had an opportunity to watch a number of films featuring King that were taken during the chaotic 1960s in our country. I was struck by how young King was in relation to other leaders of the time, but how calm, clear and articulate he appeared to be even when under enormous stress. He was a man of action as well as a thinker, and he stayed connected to all sides of the many social and political issues of his day, helping our society to stay on course during that time. He embodied systems-based leadership at its finest. Will anyone of his stature emerge to provide effective leadership in the countries of the Middle East in the coming months? There is often a reciprocity between the need for leadership and its appearance in an anxious system, and we can only hope that this will be a responsible process that will calm the current chaos.
Is there any aspect of what we are witnessing in the world news that has affected your own leadership within your organization? Have you been inspired to think more deeply about your leadership and to chart your own course more clearly? I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this subject.
Katharine Gratwick Baker

Winter Thoughts

A few days ago it started to snow in the late afternoon here in western Massachusetts. It was almost dark, and the light flakes came down steadily, slowing traffic, and coating cars, sidewalks, and pedestrians with a fine clean dusting. We got a robo call from City Hall telling us to go home and stay there until the storm was over, so we lit a fire and settled in for the evening with good books and hot cider.
It was still snowing next morning and didn’t fully stop until the middle of the day, when we had an almost two foot accumulation. Winter had truly arrived and it was looking beautiful outdoors. By this time our puppy badly needed exercise, so we suited up, grabbed our cross-country skis, and headed for the trail by the Mill River.
Lumbering through drifts and down the steep embankment that led to the trail, we arrived at the river’s edge and soon realized that other intrepid souls had beaten us to it. Neat parallel ski tracks as well as the footprints of many hiking boots cut through the snow along the river. We weren’t the first to venture out and we wouldn’t be the last.
When the puppy was free of her leash, she bounded forward along the trail and up into the tall trees, searching for squirrels and other dogs to play with. We slower humans clamped on our ski bindings, trying to decide whether to join the parallel ski tracks of those who had preceded us or to make a new trail. Sliding along in someone else’s tracks is always easier, but often those tracks don’t go exactly where you may want to go.
We made both choices that day, stepping into the smooth tracks of others when we were anxious about the steepness of the trail, and forging our own path when we were more relaxed and confident. We enjoyed ourselves greatly in the process.
Could there be a metaphor here for how we function in the work place during anxious or not-so-anxious times? Of course it is usually easier for most people to be followers, to slide in someone else’s tracks, especially when things are a bit tense at the office, and often that is the wisest decision. But when do we decide to choose a different path, to head in our own direction? When do we think through the options and choose a path that isn’t necessarily the easiest, but may get us more directly where we (and our business) need to go?
In this New Year, as so many unknown paths and unexpected turns lie ahead of us, I encourage you to choose your course with confidence, imagination, bravery, and a sense of adventure.
Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD

A New Book on Systems-Based Leadership

There’s new book out that I’d like to recommend to readers of this blog and of Leading a Business in Anxious Times. It’s called Bringing Systems Thinking to Life: Expanding the Horizons for Bowen Family Systems Theory (Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2011), and it is edited by Ona Bregman and Charles White. Four chapters are particularly geared toward business and organizational leaders.

In Chapter 15, “How Bowen Theory Can Be Useful to People in the Workplace: A Conversation Between Kathy Wiseman and Daniel V. Papero,” a business consultant trained in Bowen theory presents several challenging business cases to her colleague, and together they discuss the most effective approach a business consultant can take that is consistently grounded in Bowen theory. This includes working to keep neutral, not taking sides or “triangling” with a client; not overfunctioning or coming up with immediate “expert” solutions to difficult situations that will undermine the client’s own capacity to problem-solve; and maintaining a big picture vision of the way the business is operating.

In Chapter 16, “Bringing Bowen Theory to Family Business,” author Joanne Norton describes her experience growing up in a family business and how it led her to undertake a research project on the most effective non-family and family CEOs in family businesses. In her interviews with successful CEOs, Norton uncovered many useful insights, in addition to the fact that CEOs “need to continually work on defining a self, realizing it is not easy but certainly worth the work.”

In Chapter 17, “Bowen Theory and the Chain Reaction of Bad Leadership and Good Leadership,” author Dennis A. Romig describes how he has “discovered two important concepts as triggers of leadership and organizational performance chain reactions.” They are (a) the role of anxiety and stress in leader functioning, and (b) reciprocal overfunctioning and underfunctioning in leader-subordinate interactions.” He gives examples from his consulting work in which overfunctioning leaders produce a chain reaction of underfunctioning in their employees.

In Chapter 18, “Introducing Bowen Theory to Business Leaders,” John Engels describes a leadership training program he has developed that gives business leaders an opportunity to learn systems theory, explore their own family histories in order to understand their own strengths and vulnerabilities more deeply, learn to define a self, and to think more broadly about the functions of mature leadership. Engels also describes his effort to construct a “less theoretical language for teaching systems theory to business leaders without compromising theoretical soundness.”
All four chapters explore ideas that are congruent with the approach described in Leading a Business in Anxious Times, and will give readers additional understanding of how to apply systems-based leadership to the workplace. I encourage you to order the book and see how useful these four chapters can be for you as you work on improving your leadership.

Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD

Blog on Blago

Is Lone Holdout on the Blagojevich Jury an Example of a Leader or a Dupe?

The recent corruption trial of Illinois’s ex-governor Rod Blagojevich was watched with great interest by residents of our state, as well as by people around the country. In our politically polarized country, politics is more blood sport than simply the process by which we govern in our democracy. The lack of calm, thoughtful political leadership leads to herd behavior in the wider society under stress, with people automatically agreeing or going along with popular sentiment because it is easier than carefully weighing hard evidence. Given the reciprocal nature of all relationship systems, the beliefs of a citizenry are easily hijacked by the automatic emotional process in our anxious society.

According to fellow jurors quoted in the Chicago Tribune on August 18th, 2010, the lone holdout on the jury appeared to look quietly and thoughtfully at the facts presented and to take a clear and consistent position based on those facts throughout the deliberations. She was truly the odd person out, on the outside of the “in group,” yet she seemed comfortable with that position. I am wondering if that juror was not swayed by others because she is an individual with the rare capacity to remain emotionally neutral and keep thinking in the midst of intense emotions. In my view, that would make her an extraordinary leader. However, no else was swayed by her calm, thoughtful demeanor or her position that the prosecution did not have hard evidence of wrongdoing beyond the one count of lying. My belief is that a leader functions in a way that inspires and energizes colleagues or team mates. That didn’t happen in this case. Unlike in the movie 12 Angry Men, the others did not come around to her way of thinking. So the jury was hung on 23 of 24 counts. Is that symptomatic of the dysfunction in the wider society—that an individual, a retired public health counselor, couldn’t provide leadership, but could only protect her own integrity or was she simply deceived by a clever defense? Was hers a clear “I” position or a reaction to the togetherness of the other jurors? What would you do in a similar position?

Leslie Ann Fox

How does the umpire stay on course?

When everyone boos the umpire, how does he keep himself calm and on course? I recently went to a Red Sox-Rangers game in Fenway Park. It was a beautiful sunny day, the field could have been out of a movie set with its perfectly manicured emerald green grass , and the fans as always were wild with enthusiasm for the home team. We cheered, we ate lots of soft ice cream, we sprayed each other with water when the sun got too strong, and we did the wave over and over again. But for some reason the Sox weren’t playing their best. Lots of strike outs and pop flies, as well as missed opportunities in the field. Around the fourth or fifth inning with the Sox at bat, but trailing by several runs, the umpire called a strike on what looked like a high inside pitch. The crowd screamed disapproval, and 37,000 angry fans began to boo him on every call after that. He held to his position, didn’t waver, and continued to function effectively throughout the rest of the game.
Perhaps umpires are used to angry fans, to fending off massive disapproval, and sticking to their decisions regardless. I thought about how difficult this must be over time, how the stress must mount for the ump, his anxiety escalating about whether the call was really right or perhaps wrong, and how this anxiety might affect his sleep at night, his appetite, and his reactivity in his own close relationships. We all know that the ump always sticks to his decisions and the game goes on, but what are the emotional consequences for him, the team, or even his family? How would you manage yourself, if everyone at work seemed to turn against you and question your accuracy? Are you the kind of highly differentiated leader who could keep yourself calm and on course while the crowd booed you or could you get rattled and begin to question yourself? What would this be like for you and how would you handle it?

Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD


I have been on an island off the coast of Maine for the past ten days, enjoying the cool air while hearing of brutal heat on the mainland. Recently we’ve had thick fog which signals its arrival each morning with the long bleating foghorns of lobster boats out on the bay. Nearby islands fade into the mist. The tide rises and falls silently, and the wind holds its breath.
During yesterday’s fog we decided to take a long walk on the back side of the Basin, a protected salt water lake usually alive with seals, gulls, herons, and occasional fish hawks, but barely visible in the fog that afternoon. The trail, well marked by local land trust volunteers, wound through the woods along the shore and then turned upward onto open stone ledges that could have given us beautiful views of the Basin on a sunny day. Eventually it looped south, back through thicker woods presumably returning us to our starting point. Somewhere along that final loop we lost our way, came to a swampy pond with no further trail markings, and couldn’t figure out which inviting half-path through the tangled undergrowth would take us back to the road. Our puppy had no interest in helping us find the trail, but focused on chasing red squirrels through a maze of fallen pines.
What are your personal guidelines for yourself when lost in thick forest without a compass or perhaps on a business path that seems to be leading nowhere, where your goals are elusive, you know there is a way out, but you also know you’re not thinking clearly. How do you keep yourself calm, look for the sun, listen for bird calls from the nearby lake in order to orient yourself, perhaps retrace your steps, and think through your range of choices? Can systems-based leadership show you a way out of the woods when you are lost? I look forward to hearing your thoughts, experiences, and planning process for “next steps” when you have felt lost on the job.
Katharine Gratwick Baker

Collaborative Leadership and Bike Trails

Last weekend was beautiful and balmy in New England, so I decided to take a long meandering bike ride, exploring the myriad bike trails that connect the towns, villages and rural landscapes of the Connecticut River valley. As I pedaled through fields bursting with early spring sprouts of green, I realized that this lovely network of trails was the result of a many year collaborative leadership effort. Wayne Feiden, current Director of Northampton’s Office of Planning and Development, came to the valley more than 20 years ago, and at that time Northampton had 2.4 miles of bike trails that were not used very much. Growing up Wayne had always liked biking, and he developed a vision for an increase in city and regional bike trails that has grown incrementally over the years. Northampton now has $13,000,000 worth of bike trails that reach north to Leeds and connect with extended trails in Easthampton, Southampton, Hadley, and Amherst. Wayne bikes to work every day, as do many others in the region, and he gives two reasons for the expansion of the system – one, is the recreational opportunities it provides, and two, is the transformative opportunity the trails offer for how people travel.
Over the years Wayne and many others have had a shared vision of a greatly expanded bike trail system, and making this vision come to life has been a truly collaborative effort on their part, as they worked with many groups around the region including the conservation commission, members of the city council, and numerous citizens’ groups. There was strong enthusiasm and there was intense resistance. There was hot controversy and there was quiet cooperation. Wayne obtained grant money to pay for the trails, and enumerable citizens’ meetings were held to get eventual community buy-in.
Wayne told me that when he first became a planner 25 years ago, he heard that many planners were being fired – half of them for taking strong positions and the other half for taking weak or no positions on important planning issues. Wayne decided that if he were ever to be fired, he would want it to be for taking strong positions on issues he believed in, so he’s taken strong positions. He believed in the development of bike trails for Northampton, he articulated his beliefs, he collaborated, and he hasn’t yet been fired.
Wayne isn’t trained in systems-based leadership, but he took an “I” position, kept calmly connected with the various interested factions of the community, maintained a long-term vision in spite of the ups and downs of the project, and was an effective collaborator in making it happen. Systems-based leadership defines leadership as a relationship process, and that’s a pretty good description of the leadership that transformed the Northampton bike trail system. There is still a lot more to do, including expanding the bike lanes on city streets, but this project rides the crest of the green movement throughout the country, and it will thrive.
How is your long-term vision? How do you manage yourself when there is a lot of resistance to your vision? Is your leadership part of a relationship process? Does this story trigger new ideas for you as you think about your own leadership? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.
Katharine Gratwick Baker