The Thoughtful Leader

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An Inspiring Community Leader

I first met Philip Korman in November 2008 when we were both standing outside a polling place waving signs on Election Day. It was cold that morning, but we stayed warm waving signs for the same candidate, and soon fell into conversation. I learned that Phil was the new executive director of a small community non-profit called CISA — an acronym for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture ( – and as we talked, I learned much more about CISA than I had ever known, sensing Phil’s enthusiasm for this project whose mission is to “strengthen local agriculture by building connections between farmers and the community.”

After the election, I read frequently about Phil and CISA in our local newspaper, and I could see how CISA was growing and thriving under his leadership. There was clearly a synergy between our community’s “locavore” culture and CISA’s mission, but Phil was pulling it together in a way that got farmers, markets, consumers, teachers, community leaders, families, and philanthropists connected to each other and working together to turn their shared values and beliefs around healthy food into a reality.

How did Phil do this? What could others learn from his leadership skills that could be relevant in their own communities? I decided to talk with Phil about how he had become such an effective leader. Those of you who have read “Leading a Business in Anxious Times” will know that I believe natural leadership starts at home, so the first question I asked Phil was what leadership was like in his family when he was growing up. He told me that the whole family had a strong commitment to helping people, to family, and to being a responsible member of the community. Phil was the youngest of four siblings (with two much older sibs and a brother very close to his age). Frank Sulloway’s book, “Born to Rebel” (1997), teaches us that youngests (or “later borns” in a family) are often much freer than the older children to be creative and go in new career directions. This was definitely true for Phil. Only one of his four grandparents had been born in this country, and during the Depression, Phil’s father went to work in the garment industry, eventually rising to become Vice-President. Phil’s older siblings were lawyers and he might have been one too if he hadn’t been the youngest. His mother, however, was an activist who took people on and followed her own beliefs, and Phil clearly picked up a lot of her values and functioning style as he was growing up.

Phil chose not to become a lawyer, but has worked for non-profits, small businesses and in the public sector throughout his career. He has often had to raise the monies for his own salary in order to work for causes he believes in. He told me that any work he does must have meaning for him. When he came to CISA in 2008 the recession had just hit, and keeping the organization going financially was a struggle for a while. There were nine excellent employees, and he learned a lot from them since he wasn’t an expert in the field of agriculture when he started nor did he have the lived history of CISA which had existed for fifteen years at that point.

Phil’s leadership at CISA is grounded in respect and considerable autonomy for the people who work for him. He tries hard to figure out how to “enable their excellence,” meeting with them regularly, listening to their thinking, supporting their projects, and avoiding emotional triangles. Phil has spent much of his own time and energy building a local governing board (now consisting of 18 members, one third of whom are farmers), cultivating a donor base so that CISA has become solid financially, and developing CISA into a mature membership organization (it now has more than 340 farms and farm related business members in addition to 650 community members and hundreds of additional supporters). He does a lot of public speaking and writing, and has made CISA a real presence in the community.

Phil’s father never quite understood “mission-driven” work and occasionally used to ask Phil why he was doing what he does (“Can you make money doing that?” he would ask). Other family members have had more understanding of his work, but overall his entire family has always been supportive. Phil is well-connected to his extended family and his community and they all help keep him on track. So his leadership is a natural expression of his family values, his own beliefs, his good humor, and his high-energy enthusiasm for the work.

Do you have leaders like Phil in your community? What makes them tick? What can you learn from them that will help you be a more effective leader in your own workplace? I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD July, 2013


Lincoln and Leadership

I went to see Spielberg’s “Lincoln” a second time this week in order to verify whether Lincoln was really the perfect example of Systems Based Leadership I had thought he was when I first saw the movie after Thanksgiving.  Even though Lincoln was born more than a hundred years before Murray Bowen, he apparently had an instinctive way of defining himself that is remarkably congruent with Bowen’s ideas about leadership.

From the very beginning of the movie, Lincoln is direct and respectfully attentive with all those around him, from simple foot soldiers, to Secretary of State Seward (to whom he says “I always listen to your opinions with three ears”), to his wife and youngest son Tad, to members of Congress, to the young men typing out Morse Code telegraph messages in the middle of the night, to the wounded soldiers he visits in the hospital.  He reaches out, touches a hand or a shoulder, asks people their names and what they think, and then he truly listens to their answers.  He takes the best thinking of others into account, and then through rumination, weighing the consequences, stepping back and then stepping up, he makes decisions, defines his “I” position, and moves ahead to implement the actions he believes are best for the country.  It is in this sense of his higher purpose, that he is not making decisions based on his own preferences, but on what he believes is best for the Union, that makes his leadership so compelling.

Lincoln often uses anecdotal humor to lighten the atmosphere when a discussion gets too intense.  His stories help people relax, breathe, laugh, and think more clearly.  He carves a pencil and tells a story during a Cabinet meeting, but ultimately he is powerfully decisive when he draws a line in the sand and states, “I am the President, the Commander in Chief of this great nation, and I want those votes.”

Lincoln believes in going slowly when people disagree.  The radical leader of the liberal wing of the Republican Party, Thaddeus Stephens, tells him to be a “real leader,” to hurry up and demand more sweeping language in the 13th Amendment.  Lincoln responds, “I admire your zeal, Mr. Stephens,” but then he points out how a compass may indicate where True North is, but how it always fails to tell us where the swamps and deserts lie between where we are now and where we want to go.  To get to True North, we usually have to take circuitous routes, which can involve triangles.

Triangles are of course not specifically labeled in the movie, but they are everywhere:  Lincoln, his wife, and their oldest son who wants to drop out of college and join the army; Lincoln, Secretary of State Seward, and the representatives of the Confederacy; Lincoln, Stephens, and the other members of Congress. In every case, Lincoln makes clear where he stands and then communicates his position to the other two sides of the triangle.  In Systems Based Leadership this is called “de-triangling.”

We don’t learn much about Lincoln’s family of origin from the movie, although he mentions his father once as “a rough man but fair.”  He says his father wasn’t kind, “but I learned kindness from others” probably referring to his older sister Sarah and his affectionate step-mother who joined the frontier family with her own three children after Lincoln’s mother had died.  There is an undertone of tremendous sadness throughout the movie – the deaths of his mother and two of his beloved sons from sudden illness, and the deaths of more than 600,000 young men who died fighting in the Civil War are huge sources of grief – but these losses seem to spur Lincoln to think ahead toward a “liberal peace” that will reunite the country when the War is over.  He asks the representatives of the Confederacy, “Shall we stop this bleeding?” and he is ready to rebuild the country without retribution or revenge when he has their full surrender.  He always has the big picture, the long future in mind, as does any leader who is high on Bowen’s Scale of Differentiation of Self.

If you haven’t yet seen Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” I recommend it as a powerful example of “Leading a Country in Anxious Times,” while maintaining one’s sense of solid self.  You may even find that it inspires your own workplace leadership.

Katharine G. Baker, PhD

Leadership in Burma/Myanmar

I recently presented a paper on a political leader from Burma/Myanmar at a family systems theory conference in Worcester, MA. This topic might seem far-fetched for an audience of family therapists, but I thought they would be interested in the qualities of leadership that transcend culture and are, to some extent, universal throughout the human species. When I heard that President Obama would soon be traveling to Burma/Myanmar, the paper seemed as though it would be even more timely, since people would surely know where Burma is and might even be interested in learning about one of its famous political leaders.
The leader I focused on was Aung San Suu Kyi who was born in Burma in 1945 after her father had led the country to independence following sixty years of rule by the British Empire. While her father was working to establish a viable democracy in Burma, he was assassinated by ethnic radicals in 1947 and, after a brief experiment with democracy, the country was taken over by a military dictatorship that maintained power for fifty years.
Aung San Suu Kyi was the oldest girl and third of four siblings, two of whom died during childhood. She was raised by her widowed mother first in Burma and then in India, where her mother served as ambassador from 1959 to 1967. So Aung San Suu Kyi was educated in India and later went to Oxford for university training. She married an Englishman in 1972; they had two sons and lived a comfortable, academic life in Oxford. In the summer of 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi received a call from Burma telling her that her mother had suffered a severe stroke, so she packed her bags and flew there to care for her mother during the final months of her life.
While she was in Burma caring for her mother, a student strike erupted, and revolution against the military dictatorship broke out. Aung San Suu Kyi was persuaded by the dissidents to become a leader of the resistance because she was her father’s daughter, and her only surviving brother had emigrated to the United States, refusing to become involved in the crisis enveloping Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi stepped up, spoke eloquently on behalf of the movement for democracy, and traveled around the country promoting the idea of a multiparty system, as well as non-violent resistance to the military regime. Ultimately the dictatorship brutally suppressed the uprising, renamed the country Myanmar (in 1989), and Aung San Suu Kyi was placed under house arrest, where she remained for 15 of the next 20 years.
While under house arrest she led a disciplined, orderly life, reading extensively, writing essays, practicing the piano, and connecting through the wider society of Burma/Myanmar through meditation. Her husband and sons were not allowed to visit her, and her husband died of cancer in 1999. She received the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 1990 and the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. When she was released from house arrest in 2010, she was welcomed back into the leadership of Burma by millions of her countrymen. The military dictatorship had softened, elections were held, and Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to parliament. Since then she has traveled widely, received the Congressional Medal of Honor while in the U.S. in 2012, and reunited with her adult sons.
What are the factors that made it possible for a person like Aung San Suu Kyi to function so solidly and consistently while under extreme duress? Much of her personal strength comes from her family: the legacy of her charismatic father, the founder of modern Burma, and her mother who raised her to be a disciplined, orderly, and well educated woman. In addition, her deep personal connection with the country of Burma/Myanmar sustained her during her years of isolation. Although she had not been raised as a religious person, she began to meditate daily while under house arrest, as a way to connect with the Burmese Buddhist spiritual tradition. I believe that Aung San Suu Kyi is high on the scale of differentiation of self, as her functioning remained balanced and stable throughout her years in public life even when she lived under extreme stress. She consistently articulated her values and beliefs in the public arena, and strove to live by them even when cut off physically from her family members. She was committed to non-violence while leading resistance to the military regime in Burma. She reported low levels of anxiety and reactivity that might have impaired her ability to keep herself on course.
The leadership challenges faced by Aung San Suu Kyi are far beyond those that most of us face in our families, work, and community lives. However, we can learn from studying people whose functioning rises to the highest levels, especially when under stress, and identify the universal strengths that all humans can draw upon to some extent.
– Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD
November 20, 2012

Thoughts on Sibling Position in the Business World

I’ve been intrigued by a couple of recent articles on leadership that mention the importance of sibling position. Yes, family dynamics are finally becoming more widely recognized as an important factor in the development of leadership skills. In one article, Harry West, the CEO of Continuum (interviewed in the New York Times, Sunday, January 29, 2012, Corner Office), starts the interview by saying, “I’m the eldest of six kids, and I think that may have some significance. One of the main groups in our company is the strategy group, and we once looked at the family position of most of the people in the group, and they’re pretty much 100 percent the eldest kid. So I think there’s some correlation between maybe being the eldest and wanting to blaze a trail.”

Another business leader, Susan Credle, the chief creative officer of the advertising agency Leo Burnett USA (interviewed in the New York Times, Sunday, February 26, 2012, Corner Office) notes that the first time she was somebody’s boss was during plane travel with her younger brother. She says, “He’s three years younger than I am. My parents divorced when I was 5 or 6, and my brother and I had to travel back and forth alone on a plane between our two parents. So we kind of had to run our own little company within the family. And I think I was a bad boss… because I used threats and I manipulated him to do things… I learned early on that leading people through manipulation is probably not the best way. The sibling lesson lasted a long time.”

Both of these business leaders were oldest children growing up in their families of origin, and many people think that “oldest” are the most naturally intuitive adult leaders because they learned to lead through their relationships with their younger siblings. This idea about “oldests” seems to make sense because, like Susan Credle, they are often put in charge of younger siblings even at a very young age. Parents frequently deputize their first-born child to help out as subsequent children are born. As a second born sibling, but oldest daughter, I remember be told to teach my two-year-old sister how to tie her shoelaces.

But of course what we have learned from Bowen theory and systems-based leadership theory, is that not all oldests are alike. Nor are all youngest or middle children alike. They may have similar behavioral tendencies, but the emotional tone of the family they grow up in will determine what kind of oldest, middle or youngest they turn out to be. For example, an oldest child growing up in an anxious family that is low on the scale of differentiation may be an aggressive bully who pushes the younger kids around or threatens and manipulates them, as Susan Credle described her childhood leadership behavior. Others who grow up in less anxious families may be calm, responsible oldests who take care of their younger siblings, encouraging them to grow up strong, happy, and healthy, helping their parents out, but not exerting physical or emotional power over the little ones. Susan Credle is unusual in the kind of self-awareness she developed from her childhood leadership experience. Unlike many anxious oldests, she began to realize fairly early on that threatening and manipulating didn’t work very well either with her brother or later with her adult colleagues.

Middle children, youngest, and only children can also grow up to be effective leaders both in their families of origin and in their adult business relationships. In anxious families, middle children may get lost in the shuffle, youngests may turn into irresponsible babies, and onlies may not develop good social skills. But in more stable, balanced families any child, regardless of sibling position, can learn to be a leader – a calm responsible person who can lead a business with vision and passion or “blaze a trail”, as Harry West describes it.

Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD

Passion and Anger: Are they different or two sides of the same coin?

For me, the fun in writing these blog posts is thinking through difficult issues that my leadership team and I face in our company and in the wider community of the healthcare industry in which our organization operates. Using systems-based theory as a framework for understanding the emotional context of our challenges helps me manage my anxiety so that I do not act strictly on emotion; rather I strive to use awareness of my emotions to more objectively examine the facts of the situation and the options available to me as a responsible leader. While I usually discuss the importance of getting beyond the emotional state to a more thoughtful place, in this blog post I am going to share my thoughts on the difference between two emotional states, which can be the same in intensity, but may lead to different outcomes. I will be interested to hear the thinking of our readers on whether or not some emotional states can be more or less useful in informing our cognitive processes.

Passion and anger are the two feeling states that I have been pondering this past week. Many of my colleagues are expressing their concern and displeasure over the impending delay of a regulatory change that was announced recently by a federal agency. The announcement caught most people in our industry by surprise, and the range of reactions has varied from relief, to confusion, to outrage. I didn’t encounter anyone who was emotionally neutral upon first hearing the news. However, over the past week all sides of the issue are starting to be vetted and, as the facts continue to emerge, my associates and I will do our best to evaluate the best course of action for our company and for our clients. And I am certain that others in our industry will do the same.

However, I have also observed that some individuals are having a much harder time getting past their initial emotional response. One individual in a leadership position was furious about the possibility of a delay; she expressed her objections angrily and often over the past week. When a colleague tried to discuss the issue calmly, the angry individual lashed out, asserting that the colleague didn’t have the same passion for the issue that she did. In hearing the story, the use of the word passion caught my attention because I think that passion and anger are different, and that having a passion for one’s work or profession is good because it contributes to better performance. Passion is an expression of joy and happiness that is associated with the emotions that arise from play, physical pleasure or a deep sense of commitment or accomplishment—passion is an emotion that energizes and inspires creativity, and produces a sense of satisfaction and calm. It is an emotion that appears to me to be associated with the release of endorphins. With higher endorphin levels, we feel less pain and fewer negative effects of stress.

In contrast to passion, anger arises from fear, the natural response to a threat. Also known as the stress response, fear increases one’s cortisol levels, providing a burst of energy and greater focus in the short run, but it also narrows one’s vision, and reduces the ability to see a more varied range of options. Further, if the stress response isn’t quickly followed by the relaxation response, the cortisol levels remain elevated longer and have long term costs to the human, such as impaired cognitive functioning and physiological changes like lowered immunity and other health responses. In short, being angry for more than a brief time in response to a real threat is costly to the individual and to the group in the long run.

Thinking about one’s emotions, whether positive or negative, and having an awareness of the role they play in decision making is important because cognitive processing is not only informed by emotions but also affected by it physiologically. The emotionally aware leader needs to ascertain the difference between passion and anger in self. Knowing what kind of emotion one is experiencing can help produce a calmer, more thoughtful, more positive response and yield a greater range of choices for decision making.
Leslie Ann Fox, February 24, 2012

Systems-Based Leadership and 360⁰ Evaluations

“Do you use a 360⁰ evaluation process to improve the performance of top managers” is a frequent question I get from students of systems-based leadership. The short answer is, “no, we do not use it.” I think the 360⁰ approach is unnecessary and possibly counter-productive. Instead I use principles of systems-based leadership to guide my thinking about evaluation in the workplace. The 360⁰ evaluation is other-focused, a technique that is in contrast to the principle of focus on self, while having an awareness of the larger system. This important systems principle encourages individuals to reflect on the part that they play in the success or failure to meet business objectives. This principle provides me with a broader perspective than a focus on individuals, and creates more options to consider for improving performance.

Instead of 360⁰ evaluations, I encourage our leadership team and managers to meet with direct reports regularly, at least weekly, and in the course of those meetings to discuss the challenges that both the employee and manager have around key issues. The purpose of the regular meetings is to determine what the employee needs to do to be more successful. The manager could just be available for brain storming or the employee might need some assistance with resources, technology, or process improvement. The supervisor and the employee focus on solving problems or advancing the business, rather than getting caught up in discussions about personal styles, etc.

Leadership is a reciprocal process. When focusing on business issues, each party should explore what is needed to better assure success in his or her respective sphere of responsibility. It is important for managers to provide guidance to employees, but also to ask for feedback on how the manager is helping or hindering the accomplishment of important work. If that feedback includes how the manager’s performance is contributing to the problem, rather than the solution, that is all right as long as the feedback is based on fact. To get this kind of valuable feedback, directly from the employee in real time, managers can’t be defensive. They need to take time to reflect and respond thoughtfully. Criticism from employees doesn’t mean they are automatically right or wrong; they may not have all of the facts, or their facts may not be correct. But showing respect by engaging in a thoughtful conversation in which both parties search for a better solution, benefits the business and both parties. Conversations of this nature are ongoing, with progress being made over time.

One way to keep these discussions focused on work is for all staff to have written goals they develop with their immediate boss. These goals can be professional development goals, project goals, or other performance goals. During their regular meetings the goals drive the agenda, allowing for open and honest discussions about progress on the goals, obstacles to success, and actions needed to keep things moving in the right direction. Goal achievement at the individual, team, department or organizational level is an objective way to evaluate performance.

Like other aspects of systems-based leadership, improving the performance of top managers, or anyone in the organization, is more collaborative and less formal than a 360⁰ evaluation, with less focus on individuals and more on the business challenges. It encourages people to work on increasing their emotional maturity, by managing their anxiety in an important relationship (employee-boss). Communicating regularly around factual matters helps both parties learn to have difficult discussions in a non-anxious way, and encourages people to put out their own best thinking. Just as in a family, where we don’t have formal performance appraisals or 360⁰ evaluations, a high performance workplace has continuous engagement around important issues; everyone takes responsibility for their own emotional functioning, which lowers anxiety and enables more creativity, flexibility and clear thinking throughout the relationship system in the business.

Leslie Ann Fox, January 11, 2012

The Balance of Thoughts and Feelings at Work

I recently came across a brief article (Harvard Magazine, January-February 2012, pp. 11-12) that described some interesting research conducted by a Harvard professor of social sciences, Joshua Greene. Greene is a neuroscientist and uses brain-scanning technology to examine the interplay between emotions and reason, with a focus on how these two forces affect moral choices.
While reading about Greene’s work, I immediately thought of Murray Bowen’s concept of Differentiation of Self which describes variation in the ways people are guided by thinking and/or feeling in their close relationships, when under stress, when making decisions, and when faced with significant choices at home, at work, and in the wider world. According to Bowen, there is always a balance between thinking and feeling, but people for whom the thinking capacity predominates, usually function at a higher level than those for whom the feeling capacity predominates. In other words, Thinkers merit a higher score on Bowen’s Scale of Differentiation than Feelers.
Greene found that when he used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), he could track the locations of reasoning and emotions in the brain and the intensity of activity in those locations when a person is under stress or faced with a moral choice. “Deliberative reasoning, for instance, is housed in the prefrontal cortex, whereas the amygdala is considered the seat of the emotions. By monitoring blood flow to these areas, fMRI allows Greene and his colleges to observe” the interface between rationality and emotion.
What Greene found was that reason “cannot function independently of emotion, even in people who tend to be more rational decision-makers.” Reason “by itself doesn’t have any ends, or goals,” Greene says. “It can tell you what will happen if you do this or that, and whether or not A and B are consistent with each other. But it can’t make the decision for you.” Reason requires emotion to give energy and direction to decision-making. However, “even though emotions will probably always affect people’s decisions, Greene thinks their input can – and should – be minimized in certain scenarios… He says that our emotions are there for a reason and they do a lot of good, but they also get us into trouble…”
This research reaffirms Bowen’s hypothesis that thinking and feeling operate together to some extent. We need both thinking and feeling in order to make wise decisions and manage our relationships effectively, although the balance between the two will determine our maturity level and the wisdom of our choices. Greene, like Bowen, indicates that emotions are important, but shouldn’t be determinative in decision-making.
How does this knowledge play out in the workplace for you? How aware are you of the balance between thinking and feeling in your responses to colleagues or to stressful work situations? Can you consciously moderate the impact of your emotional reactivity on the clarity of your thinking? After you have done your best thinking about a problem, how do you harness the emotional energy that will help you implement a reasonable plan? I look forward to hearing your answers to these questions.
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

Achieving Balance through Leadership in a World Increasingly Out of Balance

I awoke yesterday morning to a news report on my local television station in which a TV host and comedian had suggested to viewers that they hide their children’s Halloween candy and tell them they had eaten it; then viewers were asked to make a video of the children’s reactions and post it on The report went on to show several of the posted videos of the children bursting into tears. It was cruel and totally unfunny.

I wondered how parents could be so easily persuaded to commit such an unloving act toward their child. Did it rise to the level of child abuse? Child abuse is behavior that is counter to the natural instincts of parents to protect their offspring. Parents who took those videos of their children’s reactions to a mean trick probably don’t see themselves as child abusers, but at the very least theirs was behavior that was immature and showed poor judgment.

From an emotional systems perspective, it is reactive behavior, and not thoughtful. It is a symptom of an increasingly anxious society in which television, radio and the internet can spread anxiety around the globe in an instant. More than ever, we need mature leaders at all levels of our society—at home and in our businesses, schools, local communities, nationally and internationally. We need adults to behave like adults, and not to be unnecessarily cruel to their children, employees, colleagues, friends or relatives.

I don’t need to enumerate all of the stresses on adults in our society; neither do I claim to be immune from the anxiety that is all around me. I lead a company that provides data quality management services in the U.S. healthcare industry, and like other sectors in our society, its leaders must cope with a difficult economy, a shortage of resources, the increasing needs of an aging population, the challenges of new technology and changing regulatory requirements. I am vulnerable to absorbing the anxiety around me and spreading it to others, but as a leader I must try to resist doing that.

I seek the balance in my life necessary to manage my own anxiety, so that I can be a responsible leader. As a business owner I have a responsibility to lead my clients and my colleagues; and, as spouse, step parent and grandparent, I have a responsibility to be a leader in my family. That means my first priority is to manage my anxiety—to listen, observe, think, and act on facts—not just react to the anxious behavior around me, such as an irresponsible suggestion from a TV host. For me that means getting off auto-pilot and taking time for fun, for socializing with friends and family, or taking long walks without my iPod or cell phone. I must take time to recharge my own internal batteries. When I do that, I am in better balance, and I can hear the emotional meanings behind what is being said at work or at home. I can see more broadly, explore more options, and make more thoughtful choices. It’s not easy, but it’s important, because being calm is contagious too. If I can be present with others in a way that enables them to stop reacting and start thinking, then I am leading, both at home and in the workplace.

Leslie Ann Fox

The Sense of Urgency: Real or False?

In his 2008 book, A Sense of Urgency, change leadership expert John Kotter, Professor Emeritus of Leadership at Harvard Business School, asserts that “the single biggest error people make when they try to change is not creating a high enough sense of urgency among enough people to set the stage for making a challenging leap into some new direction.” Kotter cautions that it is important to distinguish between “constructive true urgency and destructive false urgency”. His words resonate with me deeply as a CEO and as a practitioner of systems-based leadership.

Working with clients on large scale transformative change over the past 40 years I recognize that constructive true urgency energizes people, and unleashes the creativity and passion needed to make changes successful for their family, organization, or in the wider community. Destructive false urgency makes people anxious. Anxiety lowers one’s energy, clouds the thinking of individuals and groups; it makes them more rigid and less creative. It causes people to spin their wheels rather than achieve successful change. The consequences of failing to change when necessary can threaten the survival of families, organizations, or whole societies.

As I reflect on the recent debates in the U.S. Congress over raising the debt ceiling and lowering the national debt, I have not been energized by what I have seen. Anxiety is contagious and I have caught it. I am exhausted from worrying about problems that are beyond my ability to solve—problems for which we have elected representatives to solve—people whom we count on to meet their responsibilities energetically but thoughtfully. I expect our leaders to create true urgency for us to change in a responsible way, not a false urgency that increases anxiety at the societal level and pulls down the functioning of everyone in our country. Like evaluating performance in the workplace, I am thinking about these recent events through the lens of systems-based leadership—trying to understand the underlying emotional process that has led to months of anxious behaviors being played out publically—risky behaviors that have damaged the trust of the United States by other nations and institutions in the global economy. I saw in the way our leaders handled this discussion the symptoms of anxiety that I observe in low performing organizations: blaming, stonewalling, name-calling, cliques, and indecision.

Have we become a society that is so anxious that it cannot think creatively, that it cannot tackle its toughest challenges? Have we become a country that cannot pull up its own functioning enough to make the changes necessary to survive and thrive in the 21st Century? What do you think? What anxieties got stirred up for you as the situation played out?

Leslie Ann Fox, August, 4, 2011