The Thoughtful Leader

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A Rumination on Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris

Last night I went to see Woody Allen’s latest movie, Midnight in Paris. As usual with Woody Allen’s movies, I loved all the silly imaginative high jinx, as well as the gorgeous soft shots of Paris in the rain, but I realized when I got home that the movie was really about “differentiation of self”. The young American hero, Gil (with all his neurotic “Woodyisms”),figures out what he really wants to do with his life, where his creativity lies, and what isn’t working in his primary relationship. He decides to make enormous changes in the focus of his work, where he is going to live, and who he is going to be involved with. And then he steps up, and makes those changes.

In the movie we are treated to the many beautiful distractions of Gil’s visits back in time to Paris in the 1920s, as well as experiencing his painful conflicts with a spoiled fiancée and her parents. We don’t know anything about his family of origin, where his parents and possible siblings may be and what they might think of the way his life is changing. We don’t know about work commitments he may be walking away from, but in the end we do have a sense of his integrity in making the right next choices for himself.

What worked in the movie for me was its emotional realism. It reaffirmed for me how terribly hard it is to make really significant changes in our lives and how anxious we can be as we try heading in a new direction. Gil’s confusion and his muddling efforts to get along with everyone, to accommodate to the demands of his fiancée while still working hard to define himself, seemed very authentic to me. Differentiation is never easy, and most of us take at least one or two steps backward for every forward move we make in the direction of more mature behavior. None of us is probably quite as twitchy as Woody Allen’s anxious fictional characters, but deep down we are often not sure we are doing the “right” thing and can struggle in our own ways to clarify where we want to be going.

Did some of Gil’s uncertainties resonate for you in your work setting? How did the movie speak to you? Is your life going in a direction that works for you personally and professionally?
Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD


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

Accepting Responsibility for One’s Mistakes as a Leader

Frank Rich’s Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times, “No One Is to Blame for Anything,” describes the inability of top leaders to take responsibility for their own part when things go wrong in the economy, in the Catholic church, in political scandals, in business, and in a myriad of other arenas of public life. Where does Systems-Based Leadership stand on the issues of personal responsibility that Rich writes about? In Chapter 5, “Differentiation: The Key to Leadership in Anxious Times,” Leslie and I describe a high-level leader’s ability to maintain a “solid self” even during times of enormous pressure. The solid self is “made of up firmly held convictions and beliefs arrived at through life experience” and is non-negotiable. A leader with a clearly established solid self can act, react, and make decisions based on deeply held principles, rather than responding to the fears of the moment. Learning to function this way is of course not easy and can take a lifetime: “Systems-based leadership is not a skill or a technique as much as it is a process of continuous emotional maturing (p. 124).” A central part of that emotional maturity is learning to be accountable for your own behavior when things go wrong, stepping up, admitting your mistakes, and collaborating with those around you to find positive solutions to problems, so that similar mistakes can be avoided in the future. The immaturity and anxiety of some of our leaders when their errors have been unveiled keep us stuck in cycles of blame and evasion – in a “gotcha” mentality – that impede our ability to solve large societal problems.
As a business leader how hard is it for you to acknowledge your own part when things go wrong, to learn from your mistakes, and move ahead?

Time Management in the Workplace

Pilot projects are a great way to introduce new time management strategies because they don’t entail drastic change and don’t usually raise too much anxiety, but they do give people a chance to try out a different approach to their use or misuse of time at the workplace. Business leaders who used a systems-based leadership approach know that they have to start with themselves whenever introducing something new to the organization. They have to try it out themselves, notice where their resistance lies (“why am I having such a hard time getting around to doing this?”), what problems arise, and what solutions are reasonable, before recommending it to others. This is particularly true when introducing new ideas about time management.
Effective time management often gets identified as a chronic problem in today’s workplace, as people feel overworked, overstressed, have too much to do in too little time, deadlines loom, and technology speeds up expectations of what can be expected of everyone. Yet if challenged to manage time differently, most people say there are no solutions and no other ways to be productive except by learning to live with chronic stress, exhaustion, and the on-going anxiety of never being able to get everything done.
As always, “Leading a Business in Anxious Times” takes you back to your family of origin – how was time managed at home when you were growing up? How did your parents get everything done when they were raising kids, running a household, and going to work five or six days a week? How did they manage the pressure of getting you (and your siblings) out the door and onto the school bus before rushing off to work? When did the shopping and cooking and cleaning get done? How did they take breaks and calm themselves down from time to time? Were things peaceful at home or were things frantic? Was there a range of choices about how to juggle life in those days? How did you fit in? Were you a keeper-upper or someone who went his or her own way? Or something in-between? What patterns have you taken from your childhood experience into your adult workplace?
I’ve encouraged hard-pressed executives to take a look at how time was managed in the families they grew up in. If family patterns worked well for them, and they have been able to take a calm thoughtful approach to time in their adult lives, then that is great, and we won’t rock the boat! If things were hectic in the old days and they want to manage time differently from the way their parents did, then they need to do some thinking about where meaningful change can happen both for themselves and for others in the organization.
Mini pilot projects are a useful way to try managing time differently in their work lives. This means developing a plan that they can try out for perhaps a week or two and then assess. I encourage them to become researchers in examining the way they run their lives. This means putting on a figurative “white coat” and observing how each day gets filled with activity, interactions, meetings, report writing, informal encounters, e-mail, and even quiet contemplation. I then ask them how the sequence of these activities works for them. Is the balance right for them? Are the priorities right for them? Would they like to try making some changes? What could/should those changes be? How and when and where can they plan to implement change most effectively?
When executives have undertaken a number of these pilot projects and arrived at an approach to time management that works for them, they are ready to introduce these ideas to the people they work with. I encourage them not to push drastic change on others, but to suggest pilot projects that others can shape in ways that will work for them. This process will help create a much calmer workplace environment where people can focus on their work, actually think about long term projects, and manage new stressors most effectively when they inevitably arise.
– Katharine Gratwick Baker

Listening Skills at the Office

I was asked to do a training session on listening skills for a group of corporate executives a couple of weeks ago. How could I connect this training to systems-based leadership and the approach to self-management that we’ve described in “Leading a Business in Anxious Times?” Everyone knows what effective listening entails, whether on the job, in the family, or among friends. It’s important to pay attention to the person who is speaking, to maintain eye contact with him or her, to nod and smile from time to time, to give feedback that shows you’ve been listening (“what I’m hearing is…,” “sounds like you are saying…,” “is this what you mean?”), not to interrupt, and then to respond honestly and respectfully when the person is finished speaking.
But why is this so difficult for so many people? Why do we remember a mere 25 – 50% of what we hear? Why are most of us so unaware of the difficulty we have in really listening to the thoughts, opinions, and feelings of others? Where is all our reactivity coming from?
Those of you who have read “Leading a Business in Anxious Times,” particularly Chapter 8 (“From the Family to the Workplace”), can guess where I went with this training session. My first questions had to do with “listening in the family when you were growing up.” I asked how family members paid attention to each other, how they showed they were listening to each other, how they gave each other feedback, whether there was a difference in the way the adults and the kids listened to each other, and whether anxiety played a part in the way family members listened to each other.
Some of the executives in the training session couldn’t remember how their family members had listened (or not listened) to each other while they were growing up, but many of them described free-for-alls, with people talking all at once and the loudest voice carrying the day. Others described very quiet families in which everyone went about their own business without sharing any thoughts or feelings with each other. The most challenging part of the training session was the discussion of how the executives had automatically carried ancient, long-forgotten family patterns into their adult lives, particularly into the workplace, and how they affected workplace relationships, including leadership.
As you know from reading “Leading a Business in Anxious Times,” the first step in implementing behavioral change is to become aware of what you have been doing. When you become self-aware, you then have choices about whether you want to continue a particular automatic behavior or whether you want to try something different. The training session concluded with some role plays in which the executives tried out new ways of listening to each other. You could create some role plays for yourself, after you’ve thought about how people listened to each other in the family you grew up in, after you’ve become more aware of the listening (or non-listening) patterns you’ve carried into your adult life, and if you’ve decided you wanted to change some of those patterns.

Katharine Gratwick Baker, PhD