The Thoughtful Leader

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


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

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

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