The Thoughtful Leader

Tag Archives: Leadership

The “Lean In” Phenomenon

I’ve been reading reviews recently about Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead (Knopf 2013), and I’m sure you’ve been reading them too.  How could you have missed them!  This book has had a major pre-publication blitz, including a TIME cover story, and the launch of a substantial website that encourages women to form Lean In Circles where they can support each other as they learn to take leadership.  These Circles also have discussion guides for managers.

Sandberg has an impressive resume and has been ranked one of the 50 “Most Powerful Women in Business” by Fortune magazine since 2007.  She has been COO of Facebook since 2008, and last year she was elected to Facebook’s board of directors.  She should certainly know something about leadership.  And she does. Lean In is her personal story, but it is also a call to arms for women to step up and take more leadership roles in the wider world of work.  Some people have called Sandberg the “Betty Friedan of 2013,” the next pivotal figure in feminist history.

Sandberg dedicates the book to her parents “for raising me to believe anything was possible” and to her husband “for making everything possible.”  She clearly knows that leadership starts in the family, and as the oldest sibling of three, she apparently started honing her leadership skills with her younger brother and sister at an early age.  The book has a number of inspiring chapters that encourage readers to “speak your truth,” learn to give and get feedback effectively, use humor and get what you want.  But from my point of view, it is missing a real theory of leadership.  What is leadership about and what does it require in terms of self-understanding and relationship building?

Stepping up and speaking out are fine, if you know what you are stepping up to, and what solidly grounded values-based message you are speaking.  Can you understand and manage the anxious reactivity of co-workers while understanding and managing your own anxiety about taking the interpersonal risks that leadership requires?  Those of you who have been learning “systems-based leadership” know that this is a challenging long-term undertaking.  Highly differentiated leadership moves us behind the traditional focus on individual leadership characteristics toward a wider systems view of the workplace.

Perhaps some of us should join Sandberg’s Lean In Circles and introduce participants to systems-based leadership.  What do you think?

Katharine G. Baker, PhD


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

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

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?

What To Do When You’re New

I was coaching a business executive last week who was relatively new to her company’s management team.  She had worked for another company in the same industry for twenty years, and had been considered a particularly gifted leader there.  When there were some shifts in the direction that company was going in, she decided to look for another job.  This was a carefully considered non-impulsive decision, and she took her time exploring professional opportunities before settling on the new position.  Her references were excellent, she and the CEO of the new company connected well on an interpersonal level, and he hired her specifically for her leadership skills.

The management team of the new company welcomed her in a very friendly way, and she jumped right into her new job, energetically expressing her thoughts and feelings in meetings about how things were run and the changes that needed to take place.  Strangely enough the management team did not seem interested in her views and opinions and, although still friendly, they tended to ignore her comments in meetings.  She had been hired for her leadership skills, but no one seemed to want her to lead them in new directions.  What wasn’t working for her?

As we explored this problem in a coaching session, she recognized that her leadership in the previous company had evolved over time.  She hadn’t started out a leader, but had gradually formed relationships in which she had proved her competence, reliability, flexibility and vision over many years.  In the new company she thought she could hit the ground running and be the leader she had evolved into in the prior company.  Through coaching she learned that leadership is a relationship process and that it would take time and the development of trust and mutual respect before she could become a true relationship leader in the new company.

Does this seem obvious to you?  Not necessarily.  If you think that leadership consists of a collection of individual characteristics and traits, then you may think this woman should have been able to become an instant leader in her new company.  If you know that leadership is a relationship process, you surely understand what her “next steps” need to be in the new company.

Katharine Gratwick Baker, February 24, 2010