Coming to grips with Bowen Family Systems Theory in a collaborative learning environment.

Systems Leadership: giving people lots of space to think for themselves

Excerpt from Walter Howard Smith Jnr PhD’s conference presentation 2011. Edited for this blog by Jenny Brown

This excerpt opens up fascinating insights into systems leadership. Dr Smith talks about how he manages himself as Executive Director of a not for profit child and family services organisation with a staff of around 230 people. Many at our meeting were surprised to hear that Walter rarely talks about Bowen theory to those who work at his organisation.

In a Q & A one participant asked him: “I am puzzled that you don’t help people to learn Bowen theory. If it works and it’s helpful wouldn’t you want to share it as part of your clinical leadership?”

 Dr Smith replied: “The issue that’s important to me in relating to my staff, or my grandchild, or a client that I’m seeing, is: How do I have a relationship that promotes other people thinking for themselves?

Living theory not pushing it

“My organisation knows very little about my theoretical perspective (Bowen family systems theory) and I barely talk about it. I use it as my way of thinking without telling others how they should think. It is a challenge to be the leader, to be viewed as an important person, and to give people lots of space to think for themselves. I’ve chosen not to put out to the organisation that if you think like me you’ll do better; because that can reduce the flexibility of an organisation. It feels good when people ascribe to your ideas and your way of thinking. It’s wonderful; but I get suspicious of that process.  It will mean that someone’s functioning is going downward.

The organisation and one’s work is structured by living out principles not by customer/client pressure

Rather than promote my theoretical stance I am clear about how principles, informed by Bowen theory, determine what the organisation does and doesn’t do.  For example we do not provide any residential programs for children.  The focus is work with families. We never see just children; as child abuse is viewed as a problem for parents to address not children.  The organisation is clear to parents at the beginning about this. If parents want to put children into therapy to focus on their symptoms and they try to avoid doing the work themselves, we address that.

A Leader is willing to stand on well-defined principles even if it means losing business

Part of my stance in our organisation, and a position of mine in my private practice, is to be guided by my own definition of “health.” I view health as the ability to regulate your life and make it meaningful; not about how many symptoms you have but how can you manage your life in such a way that you’re doing purposeful and meaningful things.

This has meant it has been Important to me and to the organisation to rethink what is the purpose of psychotherapy; because the disease model and medical model really dominate thinking. I am mindful of the push to be funded to reduce symptoms and to help to keep kids out of institutions but not help people to be well. For many people the problem is their situation not a diagnosis.

In my own practice I would rather go out of business than operate under the requirements of managed care. I want the freedom to practice within my own principles. This is much harder in an organisation where diagnosis is required for billing and payments.  While it is more of a challenge when you need to function within the funding framework, I still ensure that our programs are structured to give people the power to choose rather than to focus on symptoms.

Maintaining community connection to enhance an organisation’s capacity to be flexible

I have come to see the value of a leader earning respect in the community network in which the organisation sits.  For example I have a strong respected relationship with members of the local court system. This promotes a confidence in our services and in turn gives increased scope for doing work in the ways we choose. For example our referrers don’t question our use of long term psychotherapy for many of our cases.

Additionally a leader who develops a high profile through contact with the community also enhances fundraising partnerships which enables the organisation to do what we do.

Thinking through how to define self in the societal process

I am mindful that in my organisation’s county African Americans make up 10% of the population but they represent 50% of those in child welfare and 80% of children removed.  It is an interesting social emotional process to see who gets identified as the target population.  I ask: How do I manage myself as part of an organisation that’s being paid by society to fix the problems of these families? Now that’s a workout!”



After 25 years as a leader in a large children’s services Organisation Dr Smith is currently working for a Pittsburgh County Department of Human Services as a manager for Integrated Program Initiatives.  His responsibilities include integrating services across the human services system that includes aging, behavioural health, child welfare, community services and intellectual disabilities. The model he is developing uses something like Family Group Decision Making to continually plan services based on what the family dictates.  It positions families to be more self-reliant and less dependent on services. Walter Smith will discuss this project and the leadership principles that guide him as part of our conference presentations.


Dr Walter Smith will be speaking at our 2014 conference, June 20-21 – to view the full program and register go here.

1 Comment

  • Vinity Gill
    on May 11, 2014

    Thank you Jenny for sharing some of Dr Wlater’s ideas about leadership.
    To be a leader by “well defined-principles”, ” living theory not pushing it” is a difficult one especially when I think of being able to sustain financially in these times.
    Let me give an example of how I have seen myself be pulled towards programs that are “evidenced- based” so that I have a paper in my hand that follows a “medical model” and I can put it out in the community to get some flow of economics. Does it bring out the desired outcome “not entirely”. As individuals want more of specificity of dealing with a symptom and I wonder “how specific can I get?”
    When I read this article I thought about ” well defined-principles” and I see how by attending a program that I am not entirely sure how it will work in a bigger picture. Puts me in a half hearted position to borrow the idea rather than making it my own. What I observe ” I can’t follow through with it”. The attempt to promote it is more or less following the similar flow.
    So now this is my work out :- 1. to define my work principles; 2. Keep connected in the anxious moments with the stake holders for e.g the health professionals(GPs), schools, other counsellors etc;
    See if I can emerge as a leader in a community that is symptom focused.

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