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

Family leadership and organisational leadership: what’s the difference?

[Blog post written by Jenny Brown]

With our conference on systems leadership just around the corner I have been thinking lots about the difference between systems leadership in the family and systems leadership at work. In many ways I think they are the same. The leader is one who works on their own differentiation of self. They see how their reactions can prevent others from flourishing and they commit to attending responsibly to adjusting themselves for the good of the whole system. This is very different from over functioning leadership where one person takes on the authority for what others need and how they should behave. This position of over helpfulness promotes either dependence or defiance in the family and at work.

I understand that differentiated leadership is about changing self as a contribution to the whole unit. From my perspective the key ingredients are:

  • the ability to observe self and see how self-impacts others functioning
  • developing clear principles for how to behave in relationships
  • to manage emotional reactivity or anxiety so as to stay as free as possible form relationship fusion (blurred boundaries)

An example of such an effort from my daily life last week occurred as I heard from my husband about a stressful situation he was managing at his workplace.  I noticed my stress response to what he was sharing. I consciously endeavored to stay separate from the anxiety but connected to his story about the situation. Just when I thought I was managing my differentiation efforts pretty well, out slipped a sentence of advice!  I reflected on my way to work on my advice giving. I know that this is my customary over functioning tendency and that it is done to reduce my stress first and foremost. It is of no use to my husband who is working his own way through his problem. Actually I think it is patronising and disrespectful to my husband and not relating to him as the capable person he can be.  In the evening I apologised for my unhelpful advice efforts and affirmed my commitment to be respectful and interested in how he is working his way through his own stressful issues. His response was a smile and a knowing kind of look.  For me this is the effort of differentiation and taking a mature lead in a system – to keep watching for my unhelpful reactions that have me invading others space to manage their own life issues. This is something I am committed to watching out for at home and at work.

While I think that much systems leadership is similar at home and at work I also think that leadership at work has a distinctive in its focus on organisational outputs. There are bottom lines to attend to and members of an organisation need to all be contributing appropriately to the workplace output. This means that, more than in my family, I need to both keep within my boundaries, relate to other’s capabilities and find a differentiated way to hold people to account. I ask myself: how I can relate non anxiously to the best in others while at the same time hold their feet to the flame of accountability for the tasks they have taken on in their role? I am looking forward to working this issue through over the course of our conference meetings so that I can increase my clarity on how to hold people accountable without an anxious push that takes on a critical tone. In many ways this is similar to the challenge of parenting in holding an “I” position when a child is acting irresponsibly. The difference at work I think is the layer of complexity around the balance sheet of activity and results. At work, the leader has an important role in inspiring others with the purpose of the organisation. I see it as a complex process to inspire people to follow without diminishing others autonomy and effort to define their own purpose for their work.

3 Questions for Dr Walter Smith:

To get a window into some of Walter Smith’s thinking on these issues I emailed him 3 questions. His interesting response is below. I wonder how each reader of this blog would answer these questions for themselves?

  1. What is your definition of family leadership?

A leader is defined as an individual with the sanction of a family or social group that has the responsibility to manage the group’s overall functioning and future direction.  In families, leadership roles are not fixed to particular persons but emerge as a part of other roles in families.  Leaders function as a part of a family emotional process that shapes individual and family functioning.  In families with high levels of anxiety, leadership can be non-existent or overly controlling and dominated by one member.

  1. How is leadership in the family similar or different to organisational leadership?

Families and social groups are different in important ways.  Members of families are continually and emotionally attached over generations of time, and their functioning shapes the functioning of individual family members more than individuals shape the family.  Family functioning is guiding by natural forces that are an integral part of life on earth.  We rely on family for survival and we cannot change our family membership.  Leader’s roles in families emerge and are not formally structured and chosen.  In both instances leadership has to be observed in terms of role and function.  Often times the person with the role of leader is not the person managing the overall functioning of the family or social group (I will be addressing this question throughout the conference).

  1. What has been your most significant effort as a leader in your various contexts?

I am currently the director of child welfare services and the clinical director of human services for a government agency that serves 200,000 persons.  I have taken the lead to redesign mental health, intellectual disability, child welfare, aging, drug and alcohol services, and child welfare services to work by a single model.  The effort has been the most challenging leadership struggle of my career as it is challenging intellectually and tests my ability to convince thousands of professionals and hundreds of service agencies to follow.  Creating a vision that excites others to follow and managing change are critical skills of leaders.


To hear more from Dr Walter Smith you can register for our annual conference on June 20-21 here.

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