Edwin Friedman was an author and leadership consultant well-known for his family systems approach whether working with an individual or organization. A primary assumption of family systems theory is that whoever is exemplifying a problem, that person’s problem is also a symptom of something going on in the larger family or organization. Everyone in any kind of group both influences and is influenced by everyone else in that system.
In other words, the kid in the family with anxiety or behavioral issues is likely acting out problems that others in the family or organization also share. In a school setting, for example, expelling a child may seem like it is addressing the issue, but it does nothing to identify or remedy the problem(s) in the classroom, school, or family that the expelled child personifies.
In “Failure of Nerve,” Friedman extended the ideas of systems theory to leadership. He had no use for leaders who are anxious risk-avoiders that worry more about nice feelings and being liked than in clarity of purpose and integrity of action. He promoted instead, leaders who could learn to separate themselves from the emotions swirling around in the group while also staying connected to the people involved. “Non-anxious presence” he called it.
It seems to me we are living in the midst of anxious times – locally, regionally, nationally, globally. We are hyper-aware of all the things that are going wrong around us, and even continents away that still have implications for where we live. Terrorism, climate change, blue-green algae in Seneca Lake – you name it and whether near or far, it reverberates in a neighborhood in Geneva. The family system is humankind and we are one big web connected to one another: Muslim to Jew, Hindu to Christian, adult to child, MAGA enthusiast to Bernie supporter, dog-lover to cat-enthralled.
The problem, of course, is that we tend to congregate with like-minded people. That heightens any anxiety we may feel about “others.” Our anxiety is then exploited and amplified by the twenty-four-hour news cycle and social media we choose to watch, which also reinforces our segregation. The same human web that makes us interdependent soon seems like a noose instead of a source of strength.
Yet back up far enough, and we can see the Earth is one whole ecosystem – intricately interdependent. Just like storing Liquified Propane Gas in old salt caverns beneath the lake in Watkins Glen is intimately connected to the health and wellness of Geneva, what happens in Botswana or Chernobyl impacts the atmosphere in Paris.
Likewise, humankind. If we tolerate political repression or sex-trafficking in one part of the world, we will eventually be slimed by it here – at home in the Finger Lakes. Though we fantasize individuality and extol nationalism, human beings are strands of silk strung together in an interconnected web. This is our beauty and our vulnerability. Ignore it and we suffer.
Do any of those seeking to lead us in city or county government this year, recognize and act according to our interdependence? Can we recognize any non-anxious leadership among those who desire our vote? It is important to look beyond party affiliation and ask the question.