Rooted Leadership: A Reactive Culture is Changing Us

John Terrill August 20, 2021

Note: This article was published August 17, 2021 in Common Good at Made to Flourish, an organization that empowers “pastors and their churches to integrate faith, work, and economic wisdom for the flourishing of their communities.”

We have a chronic and growing leadership deficit. High-profile ethical breaches abound, as they have in the past, but what’s new is the escalating toxicity that defines many of our society’s institutions and their corresponding leadership structures. The Church—regrettably implicated in the newest wave of failures—has an opportunity to model something different, to distinguish itself by leading with courage and integrity. But it, too, is languishing.


If you’re listening to Christianity Today’s multi-episode podcast, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, you’re getting a frightening look at narcissistic leadership — Mark Driscoll and the implosion of his multi-site megachurch. The demise of Mars Hill is just one instance of wholesale leadership failure; many other recent and sinister examples exist: Bill Hybels and Willowcreek Church; James MacDonald and Harvest Bible Chapel; Ravi Zacharias and RZIM; and the persistently egotistical leadership struggles within the Southern Baptist Convention.

When scanning the ecclesial landscape, what’s particularly distressing are the leadership development rabbit trails that many in the Church are chasing. Rather than tending to the root causes of these failures, we seem more interested in avoiding or ameliorating pain. Just recently I attended a multi-day leadership conference that featured dozens of speakers from the church, non-profit, and business sectors. With few exceptions, the presenters focused largely on management technique, inspiration, and therapeutic self-care. Each of these approaches has merit in its appropriate context, but this conference—like so many of our discussions about institutions and leadership—failed to address what is truly needed: a deeper and more systemic way to interpret and realign the interlocking forces that comprise organizational life.


Rabbi Edwin Friedman (1932 – 1996), one of the most important leadership voices of the 20th Century, offers relevant help. If you’re not familiar with his work, you’re not alone. For decades, he served in the Washington, D.C. area, where he worked as an organizational consultant, family therapist, and founder/leader of the Bethesda Jewish Congregation. The author of Generation to Generation and A Failure of Nerve, Friedman’s philosophy was rooted in the innovative work of psychiatrist and educator Murray Bowen, who established the systems approach to family therapy.

Friedman cut his teeth by helping Jewish and Christian congregational leaders gain greater mastery of self by managing their responses to organizational structures and processes that, as Friedman understood them, always drift toward chronic anxiety if left unattended. According to Friedman, in all institutions participants influence the functioning of other members through “force fields” of administrative, physical, and emotional reactivity. Whether it be a family, team, church, business, or nation, the key to institutional vitality is the leader’s capacity to self-regulate “through his or her non-anxious, self-defined presence.” Friedman’s core insight is centered on changing the leader’s basic orientation — a new posture away from external techniques, data gathering, and management behaviors and toward an expanding capacity and sense of responsibility for one’s own being and strength of character. Rooted in a deep sense of self, he believed “leaders function as the immune systems of the institutions they lead—not because they ward off enemies but because they supply the ingredients for the system’s integrity.”


In our world where insidious conflict abounds and many provide surface-level fixes to deep relational problems, Friedman’s insights offer a useful framework for understanding institutional pathologies and possibilities. Below are three practical places to start to understand his work.


A systems theory of organizational development helps us see the building blocks of institutions — what Friedman describes as interlocking “emotional triangles.” According to Friedman, “Emotional triangles form because of the inherent instability of two-person relationships. This instability increases because of a lack of differentiation of the partners, the degree of chronic anxiety in the surrounding emotional atmosphere, and the absence of well-defined leadership.” If you question the stability of work-related dyads, ask yourself the question: “How long can any two people talk together without focusing on a third person?” It’s not that triangles are bad. According to Friedman, they’re essential. What’s problematic is the way they carry and transmit organizational angst.

For leaders, the ability to see emotional triangles can be an important factor in assessing organizational health, as well as identifying and resolving causes of personal stress and ineffectiveness. They can act as signposts signaling that something is wrong, that the leader has inserted himself into an organizational dyad that is now generating a relational or operational bind. According to Friedman, resolution only comes by making “two persons responsible for their own relationship.” This doesn’t equate to quitting or abdicating, but an intentional self-differentiated decision to de-triangulate oneself from a relational building block that is better served and sustained by responsible others.


A systems theory of organizational development can help us better comprehend why organizations allow, even enable, toxic leadership. Leaders who lack self-regulation will fuel rather than stem the emotional reactivity that develops naturally in institutions, often enabling its most pathogenic members to establish the agenda and garner limited resources. Like viruses, members of organizations who lack a deep sense of self often personify “the very essence of parasitic dependency.” Similarly, followers, subsumed in layers of overlapping emotional triangles, easily succumb to toxic leadership as a means to organizational survival and sensemaking.


Finally, self-differentiated leadership is a concept that turns the tables on many well-established leadership practices, most notably the role and demonstration of supervisory empathy. Friedman argues that the trend toward empathy reduces a follower’s capacity to bear pain, develop resilience, gain self-awareness, and fully develop personal accountability. Moreover, according to Friedman, the “empathy trap” also threatens the leader by triangulating him or her in relational dynamics that impede whole-self maturation. Personal accountability is a not a popular topic today, but organizations and individuals can only thrive when these standards are firmly established.


Although Friedman died 25 years ago, he recognized then “that leadership in America is stuck in a rut of trying harder and harder without obtaining significantly new results.” He understood the rut to be so deep that even the organizations commissioned to address leadership problems — universities, think tanks, and consultancies — were mystified by how best to make progress. In the decades since Friedman’s passing, our challenges seem even more daunting. One thing seems certain, more and better technique will not provide lasting solutions. A deeper examination is needed — one that focuses on an institution’s emotional processes and the leader’s own sense of presence and being. Change starts with the leader — not in his doing but in his being. For this insight, we have Edwin Friedman to thank.

The Church needs leaders who stay connected to others yet remain separate — leaders who are rooted rather than reactive. This way of leading is countercultural, even destabilizing. If any institution has the spiritual resources to pave the way, it’s the bride of Christ. I want to be optimistic. Only time will tell.