Leadership, Stress, & Triangles
What if stress is less about working too much or too hard, and more about how we function in relationships? If you are a leader (check and see if anyone is following you if unsure), Ed Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve is a must-read. Subtitled “Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix,” Friedman’s final work (completed by family and colleagues posthumously) applies his theory of family systems to leadership. The Psychiatrist-Rabbi offers this provocative claim near the end of the book:
“A leader’s stress and his or her effectiveness are opposite sides of the same coin…not because failure to be effective creates stress, but because the type of leadership which creates the least stress also happens to be the type of leadership that is most effective.”
Of course, it is possible to be stressed from overwork; it’s not as if there no limits a leader’s stamina, regardless of how wise her or his functioning might be. “There are limits to everyone’s strength,” says Friedman, “but it takes less weight to strain your body if you attempt to lift the object from certain positions.” So it is with our position in relational systems.
For Friedman, the primary relational unit of concern is the triangle: a triangle is a relationship between any three persons, organizations, or entities. Two parents and a child, or a husband, wife, and mother-in law, or you, your supervisor, and the company – all of these are examples of triangles. As you may guess, they are all around us. Friedman insists that it is how we function in these relational triangles that determines our effectiveness as leaders (which, as we’ve established, is at the opposite end of the spectrum from stress). Here’s where leadership, stress, and triangles come together:
“The stress on leaders (parents, healers, mentors, managers) primarily has to do with the extent to which the leader has been caught in responsible position for the relationship of two others. They could be two persons (members of the family, and two sides to an argument) or any person or system plus a problem or a goal. The way out is to make the two persons responsible for their own relationship, or the other person responsible for his or her problem, while all still remain connected. It is that last phrase which differentiates detriangling from simply quitting, resigning, or abdicating. Staying in a triangle without getting triangled oneself gives one far more power than never entering the triangle in the first place.”
In other words, there is a “sweet spot” for leaders, somewhere between being aloof and unconnected and being over-identified and in the muck. Friedman describes this this carefully negotiated relational position as “differentiation,” in which one is connected to two others in conflict while maintaining a healthy sense of self with the boundaries which that entails.
Friedman’s language is somewhat arcane, and you would need to read this and/or Generation to Generation to grasp the full lexicon. Hopefully this sample is helpful, and encourages you to go out and read more for yourself. A Failure of Nerve tops my list when other pastors and leaders ask me for book recommendations.
For now, think of it this way: how much of your work or family stress is related to undo ownership for the relationships of others? When I think about my early ministry, that question is downright scary. But I’ve found Friedman’s concept of differentiation to be immensely helpful to me as a leader, as I negotiate a variety of triangles and seek maximum effectiveness. We’ll give Rabbi Friedman the last word:
“Leaders who are most likely to function poorly…are those who have failed to maintain a well-differentiated position. Either they have accepted the blame owing to the irresponsibility and constant criticism of others, or they have gotten themselves into an overfunctioning position (that is, they tried too hard) and rushed in where angels and fools both fear to tread.”
P.S. For further clarification on Friedman’s theory of leadership, check out this very helpful (and brief) video:
Source: Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury 2007), 219-221.