Chasing the Leadership Dragon (part 8 of 8)

Welcome to part 8 of 8 in “Confessions of An Anxious Leader or Chasing the Leadership Dragon.” In each of these posts I’m listing how systems thinking affects how I think about leadership. I now think about leadership as a matter of maturity.

What systems theory has taught me is that we grow and mature as we shift focus or emphasis in several categories of life. Some of these categories apply to individuals, some apply to congregations, some apply to both. I list these shifts or directions in no particular order. Today we look at item number seven and my conclusion.

7) Maturity stays connected. We all live with two basic instincts, the instinct to be an individual, and the instinct to be connected. The balance point between these two instincts is a little different for everyone. But, what is common to all is that when our balance is threatened by someone getting too close, or by someone distancing themselves, our first instinct will be to regain balance. We will move toward someone who is suddenly distancing from us, or we will move away from someone suddenly getting too close. We do this unconsciously and without thinking. We start this dance before our conscious selves even know the music is playing. This instinct works to keep things comfortable; but it does little to advance our growth, or the growth of those around us. This instinct does little to advance the interests of reconciliation, love, or learning. Mostly the instinct just keeps the more primitive parts of our brain happy.

The endeavor of staying connected does several things. First of all, the thought to stay connected acknowledges the powerful and unconscious impulse to be more comfortable and less anxious by distancing. The comfort of getting away from a problem, however nice in the moment, can cost us dearly in the long run. Staying in touch can be awkward, difficult, and uncomfortable; but it pays the rent for long-term wellness the way rehabilitation of an injury (staying in touch with the injury) is immediately painful but healthier in the long-term.

Staying connected avoids polarization. Polarization is a symptom that a system has located its undigested anxiety around something in particular. Harm is more likely to come by the extreme anxiety than by whatever issue around which the anxiety is wrapped. Once polarization starts to take place, each side is more likely to miss their own role in the drama, and thus one of the great keys to reconciliation, the acknowledgement of how one has contributed his or herself, is lost.

Closely related, staying connected works against scapegoating. Locating blame in the locus of one person is always an easy fix, and what we are usually prone to do when we’re not thinking systems. When we maintain the capacity to zoom out and see how all the pieces are functioning to put the squeeze on the likely scapegoat, we can then think of some solutions that don’t involve ostracizing one person. If the gospels tell us anything, they tell us that when we think everything would be better if we just got rid of (insert nemesis or problem here), we end up taking a shot at God. Staying in viable contact with everyone works against this scapegoating tendency. Or as the common wisdom to all pastors puts it, “One must be the pastor to all in the congregation, not just some.”


What is currently making the most difference in my current learning is the realization that I just need to grow the hell up, stop looking for someone else to provide a template for me, and trust what God has made and is redeeming in me. Focusing on leadership rather than maturing often leads me in the wrong direction when I start to think that I can achieve leadership without knowing who I am, what I believe at a core level, or being able to navigate the emotional waters I inherited from several generations of my family. A leadership seminar might tell me to build alignment around a vision, but if I don’t have a mature emotional presence and some mature emotional stamina behind my actions, the system will most surely, unconsciously, unthinkingly, yet relentlessly flush me out like Toto exposed the man behind the curtain.

All leadership comes down to being the best and most mature person that I can be. Such a definition leads me to follow Jesus as closely as I can. I’m not good material for the episcopacy. Some days it feels like I’ve barely managed through the five appointments to which I’ve been sent. But, I’m a far sight better than I would be had Bowen family systems theory not come my way. Now, on my good days, the horizon beckons; the challenges are enlivening; and the resistance is merely a chance to grow stronger.

See Related Earlier Posts


1) Maturity focuses on self-definition.

2) Maturity stresses adventure and direction towards these goals rather than safety.

3) Maturity operates out of principle rather than the feeling of the moment.

4) Maturity looks to accept appropriate responsibility rather than find someone to blame.

5) Maturity knows it’s always integrated into emotional process, and thus accepts pain as a part of growth, even seeks it out to a degree.

6) Maturity manages the sabotage that inevitably greets change.

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