The Dangers of Undifferentiated Leadership

Dave Blundell
Published on:
August 19, 2021

I spent far too many years as an undifferentiated leader, believing that I was "caring for people."

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • I overreact and hear feedback as a personal attack.
  • I am more emotionally affected by the 1 person who is critical of me than the 100 who aren't.
  • My emotions are fused to the emotions of the people around me.
  • I'm not ok unless the people around me are ok.  
  • If my organization experiences conflict, I must not be a very good leader.
  • I'm preoccupied with the faults, weaknesses, and opinions of others.
  • I need people around me to think, believe and act like me.
  • I judge myself by my intentions but other people by their behaviour.
  • Keeping everyone together and keeping the peace is more important than progress and growth.
  • I have to "die to self" and live for everyone else.

While that all may sound like sensitivity, concern, empathy, and "good" spirituality, it's really undifferentiated leadership. I spent far too many years as an undifferentiated leader, believing that I was "caring for people."

The concept of undifferentiated leadership has its roots in Murray Bowen and family systems theory. The idea is that families are emotional systems and uses systems theory to help people process their emotional relationships to their families of origin. The goal is connection TO our families and emotional independence FROM our families.  The same emotional processes that exists in families operate in organizations.

One of my favourite English actors said,

"If people can't control their emotions, they will try to control other people's behaviour."

For the undifferentiated leader, emotions are direction instead of information to help give direction. Undifferentiated leaders are chronically anxious and unhappy in organizations and churches because they can't control others around them on whom they depend on to be at peace with who they are. For this reason, undifferentiated people are chronically critical of those around them.

Blame and preoccupation with others is the undifferentiated person's response to inner emptiness, personal frustration, general unhappiness, loss of hope and feelings of helplessness.

Here are some of the organizational dangers created by giving way to undifferentiated people:

Paralyzed Leaders - Undefined leaders can’t take risks and need everyone to be on board before making a change.

Lack of Progress and Growth - Undefined leaders become overly emotionally attached to their ideas and can't handle feedback, interpreting it as an attack.

Emotionally Anxious Organizations - There is a general sense of stepping on eggshells or avoiding certain people who are unpredictable emotionally.

Leading To the Lowest Level of Emotional Maturity - The undifferentiated can suck the energy and time of leaders who are also undifferentiated running around putting out emotional fires—rallying around the hyper-sensitive and making decisions based on appeasement or the quick fix. Chronically anxious people want everyone in the organization to pander to them.

Low Threshold for Discomfort - Emotionally immature leaders have a low tolerance for conflict and difficult conversations. They opt instead for sentimentally and false unity.

Burnout - Undefined leaders act like heroes. They take on other people's problems and the responsibility to fix them.

Instead, differentiated leadership's goal is to be appropriately engaged and emotionally independent from those in our organizational systems. Differentiation doesn't mean you stop caring or disengage from those you lead. It simply means the validation of your own emotions and desires as self-care. It means healthy emotional maturity lets you make courageous decisions without being paralyzed by how those decisions might affect people. It means not obsessing about what people think of you or your leadership. It means leading unencumbered by the wises of everyone around you. It means being capable of diffusing the chronic relationship anxiety in our organizations because you're not part of it.

It means being able to sleep at night because you're not obsessing about how everyone around you is doing.

The only way to get there is first to process our family of origin issues that caused emotional fusion. For this reason, I don't believe the kind of self-awareness necessary for differentiated leadership is possible without therapy and personal counselling. Differentiation is hard work. Being separate from but close to those in our organizations requires keen objectivity and balance. Our healthy emotional separateness lets us enjoy the closeness of relationships with those we work.

To learn more, here are two recommended resources:

Friedman, Edwin H. 2017. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Revised Edition. New York: Church Publishing.  

Steinke, Peter L. 1993. How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems. Herndon, VA: Alban Institute.  

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