Leading from Health

There is a light within each one of us
A bright, hot flame that radiates love to others
When we hide that flame from view, we impede the growth of wisdom
When we bury its warmth away, we prevent the flow of healing love
Let us be courageous with the flame of our hearts
Let us shine


At the beginning of this year, nearly a dozen people at New Unity took a course together. It was offered online by the Unitarian Universalist Leadership Institute, which is run by our American counterparts. The course we took was called Healthy Leadership, but we quickly realised that the concepts and skills we were learning had to do with much more than leadership. They were applicable to how we are will people in general - at work, in community, in families, in relationships - everywhere.

In addition to the online work, we met together for a few hours one evening every two weeks. There was food, of course. There was deep sharing, honesty, openness trust, and support. It became a place of growth and it became a strong loving community unto itself.

Every one of us was changed in some way by the experience. The participants said they wanted to share some of what they took from the course. We decided to do this Sunday Gathering and also to organise a workshop later on. Watch for that. I promise it will be good.
This morning, two of the participants - Bodhi Hunt and Lindsay River - will offer reflections on some of what they took away from the course.

We also have a poem written by Jacqui Carnall - another participant in the course. And then I’ll talk about what I think is the most core piece of the healthy leadership work. I also hope that these concepts will also inform your Ramadan practices, as our practices can help us grow to be healthier leaders, friends, members, and lovers.

Reflection by Bodhi Hunt

I was lucky enough to be one of the people taking the healthy leadership course with New Unity this Spring, and of all the important and useful things I learnt, perhaps the thing I learnt that changed me most personally is that I don’t want to be a leader. At least, I don’t want to be a leader in the way that leaders are normally conceived of in this culture. That leader is a lone figure, an inspiration, the one and only person with the big ideas.

And that isn’t me. I’m not very good at it, and trying to do it sends my stress levels through the roof. I prefer to be down in the details most of the time, figuring out what works, and what doesn’t and why. And I’ve often thought that that’s some sort of failing on my part, or that that traditonal image of leadership is just a skill that I haven’t acquired yet; but what I realised as part of this course, is that the lone inspirational leader - call them “the CEO type”, the “Steve Jobs”  - isn’t the only, or even necessarily the most important leadership role. To lead effectively there needs to be more than just big ideas and an inspirational message. There need to be people who make sure that everyone is communicating effectively, people who make sure that the team has access to all the information that it needs to make good decsions, people who research and put into place practical solutions that mean that the big ideas actually happen, and even those who can see clearly when there are insurmountable obstacles and an idea needs to be dropped, or modified, or put on hold.

And it’s rare that all of those strengths are to be found in one person, which is why effective leadership is about working together in ways that complement each other’s strengths. And that particular strength, that we are so often told is the key, the only necessary, strength of a leader -of having “the big idea” and carrying it through by force of personality, is only one of many things that are needed to lead effectively. And if you are that “big ideas”  person, that’s great - big ideas and inspirational messages are important, but leadership is much more than that, and leadership needs people with, collectively, a much more diverse set of strengths and skills. so if you are *not* that person, as I am not, know that your strengths and your skills are also valuable, because effective leadership is a much broader, more interdependent thing than we have been taught by popular culture.

Now we are two together, by Jacqui Carnall

When we were one, you understood so much that went unsaid
Imparted with an eyebrow, or a slight turn of the head
If someone hurt my feelings, you were always quick to tell
Whichever mood you found me in, you'd join me there as well
And when life made me angry, as it often seemed to do
You'd be there in the trenches, arming up for battle too

When we were one, you understood how best to keep me safe
To block out all discomfort with a sheltering embrace
And so I never learned that I could stand and face it down
While you ran round in circles, trying to stamp the fires out
But gradually you loosened up the hold that you had kept
I set off on a separate path, where you had never stepped

Now we are two together - connected but apart
It took a little while to make those changes at the start
Now we are two together, and it no longer feels strange
Distinct from one another, but connected all the same


Now I become myself, by May Sarton

Now I become myself. It's taken
Time, many years and places,
I have been dissolved and shaken,
Worn other people's faces,
Run madly, as if Time were there,
Terribly old, crying a warning,
"hurry, you will be dead before -----"
(What? Before you reach the morning?
or the end of the poem, is clear?
Or love safe in the walled city?)
Now to stand still, to be here,
Feel my own weight and density!.....
Now there is time and Time is young.
O, in this single hour I live
All of myself and do not move
I, the pursued, who madly ran,
Stand still, stand still, and stop the Sun!

Message, by Andy Pakula

The material we studied in Healthy Leadership is based on an understanding of systems. That’s important. It means looking at systems as being more than the sum of their parts. In other words, you can’t understand the behaviour of a couple or a family or group or community simply by understanding the individuals individually. 

A lot of the thinking for the healthy leadership concepts grew out of what therapists learned when they worked with families. Often, they found that when they worked with one family member who appeared to be the ill one - the patient - it was not effective. But when they worked with the whole family unit, there was a big change in the so-called patient. 

The behaviour of the family unit was much more than could be expected by looking at the individuals separately. The complex ways those different individuals interacted was what created the overall behaviour. And that behaviour might lead to one person - the patient - carrying all the illness for the rest. 

If we think about any complex system, its behaviour is often beyond our ability to understand from the individual parts.

I learned this a long time ago in biology. Despite how much we understand about the behaviour of individual atoms and molecules, we are still unable to predict exactly how they will behave when put together.

I worked on proteins, which are simply long linear chains made up of varying sequences of the 20 naturally-occurring amino acids. These simple building blocks are linked together all in the same way - much like when you put lego blocks together, they all connect in the same way.
But a protein doesn’t work as a linear chain. In order to function in its role doing chemistry, as a structural element, or as a nano-machine, it has to fold into a unique three-dimensional configuration. We understand the components very well. We understand how they are linked, but even with the fastest computers in the world, we can’t predict exactly how that simple linear chain of building blocks will fold up.

How about some other systems? How will the British economy respond if we exit the European Union? How will this congregation change when the next person arrives? Will a particular meme take off or not?  What makes a YouTube video go viral?

These all involve humans if we can’t predict what simple chemicals will do when they are part of a system, imagine how hard it is to do with human beings, who we actually don’t understand very well at all.

Family systems did yield insights though, and those insights were also translated to the behaviour of larger groups, including congregations.

We’ll go into this in much more detail when we hold the Healthy Leadership workshop, but there are a few key factors I’ll tell you about. The first is about the general challenge in systems. The second is about how systems deal with it. And the third is the most important - how healthy leaders can change everything - including themselves.

The first element is anxiety. There is anxiety in any system. We worry about what people will think of us and how they will treat us and whether we can handle conflict and will be be left out and who will like us and how can we avoid losing their admiration. 

We feel best - calmest - when there is stability in all these relationships. We feel increased anxiety when there is change, and there is always change. 

In a congregation like this one, people come and go. Relationships get stronger and get strained. We have disagreements and even conflicts. And anxiety can come in in the baggage we carry - baggage from past relationships, from childhood, from anywhere we’ve been.
Anxiety in the system can be low and it can be high. Sometimes, a system will have a chronically high level of anxiety and that’s because the people within the system haven’t found healthy ways to reduce the anxiety. They may avoid conflict so much that they never work things out. They may whisper instead of speaking openly. They may turn to an authoritarian leader. They may deal with anxiety by blaming people.  

And this is the second part - how systems deal with anxiety. 

Blaming - or scapegoating - is a common unhealthy way that systems cope with anxiety. There’s all this anxiety swirling around that we can’t quite get a handle on and are afraid to deal with the direct dialogue we would need to work through it. But, if we can focus all that anxiety on one person or one group, then the rest of us don’t have to be the target of anxiety. That feels good for a while, but - once the scapegoat is gone - the anxiety comes roaring right back. It didn’t leave with the person or people who were blamed. Just like a family with one member who carried all the illness, the illness was really part of the system. Once one scapegoat is gone, the system tends to become anxious again and - surprise surprise - find someone else to blame. Rinse and repeat.

Another aspect of what we do with anxiety is the law of triangles. The family systems theorists sad that the smallest stable unit of a system is a triangle - three individuals. Dyads are less stable because there is no place for excess stress and anxiety to go. If you had two parents - unless they were superhumanly healthy - you’ve observed some of this. When your parents fought, one of the turned to you or another sibling. Your axis of the triangle grew tighter while the other two axes weakened. And if you had siblings, you probably knew just how to triangle in a parent to stabilise your relationship. A classical technique begins with ‘mummy! He hit me!’ The third ‘person’ in a triangle doesn’t have to be be a person. It could be a dog, a religion, work, a hobby, sports, and so on.

So, triangles exist. They are not necessarily healthy or unhealthy - they just are.

They can be very healthy when a healthy person gets involved who is present to both of the others but doesn’t react to or take the side of either.

They can be very unhealthy. When people have a conflict or a gripe, they often turn to a third person to resolve it secretly - without being direct. And while that may feel easier at the moment, everyone in the triangle suffers. The person with the gripe feels dependent and incapable for doing for themselves. The person who was the target usually realises something is up and starts to mistrust the other two. And the person who got brought into the middle winds up carrying anxiety for the other two and may actually become the next target.
Triangles don’t, of course, exist alone. Larger groups of people consist of many overlapping and interlocking triangles. Their arrangement evolves in such a way as to manage anxiety in the system. They are delicately balanced. A change here or there causes ripples of change throughout the network. And change in the system causes even more anxiety in a system that is less able to manage it.

Change in an anxious system is hard, if not impossible. Anything that upsets the delicate balance is dangerous and threatening. If change is initiated, it might be time to find someone to blame and restore things to status quo. Anxious systems hate change. They will do anything they can to avoid it. They seem to have no conflict, but that’s because it is brushed under the carpet because the anxiety of conflict would be too much to handle.

If you see a system that has no apparent conflict and continues to do things as it has for the past century or so, chances are you are looking at a system that does not have healthy means of dealing with anxiety.

I promised that I would get to the third part - to the way that healthy leaders can change everything. Here it is. It could be called ‘be yourself’ or in social media terms ‘you do you.’ The family systems theorists call it self-differentiation, and this is the key. This is the way of being that changes businesses and families and communities.

In an anxious system, most people are somewhat stuck - a bit paralysed. They are trapped in triangles and emotional fields that pressure them to do what will make other people happy, what will keep the anxiety low. And so, they are not themselves. 

In relationships, this might be called co-dependence. They dare not be authentically themselves for fear of perturbing the balance, which could mean losing affection and the opportunity to get their needs met.

And it may sound like this way leads to happiness - after all - the motivation is to avoiding making anyone unhappy. But it doesn’t help a system become more healthy and it doesn’t help an organisation make the right decisions. It doesn’t make room for a vision. It doesn’t encourage growth and change - either for individuals or for the overall system. It is simply stuck. It is only happiness in the sense that Han Solo could be said to be happy if he was smiling right before being frozen in carbonite.

The self-differentiated person is one has greater immunity to the anxiety in the system and the resulting pressure to play a role that doesn’t bother anyone. Such a person has grown far enough to be fully themselves and, simultaneously to be in touch with the other members of a system. 

It is easy to be so emotionally enmeshed in a system that you can’t be yourself. At the opposite extreme, it is easy enough to be emotionally cut-off from others and be yourself. But self-differentiation is having the strength to do both - to be fully oneself and fully connected to others.

Being self differentiated means that one’s self esteem is not dependent on what others think about them. Self-differentiation confers the ability to define one's own goals and values without being pushed about by outside pressures. 

How is self-differentiation a key to change in an anxious system? Family systems work has shown clearly that raising the self-differentiation level of one member of a family changes the whole dynamics of the system. Often, a family systems therapist will focus on the healthiest person in the system rather than the one showing all the symptoms. Remarkably, successful therapy comes about in this way rather than by working directly with the so-called patient. Raising the self-differentiation of one person allows them to bear to destabilise the unhealthy systems that are placing the weight of illness on the one designated patient. 

This is true in larger systems - in communities and congregations. There too, unhealthy systems become frozen in place. They can be shaken only when someone arises who is able to shake off the chains of systemic anxiety while still remaining in relationship. 

This is not a message about leadership only or even how best to create strong, growthful, satisfying relationships, although these are all part of the fruits of self differentiation.
I believe that relationship is at the core what it is to live well - what some might call spirituality or religion or wholeness. If this is so, then the journey of self-differentiation is a religious journey. It is a spiritual path. It is part of our growth toward true wholeness. 

May it be so.