Don’t be one of your organisation’s emotional dominoes

July 21, 2016 § 1 Comment

Here’s a nugget from a leadership book entitled A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix, by Edwin Friedman.

He explores the concept of differentiation, which he defines as

‘becoming oneself with minimum reactivity to the positions or reactivity of others … charting one’s own way by means of one’s own internal guidance system, rather than perpetually (seeing) where others are at’.

So for me it sounds like to what extent can I keep objective, and speaking/acting from my own judgments rather than just waiting to see – or being unduly influenced by – what others are doing. And note: I’m taking Friedman’s ‘reactivity’ to mean the likelihood of being stimulated to react.

Below are some examples of differentiation from Friedman, which seem to me – as someone interested in nurturing one’s true voice – to be a great list of aspirations for twenty-first century, emotionally intelligent leaders. See what you think. I love particularly the encouragement not to be one of your system’s emotional dominoes…

Differentiation is…

  • The capacity to take a stand in an intense emotional system
  • Saying “I” when others are demanding “we”
  • Containing one’s reactivity, including the ability to avoid being polarised
  • Maintaining a non-anxious presence in the face of anxious others
  • Ceasing automatically being one of the system’s emotional dominoes
  • Being clear about one’s own personal values and goals
  • Taking maximum responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context

(adapted from p183, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix, by Edwin Friedman. 2007. New York: Seabury Books).


By way of commentary on this: I knew someone, a very collaborative leader, who demonstrated some of the above. His ability to rise above and to read a group situation was amazing. On the few times when I saw him lose his cool, it was almost always out of passion for truth – and what struck me was that even in those moments he never lost his sense of the others around him and what they might be feeling and needing.

Unnervingly, Friedman also points out that effective differentiation by a leader will inevitably trigger sabotage from the ‘least well-differentiated’ people in the system. A health warning, therefore. Just sayin’. Sabotage is possible in any circumstances, of course; so differentiation may be a better path to choose, though not necessarily an easier one.

NB There’s a separate inspirational nugget I found in Friedman’s book, which I’m planning to post about in the next couple of days.

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