Accommodating Incongruence

June 23, 2017 By Katherine Tyler Scott

“The problems confronting leadership in our society today, the failure of nerve and the desire for a quick fix, are not the result of overly strong self, but of weak or no self… Well-developed self in a leader—self-differentiation—is not only critical to effective leadership, it is the leadership characteristic that is most likely to promote the kind of community that preserves the self of its members.”

Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve

These words of Edwin Friedman are prescient and disturbing. It is impossible to ignore the kind of leadership being displayed daily by the man in the White House. To say nothing about it feels like an accommodation of incongruence. History has taught us that this strategy never ends well.

In an attempt to understand some of the dynamics occurring I returned to systems theory. Like most of you I was immersed in systems theory in graduate school and have studied and used my growing knowledge of it over many years. It is essential information and a helpful framework for understanding what we are currently experiencing.

I have worked in several psychiatric institutions with stellar training programs for residents in psychiatry and psychology, social work, nursing and vocational rehabilitation. Two of them were private institutions both of which were superb centers of learning, able to attract the best in the field to come, teach, consult and practice.

At the Psychiatric Institute in Washington D.C., Dr. Murray Bowen and Dr. Virginia Satir were two of the major thought leaders to whom we turned to ensure continued effectiveness in the work with individuals, families and groups.

Later on I discovered Edwin Friedman and Edgar Schein, both of whom offered particularly insightful and transformational ways of thinking.  What I found especially helpful is the finding by Friedman that the impact of leadership on systems, whether family, group, organization, or even a nation is similar. The emotionality in each is the same.

Every system has a field of emotional interconnectivity/interdependence that promotes cohesiveness and cooperation necessary to protect and support the survival of those within it. It is also the way the system maintains its stability and survivability when dealing with tension. When tensions escalate and rise to a point of high anxiety the emotionality in the system becomes infectious. Some in the system feel overwhelmed, isolated, and out of control. These are the people who will accommodate the most to reduce the tension; they become the bearer of the system’s problems and unresolved issues. In the therapeutic world we speak of this person as the “identified patient”; in reality, they are the symptom bearers of the dysfunction in the system and can easily become the scapegoat.

There are some other ways systems react to high anxiety or overload:

  1. Reactivity – impulsive actions and in the moment decisions; intense, hyper-sensitive about what is said in their responses to issues and to people.
  2. Group Think; Either/Or thinking - the tendency to all be in agreement and to isolate those who don’t go along with the dominant thinking.
  3. Quick-Fix Mentality- the seeking of immediate relief from the discomfort; a desire for answers and whoever has THE answer becomes the leader!
  4. “Stuckness” – the group keeps doing the same thing just harder and harder. There is no new information coming in to change the cycle.
  5. Regression - regression to a lower level of functioning; the chronic stress on the system is slow and corrosive, and leads to an acceptance of totalitarian governance and autocratic leadership.

What is at stake are in the closing words in the quote I began with by Friedman:

“On the broadest scale, the preservation of self in its leaders is a society’s greatest protection against descending into a counter-evolutionary mode. It is only the emergence of self in its leadership that can enable society, family, institutions, or a nation to evolve out of a regression.”

We must always work on our own being and self-differentiated.

The following is a list of the characteristics of self–differentiated leaders:

  1. Know their own history and mission – “Whom does your life serve?
  2. Clarity of Vision
  3. Embody a set of core values made explicit through actions
  4. Are well informed
  5. Align their actions with their values
  6. Avoid the emotional contagion within systems
  7. Are aware of partisan perceptions and how to achieve understanding
  8. Continually learn and takes risks
  9. Aware of resistance and sabotage
  10. Champions change-provide a compelling reason to take action!
  11. Can manage conflict and negotiate resolution that satisfies common interests
  12. Invests in people as much as in projects
  13. Act on behalf of something greater than self-interest—advance the collective good
  14. Are truth tellers!
  15. Innovators, Collaborators, and Connectors

A list is a good start but the need to engage in the real work needed to develop these characteristics is non-negotiable. You can begin the discipline of self-reflection and awareness through reading and journaling, working with a small group of peers who share the vision and goals and support the journey of what Parker Palmer says is one of “clarifying your heart and finding the ground on which you stand.” We suggest attending a workshop that provides the space and time, expert facilitation and materials to aid you in delving deeper into the universal questions of identity, purpose, and call.

Go to for a schedule of Ki ThoughtBridge 2017-2018 workshops.