A Short Introduction to Friedman’s Family System’s Theory Approach to Leadership


There are many different approaches to leadership and a growing theory that many leaders in all genre’ of organizational leadership is being embraced by a more diverse and broader base of leadership is a “Family Systems” approach to leadership. The underlying conviction of this approach is how people did life in their family of origin is how they will navigate life in organizations. In this blog article I simply want to summarize some key points with this leadership theory and discuss what the functional definition of differentiated leadership is and how it applies to all leaders in any context.

Think Systemically

Failure of nerve

At the heart of Friedman’s model (based on M. Bowen Family Systems Theory) is a “systems approach” to leadership. By applying a family systems theory to leadership, Friedman argues that leaders lead in a systemic environment in which the elements (i.e. individuals, their relationships, vision, causes, values, etc.) are all interrelated and interconnected. Friedman often uses “systemic examples” to clarify the nature of leadership (e.g. organic/living systems, the immune system, the brain-body connection, the evolutionary process, etc.).[1]

To understand our role as leaders, Friedman argues that the leader must think systemically, embracing the interconnectedness of the whole network of relationships in an organization (institution/movement/church, etc.)     In other words, the functioning of any member, including the leader, plays a significant role in the functioning of the other Dr. Murray Bowenmembers of the organization.

Thus, when viewed through a systems lens, leadership is a functioning position that is present in all relational systems. From this perspective, how that position is filled – – how the “leader” is present in the system – – is the crucial issue. A system will either benefit or suffer from the way the leader is present because the functioning of the leader (or leaders) affects the emotional processes inherent in all relational systems (see next point).

Using a biblical/biological metaphor, Friedman says that “wherever the head goes, the body will follow.” If the leader (i.e., head) of an organization clearly defines the direction the leader is going AND if the leader stays connected to the members of the organization, the members will follow the leaders direction. This cause-effect happening will be automatic.

This has implications for leadership development. Often, leadership training puts the primary emphasis on others (disciples, employees, followers, team members) as objects to be motivated. The best leadership training, according to Friedman, begins and focuses on the systemic effects of the presence, or self, of the leader.


Churches and Organizations are Emotional Systems

Friedman’s theory of leadership relies heavily on the cumulative effect of emotional processes–how emotionally mature people are, their emotional reaction to anxiety and one another, and how individuals/groups manage or self-regulated their emotions. Because an organization is a living, interrelated system, leaders and followers are intimately connected through an emotional field they have created – with positive or negative effects on the health of the organization. According to Friedman, followers do not have to observe a leader directly, or even be in some direct “chain of command” hierarchy, in order to be affected, positively or negatively, by the leaders positive or negative functioning.

chronic anxiety

The idea of the emotional processes or of an emotional field as central to the leadership environment never occurred to me. Many of us who are in Church Leadership or in corporate management have had to deal with difficult people. It has been my experience that the greatest amount of chronic anxiety occurs around the time of change of transition. It is during these times that there is a power vacuum and it usually the most undifferentiated person who will have the loudest voice. In one church that I became the pastor that one undifferentiated person had been asked by previous elders and pastors to leave due to the nature of this individual consistency of stirring up strife. Because the system was filled with chronic anxiety this individual was not only allowed to return back to the church but he also was now serving on the board. When I got off the plane guess who was not only there to pick me up but he took me to lunch and during lunch after he negatively spoke about all past and present leaders in the church he leaned over and in a whisper said to me, “Pastor if you listen to me you will have no problem and the money will always be there?” What was my answer, “I do not dance with the devil and I would appreciate it if you allow me to connect with the other members of the leadership team in order that I can make my own observations.”  I stayed calm and was at peace even though this individual attempted to bait me into becoming exasperated. He stayed thirty days and resigned after he had been caught disseminating falsehoods about other members of the team. What happened after this was people began to learn that conflict is not a bad thing if one did not allow their chronic anxiety to get the best of them. It took two years of working with a team to get the emotional health of this church to a place where people could begin to think about being on mission.

Peter L. Steinke writes, “That there are no shortcuts in managing emotional processes, particularly painful ones. Preoccupied with “getting beyond it all” or “getting out of the mess,” the church family operates for the short run. Automatic and reactive behaviors prevail. I have learned from my experience that by speeding up the recovery process, that the leader can maintain people’s anxiety.[2]  On my journey in church leadership I have discovered that I need to be the “non-anxious presence,” willing to be patient, as the process is worked out and completed.

Chronic Anxiety Crosses All Denominational Lines

Here is the basic truth that a leader must grasp that every church regardless of its faith tradition has to deal with the reality of emotional systems. Every person has a degree of anxiety and must learn to become more differentiated. IN my thirty-five years of pastoral leadership I have witnessed the fact that people will default to a behavior that is their way of coping with their chronic anxiety. Recently, I communicated to a group of leaders in a tongue in cheek manner: “Charismatics when they are anxious will over compensate by becoming hyper-spiritual and they will form groups that they call “intercessory prayer groups” in which they group together of in the words of Friedman (Herd) and judge others. They BLOW UP due to their chronic anxiety. Non – Charismatic Evangelicals deal with their chronic anxiety by becoming information junkies and simply get angry that you do not acknowledge all that they know so they get mean and want to fight. They DRY UP due to their chronic anxiety. The key to understanding family systems theory is that as we learn to become both connected and separate in anxious times we will not resort to behaviors that have terrible outcomes such as people pleasing or over performing. I will discuss more of how this approach to leadership is powerful and effective and I learned this after doing it the wrong way. WELCOME TO THE HUMAN RACE!


Friedman, Edwin H. 1999. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.              New York, New York: Seabury Books.

Steinke, Peter L. 2006. How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations As        Emotional Systems. Herndon, VA, Alban Institute.

[1] (Friedman 1999) p. 14-15.

[2] (Steinke 2006) p 113.

About PastorAl

Al Soto has been married to his incredible wife Valerie for 30 years and they have five sons and one grandson. Al has been in Local Church Ministry for 35 years as both as a Lead Pastor, Associate Pastor, and for five years as a Regional Overseer for his denomination. He has a BA degree from LIFE Pacific College and is currently completing an MA in Leadership & Spiritual Formation from Vanguard University. He currently resides in Lincoln, CA where he is the new Lead Pastor for one of the Campus locations for Bayside Church. He continues to coach High School Football for the Lincoln Fighting Zebras for the Junior Varsity Program and is facilitating Leadership training and coaching as well as facilitating Spiritual Retreats. His hobbies include Golfing and Scuba Diving as well as he is a veracious reader. His Life Statement is “Real Success is Helping others to Succeed!”
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