The Spirit of Leadership
a sermon preached by Rev. Khleber Van Zandt at First Unitarian Church of Alton, January 27, 2008
What Would Jesus Do? I’ve heard this question from some unlikely sources of late. No doubt you’ve heard this question before, perhaps from the media campaign of a few years ago or perhaps from your more evangelically-minded friends and accomplices. The question I had originally chosen to explore in this sermon entitled “The Spirit of Leadership” was not about Jesus at all but about the late Edwin Friedman, so I guess the question for this morning would have been, What Would Ed Do? Friedman is the author of this book, The Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. He also wrote Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue back in 1985. A devotee of the Family Systems Theory developed by Murray Bowen, Friedman was considered a preeminent leadership training guru at the time of his early death in 1996. His work appeals to many in leadership positions, myself no exception.
Leadership has been much on my mind lately as this church’s leadership has waded through a difficult January. This sermon being a public function, I will take care to respect the boundaries of those involved. I want you to be aware, as I am, that these words go out on the internet and therefore I may end up needing to sound even more cryptic than usual. But I want to assure you it is with care that I speak.
The questions this January have been myriad, difficult, and deep. Because I’ve been reading this book all along, I have found myself asking over and over, what would Ed do? What would Ed do? And though my closest association to things Christian may be that some of you accuse me of being one, I’ve even found myself asking, what would Jesus do? What would Jesus do? And all this in the service of the questions, What should I do? and What should we do?
To answer these questions in the particular, let’s pose a hypothetical situation: Let’s say a person comes to our church community in something of a bind and needing help. Let’s say the person needs to experience healing - it’s not an unusual situation because we all fit that category to some extent and at some time or another, don’t we? But there it is, when faced with a person needing to experience healing, what would Ed do, what would Jesus do, what should I do, what should we do?
Let’s take those questions one at a time:
What would Ed do? Edwin Friedman used the language of Family Systems Theory, which if you’re not familiar with it says that the systems we act within have their own dynamic, usually in the shape of triangles where you and I and someone or something else are involved. When you and I interact, we talk about the third person or thing in the triangle because by doing so, we lessen our anxieties by adding it to the other entity. It’s too anxiety-producing to talk about our issues with one another so we talk about the issues of another and feel better ourselves. A leader, says Friedman, is someone who works to disentangle the triangles in a system by focusing on him- or her-self and his or her own qualities and his or her own issues.
One of the keys to this sort of work is examining one’s own family-of-origin emotional system and determining how things worked - or didn’t - as one was growing up. This work is not for the faint of heart: to go back and sift through the functions and dysfunctions of one’s family life can be frightfully emotional and disturbing, especially if you’re a member of a family like mine - which I suspect most of you are in some form or fashion. That family you grew up in probably gave you some things which were marvelously and wonderfully healthy, some things which were merely useful, and some things which you’d rather forget. Most of us are unaware of all those dynamics, all those gifts, but those gifts make us who we are, they are the needs that drive us, they are at the root of all the emotional universe that we now inhabit. Separating ourselves from that system may be impossible, but gaining an awareness of that system gives us some measure of control over ourselves by letting us know more about why we do things the way we do, thereby giving us some measure of choice in our emotional reactivity to persons and events around us.
Friedman suggests that advances in brain science can help us understand our emotional systems as well. It used to be thought that the metaphor of a computer was a good way to describe the workings of the human brain: that the brain was the central processing unit of the human computer and the body was simply peripheral and had nothing to do with the functionality of the brain. More recently, this idea has been supplanted by a more holistic model of brain-body interaction wherein it is believed the organ of the brain acts in concert with the rest of the body so that the ‘self’ or the mind does not reside solely in the head - consciousness ‘feels’ like it’s in our heads but is affected by the entire body. Think of the athletes who practice particular motions time and time and time again so that their muscles ‘remember’ what to do without having to be consciously reminded by the brain. Friedman says the brain does not contain a central processing unit for information, the brain always processes emotional factors and data simultaneously, and that the ‘thinking’ of the ‘body-mind’ always involves the self of the entire integrated organism.
With all this integration, it’s still true that the brain is constructed in three layers: the cortex, or the outermost layer of the brain, where thinking happens; the middle brain, or mammalian brain, where the desire to build relationships and family come from; and the amygdala, or reptilian brain, where ‘fight-or-flight’ impulses are generated. For leaders, the most important aspect of this triune brain is that we recognize that when anxiety rises, the reptilian brain takes control and people begin to act from their fight-or-flight impulses even when they believe they’re thinking at a higher level. Friedman says behaviors that indicate reptilian functioning - within others or within themselves - should raise red flags for leaders of any system. Three such reptilian behaviors that are a cause for special concern in Friedman’s opinion are 1) interfering in the relationships of others; 2) incessantly trying to convert others to their point of view; and 3) being unable to relate to people who do not agree with them.
Admittedly, Friedman had a flare for the dramatic and liked to push limits personally and professionally. He was well-known as a leadership guru, but he had not been a very good rabbi. He distrusted empathy, maybe because he had none. He counseled leaders not to be pulled down by the lowest functioning members of their systems; sometimes it’s a fine line between attending to people’s immediate needs and being overtaken by and absorbed into their various pathologies. But, what do his theories say about our immediate situation: when faced with a person needing to experience healing, what would Ed do?
I believe Ed would say we should pay attention to the fact that the only thing we have any control over is ourselves, and that we should first and foremost do the work to make ourselves as healthy as possible. He would say that we should pay attention to the emotional systems we live in, and that when those are as healthy as possible, then we might expect that healing can take place. Friedman was acutely aware that there are people and problems beyond the help of our systems, and that our work should not to be deterred by those people and their problems. If that is what Ed would do, the next question for the morning becomes, What would Jesus do? As I thought about this question in regards to the situation presented us in January, I remember that Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels as an itinerant peasant, a healer and a sage who wandered the backroads of the Empire dispensing wisdom and healing the sick. He owned nothing, had no responsibilities to family or to institutions, never worried about how to keep an older building repaired or whether a church budget would be covered for the month. Jesus was apparently a better rabbi than Friedman: he loved children, but still he didn’t stop to build schools or daycare centers. He was an itinerant, and his focus with people seemed in most cases to be momentary: if he figured out you needed healing, he did what he could, and then left you to your own devices. Most people call these tidbits from the gospels miracle stories; we might call them indications of Jesus’ sense that overall health requires some measure of personal agency or ability to act. Consider the story of the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5. The text says that Jesus is approached by a man who lives in a cemetery - a defiled and unclean place in Ancient Near Eastern culture - and who’s been tortured for years by internal demons. Many people have tried to help the man to no avail, even chaining him up to save him from himself, but he’s so strong that he’s broken the chains into tiny pieces. Jesus comes along and has a conversation with the demons inside the man and tells them to leave. They rush out into 2000 nearby pigs that run down the hill and drown themselves in the lake. A miracle, it is said, because Jesus had been able to do what others had not been able to do. Another miracle or at least a strong message: when the healed man tries to leave with Jesus, Jesus tells him no, Jesus tells the man he must go home: essentially, Jesus has done all he can for the man, and the man must now take care of himself.
So, when faced with a person needing to experience healing, what would Jesus do? He would do what he could - which in the example would be to heal them because he knew how and had the power - and then leave the person in question to their own devices. If we do what Jesus would do, we will do what we have the power to do, and then let the person live their life, practicing what they’ve learned, taking some level of personal responsibility and gaining from their own personal experience.
If we know what Ed Friedman would do and what Jesus would do, what then should I do? What then should we do?
It sounds to me like we have our work cut out for us. First of all, I feel personally driven to do the family work that Friedman suggests: looking at the emotional system of my family of origin, searching for clues about why my life has gone the way it has, why I think and feel and react the way I do, why I am the way I am. The information I learn may be helpful, the data I gather may add to my knowledge about myself and the world, but I believe simply entering the process, though difficult, holds the possibility of being transformative in and of itself. Maybe some of you would like to pursue something similar.
Secondly, I believe we need to acknowledge that there are things we can do for others. The powers we have for helping and for healing go far beyond what we imagine. Consider our volunteers who are going to Louisiana. As a group they will probably shed more light than any one individually could do, and their presence with the needy people down there may be just what people need to get through the day.
Thirdly, I believe we need to recognize that there are, sadly, limits on what we can accomplish individually and as a group. There are issues we cannot resolve by being smart, people we cannot reach by being nice, diseases we cannot cure by being prayerful. Will the people going to Louisiana rebuild all the houses, cure all the ills, and make certain no more storms will come along? Of course not. But that will not stop them from doing what they can do.
Let us do our work on ourselves, let us reach out to others as much as possible, and let us realize that we can solve what we can solve and help who we can help and heal who we can heal, and the rest is up to the universe.
So why was the title for today “The Spirit of Leadership”? What does spirit have to do with it?
Here’s my final thought. If I failed early in my life as a father, it was because I didn’t understand that kids need a parent more than they need a friend. Sure kids need friends, but they should get friends elsewhere. Parents need to be ready to set limits, define boundaries, and teach healthy emotional processes rather than just let kids do whatever they feel like whenever they feel like it. Until I grew up and began to make a connection with something larger than myself, to make something I would call a spiritual connection, I couldn’t have been counted on to be a good parent or to be present in a significant way for myself or for anyone else.
Something larger than yourself: Ed Friedman had his work and he gave his whole life to it. Jesus spoke of his connection to something he called God; he seems to have given his life to that.
It is when we give ourselves away to something larger than ourselves that we gain the ability to step back from the storms of life and see with new eyes.
It is when we give ourselves away to something larger than ourselves that we gain the ability to see ourselves and our motivations more clearly.
It is when we give ourselves away to something larger than ourselves that we gain the ability to be there significantly for others.
So may it be.
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