The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

The Family Leader

Authored by Stephanie Ferrera, M. S. W.

Leaders are often described in terms of their individual characteristics:  special talents or knowledge, confidence, charisma, organizing ability and especially the ability to excite others around an important mission.  Some are “born leaders” and others work at developing leadership skills.  Leadership and followership are reciprocal functions in human systems. Leadership training programs abound, but I know of none on followership training which may be equally important.  One cannot lead if no one follows.

A systems view of leadership is illustrated in this story by primatologist Jeanne Altman, an authority on the social life of baboons.  She watched a group of several dozen baboons as they faced a life-and-death decision at the end of a day of foraging–where to spend the night? They had been heading toward a nearby grove of trees when they caught sight of a leopard, a major predator.  They stopped in their tracks.  Sunlight was rapidly disappearing.  A safe haven needed to be found quickly.  Tension was high.  One young adult, then another started off in a direction.  No one followed. The would-be leaders sat back down. After ten long minutes, a mature female got up and began to move decisively toward a far-off grove. Within seconds, others were on their feet.  “The rippling motion rapidly grew into a wave, and soon all the baboons followed.”  (Altmann, J. “Leading Ladies” in Natural History, February 1992)

How did the baboons know where to find leadership at that crucial moment?  Somehow, within the wisdom of the group, an elderly low-ranking female was the one they trusted with their lives.  Altmann believes age and experience are important, but above all it is the individual’s position in a longstanding network of social relationships that makes him or her the leader.

The wisdom of the generations in families produces leadership at varying levels of maturity, effectiveness, and stability.  Older generation members are the natural leaders, responsible for the care of children, but in the absence or inability of parents or elders, children often step up and try to fill the void of leadership.  In years of charting family histories, I have met many adults who describe what I call “growing yourself up.”  Some recognize at an early age that guidance and resources are scarce and they respond by trying to be as independent as they can, searching for resources, sometimes leaving early and cutting off from the family, and sometimes taking on responsibility for other family members as well as themselves.

Leadership emerges in many ways and looks very different in an anxious family at a low level of differentiation than it does in a calmer family with a better level of differentiation. Because the level of differentiation of self is crucially important in the quality of family functioning and leadership, Dr. Bowen in his clinical work placed importance on coaching the family leaders.  He wrote, “Ideal family treatment begins when one can find a family leader with the courage to define self, who is as invested in the welfare of the family as in self, who is neither angry nor dogmatic, whose energy goes to changing self rather than telling others what they should do, who can know and respect the multiple opinions of others, who can modify self in response to the strengths of the group, and who is not influenced by the irresponsible opinions of others.”  (Kerr and Bowen, Family Evaluation.  p. 342-3)

This definition captures the essence of leadership within the family emotional system. Aware of, and invested in, the welfare of the family, the leader puts full effort toward taking responsibility for self.  This calls for observing and managing one’s emotional reactivity, thinking for self while being open and interested in the thinking of others. Absent from the definition is any notion of dominance or elevating self or control of others. Bowen went on to write, “A family leader is beyond the popular notion of power.  A responsible family leader automatically generates mature leadership qualities in other family members who are to follow.”  (p. 343)

Followers are the leaders in training, soon to take on the responsibilities of being in charge.  The concept of differentiated leadership offers a non-hierarchical model that opens the door to any family member who is willing to make the effort toward increased maturity.  Maturity is operating when one takes the lead in the appropriate time and place to do so, based on knowing one’s own position in the family and the responsibility that goes with that position.  Maturity is operating when one takes the follower position, based on knowing when someone else is in a stronger position and better equipped to lead.  Bowen called the family at its best “a collection of individuals.”  At a certain level of calm flexibility, the family is open to leadership from each and every member, from the top-down, the bottom-up, or the middle-out.  In so doing, the family taps into its most valuable resource:  the individuality of each of its members.

Stephanie Ferrera

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