A Systems Approach to Leadership, pt 4: Focus on Self, Not Others

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 11, 2005

How can being self-focused help someone be a healthy leader?  Doesn’t this contradict the call to be so-called "servant leaders?"  According to Steinke:

A self who stays focused on one’s own beliefs and acts on them lives to the max and is attractive to many.  A nonself focuses on others: what they will think, how they will react, what they will expect.  Action is based on others’ reaction, not one’s own definition and truth.  But how can anyone function effectively as a leader if his or her anxiety is a the same level as those being led?  Focus on self, not others. 

A healthy leader has the strength of character and conviction to not be ruled by the anxiety of others.  Rather than being reactionary or being controlling, s/he offers him/herself as a gift to the Body of Christ.  They enter into anxiety and help to bring authentic peace.  At the same time, they also enter into apathy and raise discomfort enough for people to seek authentic peace.

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6 Responses to “A Systems Approach to Leadership, pt 4: Focus on Self, Not Others”

  1. Gregg on November 12th, 2005 4:38 pm

    I wonder how most Christians would be able to square on focus on self with scripture? That is, most of initially read scripture as though it provides a psychological perspective on how we are to orient ourselves (Christ will increase, I will decrease). So, any modern perpectives about taking care of yourselve first so that you more available to be present to others, may seem blasphemous. And yet, scripture gives us guidelines, but it was not intended to be a pscyhological perspective per se.

    Because of this, it seems to me that family systems theory helps bridge the gap from the initial dismissal of anything that smacks of “too pscyhological” to a grounding in scriptural guidelines.

    Or maybe I’m just smoking paper bags again…

  2. Mark Van Steenwyk on November 12th, 2005 4:57 pm

    I think it all has to do with how we define self-focus and other-focus. Jesus is obviously other-focused in his concerns and actions–as we should be as well. But we need to have the ego strength required to not lose our identity and convictions. We can’t define ourselves by how others respond to us.

    I think it is helpful to think about biblical humility. Humility has little to do with putting ourselves down, but in exalting others. The more healthy and self-differentiated we are, the more our exaltation of others is really a gift.

  3. Jim on November 14th, 2005 10:05 am

    Gregg sent me the link to your blog. I thought I would respond with a few comments.

    Self-focused leaders are healthy leaders. I agree if this means that they are striving to be true to God’s direction in their own lives rather than catering to the whims of others and trying to please them.

    The idea of clergy versus laity is not part of the New Testament. In fact, one of the heresies referred to in Revelation (see 2:6) is that of the Nicolaitans. Possibly the laitans of Nicolas were doing the very thing that you were speaking against. This is not a certain interpretation of the passage, but it has some plausibility.

    My idea of the pastoral role is that there is a distinction between pastor and people, but it is one of function rather than of quality or honor. That is, there must be cohesiveness in the church. If the pastor truly is not trying to “please people” (see above), then he or she needs to provide direction and work with the people of God to achieve consensus. I did, indeed, try to follow this model throughout my ministry. From my studies in seminary on various Christian education models and in counseling on Rogerian technique, I became convinced that the big stick was not what was needed. In addition, our professor of systematic theology (Dr. Ralph Powell) recommended that we read 2 Timothy 3:22-26 on our knees once every year so that we will be properly demonstrating the correct spirit in our ministry. (I believe that he recommended other passages as well, but I think that this was one of the primary ones.)

    The tradtional position (among those who advocate a congregational form of church givernment) has been enunciated as “moral persuasion” rather than a dictatorial stance or a laissez faire attiude, on the other hand.

    Thus the pastor can help the church stay true to its DNA (p. 2 of Nov. 11). At the same time it would not be appropriate to ordain janitors or church clerks because someone needs to exercise leadership. A rudderless ship will begin to spin out of control.

    The example of pastoral infidelity speaks to dysfunction in the church. I think that additional examples are needed in order to flesh out the positive role of the pastor. For instance, “Family systems” seems to suggest that what one member of the family does is interrelated to what all the others do. An alcoholic husband in the family whose life is transformed by conversion to Christ may upset his wife who is no longer able to perform her enabling role. Of couse, this is a negative example, as well. But the key is to take the ideology of family systems and show how it energizes the church when it is properly understood and applied. What suggestions do you have in this regard?

  4. Van S on November 14th, 2005 3:20 pm

    A good example of a leader helping to energize the church within a systems framework could be seen in the way some leaders gather a group of people around a similar goal and help them to see the ways they can contribute to that goal. Or in a house group, a healthy leader can help be a “thermostat” in the room by helping maintain a warm temperature in the group dynamic–by being a relatively non-anxious presence yet occasionally raising the anxiety enough through challenging statement and questions. The leader be self-focused in the sense that he or she has clear goals for group health, and because the leader is confident in the worthiness of these goals, is ok with a certain level of anxiety. As the leader helps the group to navigate through challenging interpersonal dynamics, he or she could continue to raise enough anxiety to promote growth. The group will grow in its cohesiveness and health as each member is able to discern their contribution to the group. This is an anxious process for the leader(s), since they have to help in this process with a willingness to not be in complete control as they recognize the role everyone plays, allowing them to make their contribution without it being managed through the leader.

  5. Gregg on November 14th, 2005 6:21 pm

    So, what you’re saying, in a sense, is that a leader who is aware of their own triggers around anxiety will bring this groundedness–of what triggers them to shift into controlling behaviors (less collaborative and more dictatorial leadership behaviors)–into their leadership role? Is this kind of self-awareness or self-reflection promoted in the pastoral training that takes place nowadays?

  6. Van S on November 14th, 2005 7:24 pm

    You said it much better than I could, oh wise therapist! While I don’t think most seminary approaches to leadership (including Bethel’s) is dictatorial, I do think there is an under-emphasis in systems approaches to church ministry and leadership. We tend to take our lead from the business world–which focuses on effectiveness and success–instead of areas like family systems theory–which focuses on health. Since the pastor in most churches is isolated and expected to be the burden-bearer of the church, there is a high rate of burn out and moral failure in our churches. Bethel’s approach, which I believe to be ahead of most other seminaries’ leadership training, focuses on developing godly character in leaders as a cure to this problem. However, I think this often fails to address the deeper systems issues, as well as the unresolved triggers in the pastor’s life. I know that Sam Rima at Bethel Seminary is trying to address the triggers issue, but beyond that it seems like our family therapists are better trained to deal with church systems then our pastors. My personal conviction is that we should take the best of character-development training for would-be leaders and add some training on church systems theory. This should provide the core for the first 2 years of ministry classes. The 3rd year and beyond should be the time to work through issues of ministry effectiveness and specialization. This would provide a better seminary-based education for church leadership. Beyond this, I think we should commit ourselves to ecclesial reform. There are alot of new approaches to church ministry and structure, including some approaches which seek to destroy the clergy/laity distinction and reforge leadership in ways that are not only more biblical, but more faithful to context.

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