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Toxicity and the Self-Differentiated Leader

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​This is a season of major transition for me. Aren’t they all in some ways, though? But really, this one is big for me and my family. We are moving from the home we have lived in for almost 24 years. We are only moving about 40 minutes away but the distance is not the challenge. The challenge is all the boxing of our things and getting the house ready for our buyers. And, of course, there’s as much emotional baggage as there are boxes when you’ve literally raised your kids in one home and have thousands of memories embedded in the walls and rooms of a place. Yet, to grab onto something new by its very nature means letting go of something you hold dear. And we are right in the middle of that process.

For us, the hardest part so far has been the books! I’m a reader and also a collector. My wife might even go so far as to say a hoarder when it comes to books! I buy books that I may not read any time soon just because, well, they seem interesting. So, I have a lot of books. And while I was able to part with about half of them, there are still 10 very large boxes of books with which I just can’t part. This is where my wife rolls her eyes. And I don’t blame her. But I’m also not letting go of the precious “few” that remain.

In the course of going through all my books, I came across a real favorite and realized I have never written about it before. It’s a leadership book called The Failure of Nerve by Edwin H Friedman. Friedman, for me, is in a class all his own when it comes to leadership. He cuts across the grain of so much of what passes for common knowledge or assumed wisdom, that most of the book I read with a head tilt. His topics range from anxiety to toxic environments to relational dynamics to adventure to data to stress. But he weaves it all together into an understandable and applicable way that any team, family or organization can get their arms around.

A key theme for Friedman is the idea that leaders need to be self-differentiated. That means, in short, that leaders can’t be overly identified with the groups they lead or else they won’t have the needed perspective to make hard decisions. In other words, leaders need to have clearly defined boundaries. They need to be in touch with the ideas and emotions of others but not dominated by them. The opposite of being self-differentiated is a leader who tries to make everyone happy and has a hard time making unpopular decisions. We all know one. Some of us may be a (recovering) one (my hand sheepishly goes up).

But, the benefits to being or becoming self-differentiated are huge. Friedman says that self-differentiated leaders:

Act as the immune system for organizations. If a toxic person enters the system (team, family, group), the leader keeps that toxicity from spreading.

Have the capacity to take strong stands and make hard calls that are ultimately good for everyone

Contain their own reactions even when those around them grow anxious and insecure

Are clear on their own personal values and goals

Take responsibility for their own well-being rather than blame others or the context

How does all this apply to leading and managing body shops? While I would love to give several examples—many, unfortunately, all too recent—of what this looks like, in my context, it would be hard to do without divulging too much information that really needs to remain private and between me and a few former employees. Suffice it to say that, at times, there has been some toxicity in our organization and sometimes I handled it well and other times, not so much. Sadly, on the worst days, I contributed to it. But getting back in touch with Friedman is helping me become the leader I need to be to get us back on track.

In my morning routine, I have a prayer that I repeat almost daily. One of the lines of that prayer says, “Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others.” That is really the heart of a self-differentiated leader: the ability to be decisive in a way that doesn’t hurt, shame or distance the very people we are trying to lead.

I’m no pro at praying but that is my prayer for you, whoever you are, as well. Be strong. Be kind. Be self-differentiated. The ones you lead and the health of your business depend on it.

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