Leadership as an Emotional Process

Mickie W. Crimone, M.S., APRN


Leadership – everyone needs it, everyone wants it. And everyone sells it. There are hundreds of books on leadership published each year, detailing techniques and strategies. Topics range from TQM to Japanese management methods. Yet today’s leaders continue to falter. Knowledge and experience alone have not let to success. Why not? What are we missing?

The answer lies in emotional process, a subject overlooked by leadership literature and training. A leader is always in the midst of an emotional field – a family, an organization, a society. In that cloudy atmosphere he or she must try to see beyond the known universe and set out for uncharted territory. Yet the very act of leading often stirs resistance and sabotage in the system’s emotional field, and many leaders lose their way.

What allows a leader to maintain vision in the face of numerous difficulties and endless sabotage? Where does one get the stamina, resolve, and willingness to persevere? How can the leader visualize – and build – what others can’t even imagine? Edwin Friedman believed that the leader’s ability to regulate self is the key to moving forward despite obstacles.

Friedman’s contribution to Bowen Theory was his focus on leadership through self-differentiation. He argued that how a leader functions has a profound influence on the system, much more than any expertise or technique. No leader, moreover, dwells in a single system. Emotional process is the same in families and organizations, and issues in one system can trigger symptoms in another. Thus, Friedman taught, leaders must constantly monitor both their family and organizational systems. The ability to change focus between systems is, I believe, the most necessary tool of a leader. How can a leader use this notion of focus to be effective? Focus is about distance and closeness. Leaders need distance not only to look ahead but also to survey the emotional field for the inevitable sabotage. Yet when leaders get too far away, they become disconnected from the significant people in the system. Without a balance between distance and closeness, the leader’s goals – and the whole system – may drift off into space.

Leaders also need to be vigilant about aiming their attention. Anxious overattention to any single problem robs a leader of time and energy to address real issues – perhaps including the source(s) of that very problem. A savvy leader keeps asking, “Am I seeing the whole picture? Where can I most effectively direct my attention? What’s causing this symptom to appear in this way at this time?”

Case Studies

The following examples illustrate the power of focus. In the first case, an entrepreneurial dynasty exploded when emotional issues completely eclipsed the business. In contrast, the next two examples demonstrate leaders who felt trapped but were able to shift focus and begin acting in new and effective ways.

Example 1: Driven to Distraction

Herbert Haft was a businessman with a vision. In an era when few retailers stressed price competition, this Washington, D.C., entrepreneur wooed customers with discounts. His single-minded approach – low prices, high volume – succeeded wildly, spawning chains that reached well beyond Washington: Dart Drug, Trak Auto, Crown Books, Shoppers World, and more. Yet the business remained, at heart, a mom-and-pop shop. Haft and his family dominated the board of directors. Haft was the chairman; his eldest son, Robert, served as CEO. The business was notoriously secretive.

In 1993, as Robert was nearing his 40th birthday, Herbert announced his intention to pass the chairmanship to Robert. In a subsequent interview, Robert told the Wall Street Journal that upon assuming the chair, he hoped to make the business more open. Herbert responded by firing Robert. Dynastic warfare erupted – covered gleefully by the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

Herbert’s wife, Gloria, broke years of boardroom silence by pleading with her husband to reinstate Robert. (Herbert divorced her two years later.) Robert’s brother sided with their father, while his sister sided with him and his mother. The rupture led to lawsuits and countersuits, and legal bills eroded the family’s fortune.

Meanwhile, the business world was changing. Customers had come to take discount prices for granted. Borders and Barnes & Noble launched megastores complete with coffee bars. But the Hafts, focused on domestic strife, failed to compete. The business declined, and the last holdings were sold in 1998.

The Hafts’ drama provides an epic lesson in the costs of misdirected focus. It also raises the issue of distance/closeness. Why were Herbert and Robert so totally unable to heal their rift before it expanded? Were they too far apart, or too entwined? Had either man been able to manage his response to the other, the outcome might have been completely different.

Example 2: Misplaced Ministry

Gene was a dedicated minister who often wound up doing everyone’s job but his own. So involved was he in every aspect of congregational life that he supervised the janitor, ordered supplies, and even kept the soda machine filled. When the choir sang during services, Gene would leave the pulpit to join them. He was wearing himself out, and his true mission – spiritual leadership – was suffering. Gene knew he was “doing too much” but couldn’t stop, in part because he was determined to please his bishop.

What finally drove Gene to seek help was his inability to deal with the church organist, a diabetic whose “attacks” often kept him from showing up – even, one year, at Christmas. (Interestingly, the attacks only happened before or at church and never affected the organist’s regular job.) Determined to help, Gene tried to lighten the organist’s load and kept a supply of orange juice handy at all times. Yet the attacks continued.

The therapist suggested that Gene temporarily ignore the organist and focus instead on his family of origin. He was the oldest child of a minister who, in turn, was the oldest child of a minister. Gene realized that much of his zeal for success and his endless appetite for responsibility stemmed from pleasing his father- or the bishop, whom Gene had transformed into a father figure.

Gene also noticed that his family always tended to organize around sick members; those seeming victims, he realized, were actually immensely powerful in terms of setting the family’s agenda and mood. Because the sensitivities learned in one’s family of origin often resurface in the workplace, Gene had been treating the organist as a sick relative rather than an essentially incompetent employee.

As Gene worked to define himself in a different way within his family, he became more adept at imagining and trying new responses to congregational problems. Encouraged by his therapist, Gene actually increased the pressure on the organist, even suggesting that the organist could, if necessary, make music selections from his hospital bed! At the same time, Gene stopped mollifying choir members and lay leaders who were irked by the organist. Instead he said, “I don’t know what you’re going to do about him” and suggested buying a boom box and some Christmas tapes in case of another untimely attack. He also gave up singing with the choir and let the janitor tend the soda machine.

No longer shielded by Gene’s overfunctioning, the organist soon quit, and the congregation was able to hire a competent replacement.

By shifting focus from his work to his family, Gene gained crucial insights that helped him modify his response to the organist. Both minister and congregation also benefited from Gene’s putting more distance between himself and daily congregational life. In exchange for taking greater responsibility for administrative matters – and that soda machine! — the congregation got a leader who was free to do his real work as a shepherd of souls.

Example 3: Finally Facing Reality

Gail was a nurse with a master’s degree, a recent divorcée, and the mother of two sons. She was in the middle of a busy day when the principal of the younger son’s school called to say that boy had been suspended. Wisely, Gail had the school notify the father too. Both parents arrived at the school, but Gail’s ex-husband seemed more upset about the inconvenience than about the son’s problems. Gail was distressed by the father’s failure to take a strong stand with their child, and she called her therapist in a panic.

The therapist asked Gail about the father’s history of dealing with discipline. Had he been a strong disciplinarian before? No. Did he share Gail’s belief – rooted in the way her family had worked – that disciplining children was a fatherly duty? No. Had Gail previously been able to will changes in her ex-husband? No. Why, then, did Gail expect him to behave in a new way now? No answer.

Gradually, Gail realized that the battle of wills with her ex-husband was diverting her from facing the reality that she was the family leader. Any discipline her son would get had to come from her. She spoke calmly but firmly with her son, refusing to rescue him from the principal’s decision. She also imposed some sanctions of her own. Most important, she stopped trying to change her ex-husband; instead, she presented him with matter-of-fact reports on the boy’s behavior.

A year later, Gail’s son came home with his best report card ever.

Trapped in her focus on the way fathers “should” act i.e., as Gail’s own father and grandfather had acted – Gail was incapable of seeing or addressing the way her ex-husband actually acted (or failed to). Once Gail shifted focus to the realities of her situation, she emerged as an effective family leader.


To borrow from Star Trek, a leader’s mission is “to boldly go where no one has gone before.” On TV that means heading into the stars. But for leaders on Earth the final frontier is inner space.

It’s always easier to focus on others than to face one’s own functioning (or lack of it). Working hard and meaning well, we get caught in the content, we see nothing but the need to fix a problem, or we blame clients or organizations for their resistance. It is difficult to monitor oneself and take leadership of the family, organization, or treatment session. It is also essential.

Leadership always takes place in an emotional field, and leaders can only navigate that challenging terrain if they can draw upon a well defined self. The ability to lead is directly proportional to one’s willingness to define a self in the family of origin. Whatever the issue, shifting the focus to one’s own family can clear the head, illumine previously unsuspected patterns, and strengthen the leader to act in new ways. That is what self-defining leadership is all about.

The three case examples illustrate how the leader’s failure or ability to shift focus can have a dramatic impact on a system; business, church or family. The only solution to the myriad of difficulties encountered along any path is within the head of the leader. It is my experience that when one is stuck and the vision clouded, the question is not what is wrong with the other or the technique or the system. The real question is how to manage oneself.