Set Yourself Free

May 21, 2024 by Stephen Gianotti

With 25 years of experience as a professional leadership coach, I have learned and taught many leadership concepts. One of the most profound is one from Edwin Friedman's "A Failure of Nerve". He says we must increase our capacity to self-regulate our own capacity for self-regulation. Imagine what a difference it would make if each of us could react better to every situation we face. This leads to Friedman's concept of "self-differentiated leadership," which is the subject of today's blog.

Recently, I was a guest speaker at a two-day Southeastern Europe Leadership conference, where I had the pleasure of engaging with incredibly bright and talented attendees from six of the twelve Balkan countries: Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, and Bosnia Herzegovina. The topic was Leadership Styles and the role of emotional intelligence. Throughout the event, there was a wonderful exchange of ideas, practical insights, and shared learning experiences. However, I was struck by one very dominant and proverbial "elephant in the room" – the undeniable feeling that there is a "price to pay" if you speak up, speak out or, God forbid, speak against peers or upper leadership.

When we discussed ways to leverage their ideas and talents to become more effective leaders, there was a very clear unwillingness to go against the grain for fear of reprisal, retaliation, or rejection. I was both emotionally moved and professionally intrigued by how strongly this honest and overt sentiment was expressed by nearly every person in the room. I encountered the same dynamics when conducting a leadership program in Slovenia the month before, attended by bright 30-ish professionals from sixteen European countries. Quite possibly, this reluctance to speak up could be partly explained by the historical trauma of decades of communist rule and the persistent near-by threat these particular countries have experienced. Interestingly, over my 25+ years as a professional coach, working with thousands of individuals and groups of professionals at all organizational levels, I have noticed elements of this same fear that often accompanies one's own sense of leadership. In fact, I have found it deeply woven into the fabric of daily work and in nearly everyone's interpersonal reality.

In Edwin Freidman's book, "A Failure of Nerve," the author takes this "fear of what others might think or do" leadership dynamics head-on. Friedman elegantly articulates that there is a very important lesson that every leader must learn to be effective. Using the metaphor of the human immune system, he tells us that we must be "immune from" and "not let the anxiety of other people determine" how we behave. If I need to speak up about an important topic, but I don't because I'm afraid of other people's reactions, there is a "Failure of Nerve." When this happens, I become what Friedman calls a NON-self-differentiated leader. The term means that I have not learned (yet) to differentiate myself from what others think or feel, subsequently allowing what others might think, feel, or do determine (control) my decision-making and behavior.

Self-differentiated leadership means finding the courage to speak up, appropriately of course, regardless of my fear of how she, he or they might react. Friedman encourages us to (first) know and (then) to trust and remain true to our own internal compass, which is based on our values, knowledge, experience, expertise, and what we believe is the right thing to do. In other words, if we are confident in our knowledge and experience, we should also confidently talk about it and act upon it, without fear of retaliation or others' reactions.

While challenging to get there, becoming a self-differentiated leader, or better yet, a self-differentiated human being, is an incredibly freeing place. Once you arrive, your life will change forever. This I promise you. Your work, friendships, and family dynamics will take on a new and more honest existence because you will no longer hold yourself responsible for, and therefore no longer be controlled by, the emotions, fears, anxieties, issues, and also hidden agendas of others.

Please note that becoming and being a self-differentiated leader or person does NOT mean that you stop caring about what people might think or feel, or how they might react. You do not jettison your compassion or caring in any way. If anything, self-differentiated leadership lets you see your colleagues, friends, and family more clearly AND more objectively with an added layer of compassion. This allows you to learn what is your "stuff" and what is their "stuff." It is about you making sure you keep your own appropriate level of responsibility for every situation, and help others assume theirs.

By setting yourself free in this way is actually a gift to others, modeling for them how to become more responsible and more in control of their own precious and all-too-brief lives. With this gift, maybe they too will become free like you.