Therapeutic Leadership (An Introduction to Dr. Edwin Friedman)


 “Leadership itself is a therapeutic modality.” -Dr. Edwin Friedman 

I have recently began, or attempted to nonetheless, reading Dr. Edwin Friedman’s “Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue” (a great little introductory review can be read here). The quote above can be found in the introduction to this book. I have pondered upon this quote a lot in the last couple of weeks. What is therapeutic leadership? How can therapy be done in leadership positions? I want to explore a little of Dr. Friedman’s thinking from the “Introduction” of the book to give a little insight to this notion of leadership being a therapeutic modality. Before I begin, if one is not familiar with family systems theory a basic definition would be that instead of focusing upon the individual in counseling or what have you one would focus upon the entire family dynamic. In FST, our conflicts and anxieties do not necessarily lie in our genetic make up or psychological leanings, but in how we function and react within the systems or networks of our relationships. I have written about FST here.


Dr. Friedman begins the introduction by these two observations about church life and church relationships among clergy and laity alike:

1) The family is the truly the ecumenical experience of all humanity.

2) Practices and beliefs is not what unites spiritual leaders, but stress factors do.

Dr. Friedman writes,

It is the thesis of this book that all clergyman and clergywomen, irrespective of faith, are simultaneously involved in three distinct families whose emotional forces interlock: the families within the congregation, our congregations, and our own. Because the emotional process in all of these systems is identical, unresolved issues in any one of them can produce symptoms in the others, and increased understanding of any one creates more functioning in all three” (page 1).

Within family systems theory, we can integrate the professional life with the personal life and which “turns crisis into opportunity and moves in the direction of lessening our stress.” Bad functioning within the system is a result of the reaction we have to the anxiety and stress. Stress here is not defined by some notion of being overworked, but more by the effect of what position we play within the triangles of our families, our places therein. Dr. Friedman expresses that we can handle more stress when we are doing it for ourselves verses taking it on because of or for a relationship.

It goes without saying that to become effective leaders we must become aware of how we function within every one of these families and how we define ourselves. Dr. Friedman, as well as myself, believe that we can employ the family system model, which can aid in bringing about “understanding of family life that can aid us in our pastoral role…[and has] ramifications for the way we function in our congregations, for our position in our own personal families, nuclear and extended, and for the entire range of our emotional being” (page 1-2).

This approach goes beyond basics of pastoral counseling Dr. Friedman expresses. He writes that some may take from it and add to their toolbox, but that his book is meant to go beyond that. He writes,

The concepts of family process bring together in one perspective counseling, administration, officiating, preaching, personal growth, and leadership. Such a perspective has the effect of reintegration rather than disintegration, and, just as important, the family model offers something beyond an approach to problem solving. It presents an organic way of thinking that unifies our families and ourselves with the forces of Creation” (page 2).

Knowledge Versus Definition of Self

I think it becomes a little more clear what Dr. Friedman says about therapeutic leadership once we begin to see the integrated approach and systemic understanding of the family systems theory. We begin to see that our functioning within the system, the way we conduct and lead from within the system as a living part of it, influences and reaches others. It is the belief of those adhering to this theory that if one clearly defines one’s self (their values, beliefs, practices, and boundaries) and remains calm in response to the system’s anxiety that those within the system eventually begin to do the same thing. It follows that good leadership is therapeutic in the sense that as leaders we do just that and see the effects it has, but it also means we observe and have a keen awareness of the system and all its members.

The Power of Leadership within the Family System

Dr. Friedman notes,

Leadership has inherent power because effecting a change in relationship systems is facilitated more fundamentally by how leaders function within their families than by the quantity of their expertise. What is vital to changing any kind of ‘family’ is not knowledge of technique or even of pathology but, rather, the capacity of the family leader to define his or her own goals and values, while trying to maintain a non-anxious presence within the system…

The notion that self-definition is a more important agent of change than expertise unifies our healing power with that which promotes our own healthy (literally, our wholeness). There is an intrinsic relationship between our capacity to put families together and our ability to put ourselves together. This is why in some respects this book is aimed less at healing than at the healer. It is not easy, however to preserve this perspective on leadership because both congregational and personal families tend to reverse the priorities of expertise and self-definition, particularly when they become anxious. This is equally true of their demands in our general ministries and in our counseling efforts” (page 2-3).

We see Dr. Friedman really hammering home the point that one does not necessarily need expertise to become good leaders, but to have a strongly, clearly defined self (which for an Orthodox Christian I believe means working more and more towards theosis, but that is for another day). Dr. Friedman believes that “society’s emphasis on expertise rather than on self-definition has forced us to think about our existence in terms of specialities and subspecialities of teaching, preaching, counseling, administrating, fund-raising, organizing, socializing, and politicizing, and trying to do each equally well.” He goes onto to say how this dissipates our power into scattered, discontinous directions and what he calls quilt patterns that get so interwoven that if we get stretched the least bit in one direction the entire fabric of our lives can be and is tugged in another.

Dr. Friedman notes that the real sickness in all this is how society expects us to cope with our specialities by becoming experts in them despite the fact that one speciality can barely cover one small corner of their field. He says, “If we must conceive of leadership in terms of expertise rather than self-definition, none of us will ever feel adequately prepared.” He goes on,

The disintegration of self that threatens all clergy today is due less to the structure of our lives than to the way we are expected to organize our thinking. And yet, because family theory locates the power of change in those who assume the position of family leaders, it offers a way of thinking about all our various roles that is at once less enervating and more integrative. Because this view of leadership focuses more on self-definition of the leader as the unifying matrix of his or her existence, it veers away from thinking in terms of roles” (page 3-4).

Expert Counselors? 

Does a pastor have to be an expert counselor to be a great leader and healer? Dr. Friedman would have us believe that he would not. He even states that the demand for expertise thus the demand for more information is quite silly because if it were a reality that counselors had to have all the information in the world then no true healing could ever take place. He writes, “…complexity should not be confused with profundity. The fact that a whole can be broken down into its component parts does not necessarily guarantee better understanding.”

We begin to see two thoughts emerging here:

1) Being whole means being integrated as a person, being complete, being defined.

2) Being an effective leader means achieving number one as much as possible in all facets of life and within the system.

Dr. Friedman believes that this insistence on pathology and expertise over self-definition inhibits the power of pastoral counseling/leadership in two ways: the nature of healing and in the nature of our profession. He writes,

First, with regard to the nature of healing, it is not clear at all that knowledge of pathology is even necessary to promote healing. In the real world of family life there may be no such thing as ‘abuse,’ ‘single parenting,’ ‘hyperactivity,’ or maybe even ‘cancer.’ In reality, one is always dealing with the diagnosed condition plus the family’s own response to that condition. Thinking about families in terms of diagnostic categories leads both the family and its counselor to view the  pathological conditions as so many slices of life, even as the laboratory pathologist observes different slices of tissues. Cells that function one way in the laboratory, however, can function differently within the living organism…

Ultimately, healing and survival depend upon existential categories: on vision, for example, on hope, on the imaginative capacity, on the ability to transcend the anxiety of those about us, and on a response to challenge that treats crisis as opportunity for growth (all attributes of, or best promoted by, leadership).

Second, with regard to the nature of pastoral counseling, the family model strongly suggests that no other member of society is in a better position to foster these existential encouragements to healing than the clergy because of the unique entree into family systems our community position has given us. Ministers, rabbis, priests, and nuns have an entree into the multigenerational processes of families that is just not available to any other members of the helping professions no matter what their training or skill. This entree gives us unusual therapeutic potential” (page 5).

We can see Dr. Friedman painting an incredibly strong picture of what therapeutic power can come from leadership within the understanding of the family model. One does not have to be trained as a counselor so much as one has to be a well-defined person with a well-defined self within these family systems. Understanding this place within the system and how we can encourage growth and healing is vastly important to becoming good shepherds.

Clergy’s Therapeutic Potential

Dr. Friedman says there many reasons for the clergy’s therapeutic position, all of which are rooted in the family process and its nature:

1) Multigenerational forces behind our respective traditions meaning the generational anxiety, under/over functioning within the family system, and wholeness or lack thereof.

2) Clergy involvement in families during rites of passage, which are opportunities to enter the family system and changing it. He writes, “Life-cycle events are ‘hinges of time’ on which doors can open or close for generations.”

3) The prolonged intimate time we spend with these families, which can span for generations, and the noncounseling experiences we share with them. Dr. Friedman writes,

On the one hand, this type of entree enables us to observe families endure major crises and change without resorting to professional expertise. On the other, the same unusual entree enables us to become acquainted with families that are not overly disturbed by the very factors usually blamed for the troubles other families are experiencing–differences in background, possessive mothers, or alcoholic fathers. We are therefore in a unique position to appreciate, and therefore promote, the healing power of natural family resources and to realize that like bacteria, viruses, and carcinogens, emotional pathogens cannot undo a family alone” (page 6).

4) We position as leaders grants us this unique entree and opportunity to bring about growth and change.

We can see that there is indeed such a thing as therapeutic leadership that is based within the family systems approach. It is integrative and systemic; it is externally and internally focused. It takes into account the big picture. Within this model, one must observe the congregation, the congregation’s families, and his own family. All of these are tied together and how one functions in their positions within these networks influences all the others and can promote unhealthy traits or healthy traits; it can promote wholeness or disintegration. I firmly believe being a good pastor requires understanding one’s position in all of these and understanding one’s self.

This has been a very in-depth introduction, but I encourage everyone to pick up this book and read it if you are in ministry. Read it even if you are not. I encourage you to do so. Our leadership can indeed be therapeutic if we first work on our own salvation and wholeness. I believe Christ wants to heal us, and I believe part of salvation is integrating the human person back together as well as the relationships we have with one another. I believe Christ shows us what it means to be human again, and I believe that there is much existential truth to Dr. Friedman’s thoughts here that can aid us in our returning to being human. Give them a read sometime.

Members of the other helping professions may be able to teach us the tools of their trade, but with rare exceptions they cannot comprehend our position–either its healing potential or the problems of the emotional interlock of our various families (not to mention its insight crossovers); and they rarely have the kind of personal experience that would enable them to appreciate how leadership itself can be a therapeutic modality.” -Dr. Edwin Friedman

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