Lacking Self-Regulation

This edition of Mentor Online is borrowed from A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin Friedman.

Listed below are ten interrelated characteristics of potentially pathogenic “viral” or “malignant” members of institutions that are particularly troublesome to leaders. What links their potential for being toxic is that they are all attributes of “organisms” that lack the motivation to self-define or self-regulate and have remained in a primitive state. They are therefore, by nature, both invasive of the space of others and unable to learn from their own experience. Primitive organisms remain primitive, that is, they do not evolve because of the narrowness of their capacity to adapt to the changes in their environment. On the human level of life’s organization, such creatures always expect others to adapt to them.

  1. They tend to be easily hurt injustice-collectors, slow healers who are given to victim attitudes. (It is as if they had no outer membrane to ensure their integrity.)
  2. They tend to idolize their leaders until their unrealistic expectations fail, whereupon they are quick to crucify their “gods”. (There is a parasitic quality to their bonding.)
  3. Their intent is often “innocently provocative”; they do not see themselves as bent on destruction. The pathology they promote is rather a byproduct of their doing what comes naturally. They thus never see how they have been contributing to the condition they complain about.
  4. Their repertoire of responses, as with the most primitive forms of life, is limited to being “on” or “off”. This manifests itself in their linear, black-and-white formulations of life, their totalistic with-us-or-against-us attitudes, and their inability to tolerate differences or dissent.
  5. They tend to focus on procedure and on rituals and, as if their heads did not swivel, they get stuck on the content of issues rather than being able to view the surrounding emotional processes that are spawning the issues.
  6. They find that the element that is most healthy to other forms of life, light and truth, to be toxic to the nature of their own being. They thrive in the darkness of conspiracy like anaerobic bacteria, such as botulism, which are hangovers from a very early stage of life, and find the oxygen that is essential to all other forms toxic to their being.
  7. They seem to be driven by their reptilian brains rather than their cortex and thus manifest three basic characteristics of the reptilian way of life. They have a high degree of reactivity and the aforementioned narrow repertoire of responses and of course they are always serious, deadly serious.
  8. As with all organisms that lack self-definition and self-regulation, they tend to ooze into, if not directly interfere in, the relationships of others. Thus they are constantly screwing up staff communication and connections and bypassing, if not subverting, democratic processes.
  9. They tend to be easily stampeded and panicked into group-think, thus fusing with others like them into an undifferentiated mass (that is, a tumor).
  10. They are unforgivingly relentless and totally invulnerable to insight, and unless they are walled off or totally defeated, they tend to come back with a vengeance, as when an antibiotic is not taken for the fully prescribed period.

The universality of these characteristics takes them beyond the social science construction of reality. Leaders have to deal with such pathogens to the same extent no matter what the structure or purpose of the (host) institution and no matter what the gender, race, or ethnic background of the un-self-regulating pathogenic organism. Leaders, in fact, will find that these entities are interchangeable from church to synagogue, from profit to non-profit institution, from school to health care practice, from small business to large corporation. Wherever they are located, their presence and their outlook are regressive. In addition, they seem to have a natural affinity for one another, as if they sense their commonality from the first time they meet, almost as though the signal were olfactory–one of our most primitive ways of sensing information. What was said about the deceptiveness of values in the previous chapter applies, here, particularly. These kinds of ‘organisms” often express themselves with beautiful ‘values.” The problem is not in their beliefs; it is in how they function with those beliefs.

Still, no matter what their make-up or nature (personality), they are little more than annoying and cannot do much harm alone. And even when they join with similar others and form ‘tumors” that are often metastatic, they only have power in the face of a failed immune response in the body politic. But leaders can no more create a ‘mutation” in such human organisms through the application of empathic initiatives than they could stop cancer or viral invasiveness by trying to be more “understanding” of those agents, no less being more sensitive to their plight. For these ten characteristics are also descriptive of a chronically litigious person or of an assassin. And, reversing the perspective, it would not be so far off base to think of a cancer cell or a virus as a terrorist or as an assassin. If one could be interviewed, he or she undoubtedly would complain, with no sense of responsibility for its own responses, about how he or she had been isolated, ignored, victimized, abused, unrecognized, and alienated by the larger community.

But perhaps the ultimate evidence for the fact that these characteristics are universal and transcend all social science categories is that one could create a troupe of mummers who went from institution to institution and said, “Allow us to be the disruptive element in your organization, and we can release all of you to put your energies into being creative. You don’t have to tell us anything about your place or the make-up of its members. We know exactly what to do.”

This is not to say that for such individuals there is no, hope for rehabilitation, reconciliation, recovery, or recuperation. But empathy alone will never promote the self-organization necessary for learning from experience; that can only come about when they are put into a position of choice in which they are told that if they want to be a part of the community, they have to adapt to it, and not the other way about. I recognize that this approach could sound totalitarian; the emphasis here, however, is not on conformity of thought but on conformity of behavior to the democratic process. It is in this sense that promoting in others the initiative to be accountable is far more critical to the health of an institution than try to be understanding or giving insight.

Characteristics of Well-Differentiated People

This edition of Mentor Online is adapted from several “family systems” sources, including the work of Dr. Peter Steinke, the author of How Your Church Family Works and Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach.

A well-differentiated person thinks from an “I” position and focuses on their own behavior rather than on the behavior of others. This means that a well-differentiated person:

  • Lets others know what they are thinking and feeling and stays in touch with them.
  • Manages their own anxiety.
  • Makes distinctions between facts and feelings.
  • Affirms their own values and beliefs without attacking or judging those of others.
  • Does not demand that others should think, feel or act as they do.
  • Accepts differences between them and others, knowing that differences alone will not cause disputes.
  • Takes responsibility for their own anger, frustration or distress; and does not accuse others of being the cause of these issues.
  • Lives by their own goals rather than the rules of others.
  • Refuses to coerce, will or threaten others into taking responsibility for them (or their pain).
  • Forms open, one-to-one relationships with people, avoiding what is secretive or collusive.
  • Changes thoughts of victimization to thoughts of “What can I do?”
  • Gains space or time or another’s perspective in order to get a clearer picture of things.
  • Contains their own reactivity to the reactivity of others.
  • Takes a stand and maintains a non-anxious presence.
  • Does not confuse closeness with sameness, or differentiation with isolation.
  • Avoids thinking that sees others as “either/or” — either good or evil.
  • Looks at how they may have contributed to a problem.
  • Accepts anxiety, tension and pain as part of the human growth processes.
  • Cultivates their own imagination rather than concentrating on only the observable.


“Self-differentiation is a life-long process. The best of the species only achieves it seventy percent of the time.” — Dr. Peter Steinke