Want to know what convinced me that Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) provides a powerful resource for leaders of all sorts?
When our family embarked on the journey of fostering and adopting a nine-year-old boy. Employed well, Bowen Theory focuses our curiosity, sharpens our observations, and lends to better self-management in times of heightened anxiety.
My curiosity was piqued one warm fall day as I stood in the hallway of our home and listened to this strange new child in our midst singing in the shower. Without regard to the thin walls or the proximity of yet another new foster family, Ben belted out show tunes, worship choruses, 80’s rock, and even the National Anthem. He experimented with falsetto, rumbling bass, vibrato.
Curiosity: Why is he singing?
In the long slog through forms, records, interviews on the way to becoming foster parents we were repeatedly warned—yes, warned is not too strong a word—that Ben would never attach to us, never trust us, never reciprocate love. His trauma was too long and deep and scarring.
So, why is he singing random Christmas carols in the shower? Perhaps his melody is explained as self-soothing. But Ben’s own explanation, corroborated by additional signs, suggests something else. He feels at home. He is free to be unguardedly himself.
How is that possible? Curiosity leads to observation.
Ben came with an owner’s manual, the archival evidence of a broken, transient childhood, compiled by a score of previous parents who had welcomed him into their homes for a season. As I explored Ben’s medical, scholastic, mental health, and foster records I unearthed a relationship long predicted by BFST.
Observations allowed me to develop a picture of what life was like in these various families over the years. And here I want to be clear that I am not offering a diagnosis or commenting on someone else’s diagnosis (he had a slew of them). I am simply observing his functioning.
Here it is: The higher the anxiety in the family, the lower Ben’s functioning. Over the years, placement with a less anxious (stressed, worried, demanding, symptomatic) family saw Ben’s best functioning. In other words, the Ben we experienced was not simply the result of his past experiences, but also the present family.
Anxiety travels through systems and impacts and impairs the functioning of every member of the system. When the family manages its anxiety the members do better. A family can manage its anxiety better when someone in the family takes responsibility for their own anxiety. (click to tweet)
We worked at lowering anxiety. And that is when we saw the magic happen. First, a hug. Some sweet vulnerability during bedtime prayers. And finally, I love you, Mom.
“I love you.” My son sings.
Observation leads to self-management
None of this suggests that our family is better than any other family. To the contrary, our family definitely has seasons of high anxiety. Nor is this to say that Ben’s trauma doesn’t register an impact. It impacts him, and through him, it impacts all of us. It generates its own anxiety. It is a trauma now borne by the whole family.
What this observation does hint at, though, is an opportunity to see and adjust my own functioning as a leader in Ben’s life. When Ben gets more defiant or becomes less successful academically, the problem isn’t only in him. Rather, it is an early warning sign that anxiety is rising all around us; it’s a yellow flag at the beach warning of building waves. His acting out tips me off that something is going on In Me. It allows me to wonder about how I might be contributing anxiety in the form of worry or anger or heavy-handedness. Where am I doing the lazy work of trying to fix Ben while avoiding the more demanding work on my self? Seeing allows for course correction. I can calm my anxiety.
Leadership is about curiosity, observation, and self-management.
Let us be clear. Bowen Family Systems Theory proposes an absolutely unique take on leadership. It isn’t about getting people to do things they don’t want to do or be someone they’re not or saying how things will be done. Instead, leaders take responsibility for their own level of anxiety and the impact it has on the system they lead. (tweet that)
Your systems, the web of relationships you participate in at work or in your church or in your own family, will impact the level of functioning of each member in it. As a leader in your system, you have the ability to dampen or intensify the anxiety each participant experiences as you manage your own.
The parent-leaders in Ben’s life who didn’t see this inadvertently became their own greatest obstacle to the very growth they most wanted to see. The one’s who did catch on, well, they learned that Ben can sing.
Leaders, let your team sing.
Get Coaching: If you know the theory, you can use it. If you have a coach you can use it even more effectively. If you would like to work with me as your coach, click this link and select Michael DeRuyter as your preferred coach.