Don’t Chase the Stray Cow – Lessons on Leadership and Human Systems (from my upcoming book “Leadership Can Be Learned”)

“That’s just like my cows.” I’ll never forget Norm, a down to earth engineer who had been dealing with and managing people for decades, speaking up during the retreat I was facilitating. I had just drawn a bell shaped curve on a flipchart to illustrate the following one of Edwin Freidman’s lessons on self-differentiated leadership and systems thinking. 

 The lesson is simple, but profound. In families, and again in the vast majority of work groups, there will be some individuals who are easy for you to relate to, many who are in the middle, and one (or more) who drive you crazy. If the leader is thinking “non-systemically” (as most do in this day and age), the temptation is to focus a disproportionate amount of time and energy on the “problem” person. This happens in families, and since family patterns are replicated at work, the possibility is there in all work groups. Since we are creatures of habit, most leaders fall into the trap of tying to “fix” the person who becomes, in the language of family systems, “the identified patient.” The problem is, it’s the very pattern of focusing on that person (or persons), that pushes them further away.

 Here the wisdom of Kurt Lewin, a founding father of organizational development, parallels that of family systems theory. Lewin was a true interdisciplinary thinker, and amongst other innovations, he applied physics to understanding human behavior. If you push, people push back. The act of resistance is fueled by the attempt to win the identified patient over, no matter how well intentioned or how logical the attempt may be. As Freidman put it, “You can’t reason a man out of something they weren’t reasoned into.”

Yet most leaders drag themselves down into a fruitless contest of wills. “If I could just convince _____, or get rid of them, then all my problems would be over.” But in this model, it’s the very act of focusing on the identified patient that gives them their power in the system, and diminishes the leader. In meeting after meeting the leader says “any questions” and then turn their attention to the identified patient like a moth to a flame, while others passively watch, thinking “here we go again.” Conversations with superiors, peers, and possibly even family come back time and again to “what can I do about _____?” The longer the pattern persists, the more the people in the middle are turned off to the entire reoccurring drama. Although they may share some of the leader’s reaction to the identified patient, they also have some empathy for a peer who obviously is in disfavor, and some will get sick and tired of the “bullying” of the boss, no matter how rational and reasonable the boss attempts to be while they work on the identified patient. The system is stuck. Eventually the leader and/or possibly the identified patient will go, but the pattern will almost certainly re-emerge.

 It’s a systems issue, and it requires a systemic solution. Ironically, all systemic solutions start with individual awareness and behavior. That’s what this book is about, how to understand yourself using an interdisciplinary approach, and how to apply that knowledge to leadership. The approach, drawing heavily from brain research, emotional intelligence, family systems thinking, the field of organizational development, and the author’s experience working with individuals, groups and whole systems during the past 25 years, has been proven time and again. The result is, please forgive me for using a much over used word that none the less rings true, transformational. Leaders and systems that have consistently applied these principles, the most famous being PECO Nuclear after the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station (PBAPS) was shut down by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (or NRC)  in the late 1980s, having consistently become peak performers. You can do the same.

 Consider again our group, with its leader and identified patient. To move forward the leader must be clear about where they are heading, and then give each group member the time and respect they are due. To break the pattern they will have to consistently speak with others. When the identified patient pipes in, the leader should make sure they understand the message, clarify any actions that they are going to take, and then move on to exploring current conditions with other group members. They should eliminate wasted time by not trying to win the identified patient over. They should also not go to the other extreme of ignoring them. They need each person, and would be wise to relate with each proportionately. If they genuinely do so, they will strengthen their bond with the majority. If they strengthen their bond with the majority, and move forward towards their goals, the identified patient will lose their power in the system, and possibly even join in.

 Don’t hold your breath on that last one though! If that remains the leader’s goal, they are still worrying about the wrong thing! What’s important is the health of the overall system, and to move the system forward towards the goals. To do so a leader must recognize that they actually create resistance by getting sucked into it. The identified patient is just a symptom of dysfunctional behavior on the part of the leader! The only way out for the leader is to recognize the pattern, and change their own behavior.

 That is the beauty of systems thinking – the power is in our own hands more than we have been led to believe by the traditional thinking of our times and culture. You don’t have to change them. You have to change yourself. As Gandhi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

 “That’s just like my cows,” said Norm. “When I bring them back in from pasture in the evening, one always wanders off. If I chase it, the entire herd scatters! However, if I stick with the herd, the stray cow always returns.”

 Humans aren’t cows, but we are mammals, and relationship is vital to our development and to our behavior in organizations. Leadership requires an understanding, intuitively and/or through learning, of how connected we really are. This book will examine other patterns of human systems, like the one above, and how to lead in them. But first you must understand your own development. In the famous words ascribed to George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” This is as true for individuals as it is for societies. Unfortunately, critical development occurs during the first two years of life while we are pre-cognitive. There is no way to remember it, because the capacity for cognitive memory didn’t exist during the formative events. But we can “remember the past” by seeing the pattern of behavior in the present. And by seeing them, we can consciously become more stable and impactful leaders. The next chapter explores how we become our current selves, and how to continue becoming who we want to be. Without that type of self-knowledge, and the humility that comes with it, one is in no position to lead.

About crosbyod

Crosby & Associates OD is a catalyst for high performance & morale. Our methods are a unique blend grounded in research and decades of experience. In the spirit of Kurt Lewin, the founder of OD, as we partner with you in the present we transfer our methods to you so you are independent in the future. Learn more at
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