Don Paglia | Marriage and Family Counseling. Constellations Workshops


Tip #37:

“There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.”

                                                                          Steven Wright

I’ve never caught comic Steven Wright with even the slightest grin while he provides us with humorous thoughts, nor have I seen him break into a sly smile as he’s offering his masterful pearls. His trademark is a deadpan delivery. I do imagine some internal delight while he’s giving his brilliantly well pitched lines.

As with much of his fine commentary, the above one, I suspect, has to do with our often lack in taking some appropriate action(s). We just stand around in our various venues and look like an idiot – literally and metaphorically.  

There are lots of well-educated street bums, just as there are lots of geniuses who never amount to much. Perhaps harsh words, but great ideas alone do not provide much. The key ingredient is in taking action. A good or decent idea that someone puts consistent effort into carrying out, executes to bring into fruition, is often way more successful than someone who has lofty ideas but doesn’t do anything about them. The folks most effective in this world – and who make great contributions – are often not even the brightest or smartest. They are the most determined; persistent.  

There is a story of two boys who were afraid to climb a fence so they throw their hats over the fence first so they’d have to go after them. Hannibal did a similar and even more radical thing when he needed to cross the Himalayan mountains. First he had his ships burned so there’d be only one way left to go, which was over the mountains. To assure none would be tempted to go backwards he removed that possibility.    

Looking like an idiot is always an option; but it usually isn’t a very satisfying option. We can also go the other way by becoming so afraid of looking like a fool that we take no action, or take foolish actions. We become frozen by our preoccupation of need to look good that we cancel out doing the very things we really want to do.

A Master at looking like a fool.

Actor Peter Faulk from 1968 to 1978 starred in the television series called Columbo. Faulk’s character was a disheveled murder detective who went about bumbling along all the while spotting clues to uncover the identity of the culprit. He often appeared foolish, and as such, was disarming, thereby tricking many a bad guy into letting down their guard.

As a student of Systems Thinking I attempt to take the long view regarding presenting symptoms or so-called problems. I view the presenting problem as NOT the problem. In other words, say, an acting-out teenager might actually be flagging a marital issue in his/her family; or a poorly operating company may be indicating mismanagement due to an unclear and poorly-defined, weak leader.

Teaching the teenager to behaved better in school, or having the CEO of a company learn better communication skills, may be briefly helpful, but is short-sighted in bringing about long-term, substantive change.  

The issue is not the issue” is important to realize and to see as a red flag. The given symptom may initially require some attention, but it often is simply replaced by a new one. That’s because an issue, in one sense, is an indication of something bigger, that won’t get readily addressed with only resolving the symptom. If all you want is symptom relief, then go for it.

You might be successful in getting the teenager to stop skipping school, but watch out for the younger sibling who will likely come along to become the new identified patient or presenting problem. The department or company where staff members can’t seem to get along may be broken up or transfer these people around the company. This may seem like a good fix, but to be sure another department or new problem will soon arise to draw the attention to take the heat off the still poorly functioning CEO. What is missing is LEADERSHIP defined as self-differentiation.

How do we teach self-differentiation?

It cannot be cloned. There are not enough techniques or skills to bring leadership capacities into anxiously driven people. What remains missing is the capacity for the leader to become a non-anxious presence. This is why leadership skills and techniques always fall short. A weak, anxiously driven leader will gain little from communication skill building, and will most likely misuse whatever skills picked up in such programs. Their new and improved tools, utilized anxiously, ultimately work in opposition to systemic improvement.

Also one cannot fake being a non-anxious leader.

Rabbi Ed Friedman, founder of the Center for Family Process, after he published, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, began working with numerous religious leaders from various faiths. They came for consultations regarding all sorts of problems within their respective communities. Eventually Friedman prescribed the same remedy for each one regardless of what the clergyperson stated as the presenting problem.

Friedman would tell each, “You need to get up in your pulpit, and give your ‘I have a dream’ speech.” Some immediately realized they needed to develop their vision and then start promoting it. Others went back to their congregation or community and began to articulate his/her vision. Once they defined who h or she was, and what they actually stood for, they often returned to Friedman to tell how their so-called “presenting problem” seemed to have evaporated, or at least greatly diminished. 

Whenever a religious leader doesn’t get hooked into focusing on a prevailing symptoms, and instead looks at his/her own leadership and becomes more well-defined, there will be three kinds of responses from those within their community:          

  1. Some people come to the leader to say, “I heard your vision, and that’s my vision, too.”
  2. Others will remark something like this: “I heard your vision, I have a different vision and here is my vision.” Both responses are fine. The leader that has defined him/herself has fostered others to define themselves, as well.
  3. There is also a third kind of response. Some people come and say something like this: “I heard your vision and this is what is wrong with it. This is why it cannot work, or why it is not appropriate’”

This segment will only criticize the leader’s vision while not expressing his/her own. These people will not/cannot define who they are.

Friedman contends the size of this third segment is a direct indication of the overall health of a given congregation or system. If this third grouping is very large, or is larger than the other segments, you are dealing with a dysfunctional community/system.

We are living is period of where lots of leaders are standing around afraid of looking foolish. They are afraid to take a stand, or of being clear and well defined. Partially it’s become very dangerous to do so. There are lots of undefined finger pointers around who ratchet up the reactivity within society.

Many people, unwilling to define themselves, just point at others. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about parents, pastors or presidents. We have become afraid to take stands, to challenge or be challenged without becoming defensive. I am not talking about becoming autocratic. But also I’m not advocating weak and undefined, glad handers, for leaders, either.  

It is so easy to write negative, unsigned Yelp restaurant reviews. But what would it have taken to actually tell management about your particular issue? 

More to the point: Becoming a non-reactive person has to do more with removing the various ways we have become reactive. We each learned to react. It is the stuff that usually stems from our family of origin, and our childhood. I’m not promoting that we blame our parents. But it is about being willing to heal our own childhood wounds. We can own our childhood wounds and heal them. The purpose for doing so is to be able to live our adult lives as actual adults. To be non-anxious is all about being a grown up, a mature person who can come from love rather than fear and anxiety.

It is way too easy being an anxious presence, acting out and remaining immature. It is also easy to be a non-anxious non-presence; to distance oneself, avoiding others so we can remain calm, but at the cost of being disengaged.

Can we become a non-anxious presence?

To be a non-anxious presence is to become calm. Can we be calm while we are in the midst of anxiously driven people? Becoming a non-anxious presence is the essence of great leadership. Such leaders foster others to become non-anxious, as well. This kind of leadership gets us way past worrying about looking foolish. And this is possible – and only possible – when we first learn who we are, where we came from, and then develop clarity about where we are going. So not looking foolish isn’t the goal at all. Enjoying the journey is.