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Leading a Family, Part 1

The dawn of a new year – and the family impacts of COVID-19 – make this a good time to think about family leadership.

I’ll be using this blog, and next month’s blog, to address this topic. There’s a lot to it.

We rely on family for survival, and that reliance likely shapes our behavior more than any other single variable. Family conditioning exerts potent emotional influence.

Beliefs, values, biases, habits, confidence, autonomy, conflict patterns, anxiety responses – these are just a few of the functions that are heavily influenced by the kin groups we grow up in.

So what does it look like to be a family leader?

For the past 25 years, that question has framed my relationship with the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family in Washington, DC. The Center studies human family leadership, and what we share in common with other natural family groups such as wolf packs, chimpanzee troops, and elephant herds.

My life’s work has been the application of the Center’s research and clinical observations to business and community leaders.

My thinking to date can be summarized in four core principles for family leadership:

  1. Clarity

  2. Connection

  3. Calmness

  4. Courage

This month, I’ll discuss the importance of clarity in family leadership. Staying clear-headed makes it possible to apply connection, calmness, and courage in a family setting. I will discuss those in next month’s blog.


How does a 32-year-old professional respond when her mother continually tries to over-manage her? What happens when parents disagree on how to respond to a school district’s stay-at-home policies? How does a family stay calm and communicative when one member suffers a serious illness?

Family leaders can tackle such issues because they are clear about self. They’ve taken the time to observe how they think, react, and respond to other family members, particularly when emotions run high.

They focus more on learning about themselves than on teaching or changing others, even though teaching is sometimes necessary.

Family leaders steer clear of emotional drama. While other family members might be blaming, avoiding, or defending, the family leader will be thinking, “What’s really going on here?” They then take responsibility for their own part.

Defining Self

The family leader’s most potent ally is self-definition – the ability to decide for oneself, and when necessary, to clearly state:

  • What I need and expect

  • What I want and don’t want

  • What I will do and won’t do

  • What I will and won’t take responsibility for

Pioneering psychiatrist Murray Bowen once told a story about a client’s efforts to “stay off the back” of her husband by more clearly defining herself. She reported that she had long been bossy and dominating and was trying to tone it down. Bowen remembered that “she reached a point of being real sweet and diplomatic in her bossiness.”

They commuted together to work. It annoyed the wife for the husband to drive through the heavy traffic instead of taking a less congested route. She was wondering how to ask him to turn and go to the parkway.

After careful thought she asked sweetly, “Honey, why don’t you turn earlier and miss the heavy traffic?” Her husband erupted angrily at “being treated like a child.”

She presented this to Dr. Bowen as evidence that the problem was an over-sensitive husband. He told the woman that no matter how sweetly she said it, she did tell her husband what to do instead of simply stating what she wanted.

A few days later as they approached the turn to the parkway, she said,” I don’t like riding through that heavy traffic.” The husband said, “Okay,” and turned instead onto the parkway.

This story illustrates the difference between directing others and defining self. The woman’s conditioned impulse was to tell her husband what to do. Careful thought enabled her to function differently.

While specifics of each situation are always weighed, and there are no universal formulas or easy answers, a family member who is clear about self, without getting entangled in directing and controlling others, naturally displays family leadership.

Such an individual need not be the only leader in a family, and need not be an authority figure.

“Being Happy”

Family leadership is often weakened by a need for everyone to be happy with every decision. Family leaders accept that resistance and push-back usually follow good decisions. It comes with the territory.

Leaders don’t always get it right, but even when they do, not everyone is going to like it.

The main point is that a family leader takes time to reflect on self, to be clear about expectations, needs, and wants – and to build up courage to act on those carefully considered principles and decisions.

Clarity about “what part I’m going to play here,” constitutes one form of family leadership. It’s a tremendous advantage to have a family leader who operates with self-awareness, reason and good judgment in the midst of intense relationship interactions.


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