This is a long quote from one of my favorite books, “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of Quick Fix” by Edwin Friedman.
I’ve been thinking about it the past couple days with all the news about Covid-19 and thinking about the importance of pastors, leaders, parents, and others to offer the power of their presence to help calm those in our communities.
THE POWER OF PRESENCE by Edwin Friedman
The notion that an entity can modify surrounding relationships through its presence rather than its forcefulness, moreover, is not unknown to science. Catalysts function that way, for example, and we use the term to catalyze to mean a reaction that occurs without forcibly rearranging the parts.
Enzymes in the body function in a similar way. Although it is possible to imagine the work of enzymes as snipping off strands of DNA and putting them in another place, they actuallydo not function in that manner. In fact, it is not really known how their presence causes DNA to rearrange itself.
But perhaps a transformer in an electrical circuit is the best metaphor for the workings of presence. Transformers can activate or deactivate a circuit that runs through them, depending on the ratio of coils they contain.
Reactive leaders function as a step-up transformer. As one education administrator said, “My mother was a step-up transformer, all right. If there was anxiety in the room and she was present, you could count on it escalating.”
But it is also possible to be a step-down transformer — to function in such a way that you let the current go through you without zapping you or fusing you to the rest of the circuit.
To the extent that leaders and consultants can maintain a non-anxious presence in a highly energized anxiety field, they can have the same effects on that field that transformers have in an electrical circuit. Transformers have no moving parts. They reduce the potential in a field by the nature of their own presence and being; they are in effect a field themselves.
Anyone can remain non-anxious if they also try to be non-present. The trick is to be both non-anxious and present simultaneously.
Leadership that is rooted in a sense of presence can also be misconstrued as a justification for passivity — for avoiding getting your feet wet, for just being “nice so everyone will love or respect you.”
Leadership through self-differentiation is not easy; learning techniques and imbibing data are far easier. Nor is striving or achieving success as a leader without pain: there is the pain of isolation, the pain of loneliness, the pain of personal attacks, the pain of losing friends.