Societal Regression and Leadership

I have been trying to make sense of the nonsensical policy debates and public statements with which we are bombarded these days. “Nonsensical” not because the issues are unimportant—many are vital issues with a critical impact on society—but because so many of the arguments make no sense at all. And I have been trying to discern what my job is in the midst of this confusion.

There is a very interesting quotation of Ed Friedman which has made it onto the Internet at a number of places. It resonates with leaders who seek to motivate or change the mind of other people. I remember Friedman saying something like it on one or a number of occasions when I was present, but I have not been able to find a published source for it.

The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. Communication does not depend on syntax, or eloquence, or rhetoric, or articulation but on the emotional context in which the message is being heard. People can only hear you when they are moving toward you, and they are not likely to hear you when your words are pursuing them. Even the choicest words lose their power when they are used to overpower. Attitudes are the real figures of speech.”

I offer it here because I think it addresses the natural inclinations and frustrations of many in the face of the foolishness (and often serious damage) produced by the societal regression we have been experiencing in the United States. Murray Bowen described societal regression as a society’s loss of the ability to cope with change. He said it is characterized by a chronic anxiety developed as a society is overwhelmed by the quantity and speed of change at a time when the institutions and leaders traditionally used to absorb such anxiety are no longer available. Regression, i.e. emotional regression, is one way of dealing with anxiety, albeit a counter-productive way. I think the character of our public policy debates is strong evidence of such regression.

You may argue that rather than being in regression our society is in its greatest period of scientific and technological progress. But regression doesn’t mean going back scientifically or historically. It means going down.” There may still be “progress,” i.e. impressive development, in a society, but to the extent that a society is in emotional regression such development will be put in service to emotional immaturity. In many ways technological and scientific developments have allowed people to be less mature emotionally.

The signs of societal regression are the same as those in chronically anxious families: reactivity that trumps the instinctual drive toward self-regulation; irrational arguments sustained by emotional appeal; herding that calls people to adapt to weakness, i.e. to the crowd and its pressures to embrace togetherness rather than self-definition; scapegoating or blame displacement which is a refusal to take responsibility in the face of challenge; a quick-fix mentality that refuses to allow time for processes to mature and situations to be clarified; and the failure Friedman so strongly emphasized, the failure of nerve in leadership which involves all of the above.

Eventually societal institutions pick up the anxiety (reactivity/herding/blaming, etc.) of people and families, and magnify it. Public media are particularly good at such magnification. The media don’t cause problems/anxiety; they amplify it. They tend to focus on pathology in society rather than on strength, and in response to pathology on the search for certainty and security.

Regressive societies and their leaders will always focus on information, technique, and security. Safety and the reduction of mistakes are the greatest goods. In this sort of climate challenge and adventure are casualties. Mistakes are acceptable in the context of adventure; we learn from them. But mistakes are magnified and punished in the context of safety.

Societies, like families, in regression tend to bind their anxieties around certain individuals—almost always either the most responsible or the most vulnerable person or group in the system—or around certain issues. Note how the President is blamed (or praised) for almost everything: he appears to be responsible for everything from grandma’s lack of medical insurance to wars around the world. At other times it is immigrants or a minority or welfare recipients (the vulnerable) who are spotlighted.

Ed Friedman said that one knows that a society is in emotional regression when society becomes so anxious that the toddler is in charge. These days there is evidence of “the toddler in charge” in most every news cycle. Friedman suggested that the vital question for us is “How does one get distance or perspective to reduce anxiety?” The issue is not how we convince others of our wisdom, or of a particular course of action, but rather, how we can get perspective, define ourselves, and then regulate our behavior in terms of that perspective and self-definition. Friedman again, “Insight is being aware of self in relation to one’s environment.”

So what is a leader to do in the face of a regressive and disoriented society? A leader’s first job is always to understand her/himself. That involves knowing where one has come from, i.e. the context, relationships, and challenges in one’s family of origin. It also involves a clarity about one’s identity and commitments and a willingness to articulate and live them out consistently. This will require a leader to take some time outside the emotional climate of the day, i.e. to allow her/himself a context within which to see things differently. A leader needs a sense of where she/he begins and ends and of her/his distinction from others. Of course, this means leaders will be “exposed and vulnerable.” In fact, Friedman says, “Leaders must not only not be afraid of that position; they must come to love it.” Leaders require “persistence in the face of resistance” and “stamina in the face of sabotage” (A Failure of Nerve, p.188-89).

A leader’s primary effect has to do with his/her presence and how that presence affects the emotional processes in the systems he/she leads. That presence is an outgrowth of how the leader understands him/herself and takes responsibility for his/her words and actions. A leader is responsible for his/her own functioning in a system, not for that of others. For a leader to take responsibility for the functioning and relationships of others is to take on the kind of stress that finally undermines his/her leadership even as it compromises his/her health. Communication depends upon the “emotional context,” as I noted above, and its variables of direction, distance, and anxiety.

I know there are some, perhaps many, leaders who believe that they are called to speak a particular word that will bring clarity to our national or local malaise. There are a great many who have tried and have found in the trying great disappointment and frustration. Others think it is a matter of finding new techniques for our time. And still others believe that some special action or a mass movement will bring society and its disparate population, or their particular portion of it, out of this regression. I would like to be able to offer such formula for healthy change, but there are no easy answers, new or old.

Societal health or the health of any organization is a function of a much more complicated systemic landscape. It does not depend upon charisma, how-to manuals, political deal-making, or leaders who depend on them. The closest we can come to an effective intentional force for societal and organizational health is leaders who know themselves, define themselves, and regulate their emotional reactivity. Such healthy leaders will be persistent in the face of opposition and have stamina in the face of sabotage. Healthy leaders will be able to get enough distance from their systems to observe and make objective judgments while staying connected with those they lead. Such leaders will open the door to increasing health for organizations over time—the extended time that it almost always requires—and eventually, I trust, for the societies those healthy leaders and their organizations serve.

What do you think? What are the questions this raises for you?


5 responses to “Societal Regression and Leadership

  1. Just one comment about your use of the concept of “chronic” anxiety: The way you use this says that chronic anxiety is “developed as a society is overwhelmed…” You attribute this to Bowen. Chronic anxiety is typically not “developed” but may come to be manifested when psycho-social stressors are heightened. Chronic anxiety is a function of the degree of fusion in an individual, or if one may state it in relation to a society the tenor of emotionality in that society. Chronic anxiety is not “developed” but perhaps revealed.


    • Thanks, Alex. “Develop” is probably not be the most precise word to use in relation to “chronic anxiety” in society as I referenced it, though I do think that societies do develop a certain level of and proclivity toward chronic anxiety in their formative years, in the same way Michael Kerr speaks of a “level of chronic anxiety developed by children growing up” (M. E. Kerr and M. Bowen, Family Evaluation, p. 116). But I take your point and understand why you might be more comfortable with another choice of words, e.g. a chronic anxiety that arises, or as you suggest, a chronic anxiety that is manifested. On the other hand, can one talk about a “latent” chronic anxiety? That is, is there chronic anxiety that is not manifested?


      • Dear Walter,
        I think you are right – there is chronic anxiety that is not manifested. I have used this metaphor with clients in the counselling room: anxiety is like the electrical current running through the circuits in the walls of this room … if the switch is off, the current is still there, just waiting for us to do something, like turn on the light (at which point I switch it on…). Most people get it pretty easily. Especially when I tell them that is why we talk about “our buttons getting pushed.” So, the psychosocial stressors are like pushing on the button that activates the chronic anxiety. Just as in individually-based therapy it used to be said that a “precipitating factor caused the neurosis.”
        I think you can speak of a level of chronic anxiety within a civilization, or culture. An example from Anthropology illustrates this quite well: the acceleration in the need for human sacrifice among ancient Aztecs. What determined the chronic anxiety in the civilization that required such a gruesome way of binding anxiety … and why did it ultimately not work such that greater and greater sacrifices were needed? Obviously too complex to discuss here – but food for thought as regards Qs we could ask about our current situations.


  2. Sorry, should have said Tom – my apologies I saw the “W” … Anyway truly appreciate what you said above: “The closest we can come to an effective intentional force for societal and organizational health is leaders who know themselves, define themselves, and regulate their emotional reactivity.”
    I believe Murray Bowen said that the church could be one of the few places left where true leadership can be exercised to stem the tide of Societal Regression.


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