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Tool Box: Resilient Leadership

Tool Box: Resilient Leadership

In all my years as a coach and consultant, some of the most valuable tools I’ve used with clients have come from the work of people who have applied family systems theory to leadership and organizations. Recently, I attended a training that deepened my understanding of this theory and how it works in organizational life, and want to share this resource with you.

Resilient Leadership is a framework for both thinking about and leading within human systems. Developed by Bob Duggan and Jim Moyer, the framework integrates all of the key concepts of Murray Bowen‘s family systems theory, and applies it to leadership and organizations. Duggan and Moyer also wrote a book called Resilient Leadership that tells the story of how one leader uses the framework to become much more effective in his role and win the position of COO within his company. Duggan also offers Resilient Leadership training and coaching programs.

I want to share three key concepts from Resilient Leadership with you in this post. While the framework extends beyond this, I have found these three ideas to be extraordinarily useful in working with leaders and teams:

  • Emotional process
  • Triangles
  • Self-differentiation

I’ll explore each briefly, and I encourage you to check out some of the additional resources described below if you’re interested in learning more.

Emotional Process

In its simplest terms, this concept points to the reality that every organization has both a rational system and an emotional system. The rational system is what we pay attention to most of the time: budgets, information technology systems, performance reviews, policies and procedures, hiring processes, etc. In other words, the rational system includes everything we can observe and measure.

The emotional system, on the other hand, is much harder to observe. It arises from having our organizations populated by human beings, and is driven by the anxiety that is a normal and inevitable part of human existence.

Think about your work experience for a moment. Can you remember a time when there was change or turmoil going on in your organization and rumors were flying? Or a time when you stepped into a new leadership position and found your team opposed to everything you wanted to do? If so, you’ve experienced the power of the emotional system.

RLTbookResilient Leadership highlights the importance of emotional process in organizations, and offers tools for observing and influencing this system. This is important because it’s the emotional system that drives human behavior, not the rational system. For example, if you spend your energy and time as a leader focused on the all the reasons it makes logical sense to re-organize and on what the new org chart will look like, you will fail to address the emotional undercurrents that are actually driving whether people support the change or not.


I’ve written about triangles before, but the Resilient Leadership training deepened my appreciation for how triangles show up in organizations and how important it is for leaders to be able to recognize and skillfully manage them.

The framework suggests that triangles are the natural building blocks of human systems. They form whenever two people experience tension and triangle in a third person in order to manage that tension. The classic example in organizations is when two employees have a conflicted relationship and constantly turn to you, the leader, to complain about each other and demand that you “do something.”

Left to fester, triangles can become hugely detrimental to productivity and morale. However, the good news is that you as a leader can also have a positive effect on the triangles that you’re involved in. Resilient Leadership suggests that there are two key skills to managing yourself skillfully in triangles and producing positive outcomes:

  1. Stay connected to and define your position with the two other points of the triangle.
  2. Stay emotionally neutral in the triangle (in other words, don’t take sides).

TriangleWhat would this actually look like? Duggan offers a great example in his book, when he describes Mike, a VP of operations for a large hotel chain, and the challenges he has with two direct reports who don’t work well together. Mike first learns to manage his own reactivity to the tension so that he can avoid taking sides. Then, he communicates clearly to both of them that the company needs them both, and he will hold them accountable to find a way to resolve their differences without involving him. While it’s not a magic bullet, Mike’s behavior in the triangle gradually lowers the overall level of anxiety and tension and promotes a higher level of functioning from both individuals.


Self-differentiation essentially means that you have the capacity to do what Mike did in the example above: to define your perspective or take a strong position, without cutting off emotionally from others. When I talk with my clients, I usually describe this as the ability to take clear stands without steamrolling or sugarcoating, while still staying connected.

I’m not going to say much about self-differentiation here, since I’ve written about it in a previous post. And the hard part about self-differentiation isn’t understanding what it means. The hard part is actually putting it into practice. The ability to be a self-differentiated leader is at the heart of Resilient Leadership, and both the training and book offer many opportunities to explore what this looks like in organizational leadership.

If you’re intrigued by Resilient Leadership and want to learn more, I encourage you to check out some of the resources on the Web site. You’ll find free webinars, a blog, and more information about the model and the book. And, if it seems as though the model offers something useful for you in your own leadership, I invite you to really put the concepts into practice, with the support of coaching if necessary. Reading about it can provide a foundation, but practice is what will drive sustainable change.

And if you’re interested in more resources from my Tool Box series, you can find them here!

What about you? How do you see the concepts of emotional process and triangles playing out in your organization? How does your level of self-differentiation as a leader affect your behavior? What intrigues you about Resilient Leadership, and what do you want to learn more about? I’d love to hear your comments!


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