Roberta Gilbert

Dr. Murray Bowen was an early pioneer in the concept of the family as an emotional unit. He grouped this concept and others into the Bowen Family Systems Theory (FST), which can be extremely useful to leaders.

In FST, we develop a clearer idea of ourselves, our organizations, and our guiding principles, the basis of all values, goals, and directives. The clearer guiding principles are, the clearer vision statements will be. And the better the organization does, the better the leaders do, and the clearer they are about their own guiding principles, which direct the best part of ourselves.

FST believes that much of the angst that we experience in our organizations and families comes from anxiety. Whatever the source, when anxiety levels rise, relationships start to break down in one of four ways:

  • People fight with each other.
  • They distance.
  • They tell each other what to do or act hopeless.
  • They talk to other people behind the leader’s back (triangling).

Leadership is an opportunity to tackle these situations in their combinations and permutations, and figure out how to position yourself. Much of FST is based on new perspectives on relationships.

Leaders have a lot of influence that they may not be aware of. FST gives us guidelines on conducting ourselves, dealing with the anxious people among us, and dealing with the anxious relationships around us.

FST is a human emotional system, because everybody is interlocked and what one does affects everybody else. It makes inscrutable human phenomena understandable. With a way to think about the difficult situations that leaders address, you can plan your way out of it, which is very reassuring and calming.

When the leader calms down, this affects the entire organization or group of people. If the leader can calmly communicate to the rest of the people some logical thinking, the whole thing calms down. People begin to contribute their best thinking to the organization. Now the organization’s in a position to really take off because it gets creative. Very exciting things start to happen when the anxiety decreases and people start to think.

But many organizations live in a state of constant turmoil and emotional anxiety, and never really get where they want to go. We help people get there. We don’t tell them what to think or what their mission is, but we give them a framework on which to manage self and all the people and situations they’re dealing with.

Roberta Gilbert book cover

There’s a lot about balance in FST, the balance between individuality and togetherness. In our families and organizations, there’s a pull toward togetherness, to think the way the leader thinks, think the way the group thinks, be here for us, even if you get sick doing it because you don’t get enough time for yourself. This togetherness pull can do the leader in.

Bowen talked about this a great deal. How do I, as a leader, get some individuality? How do I think about who I am as a person? That’s the balance that we find in this theory in individuality. There’s a great deal of thinking about

  • What do I believe?
  • How am I functioning?
  • How much does togetherness pull, dictate, and dominate my life, versus my dominating it and dictating what I want my life to be like and how I relate to people?
  • How much does my generation dictate how I act and the kind of person I am?

When people start to sort out who they are, who they want to be, their functioning automatically improves.

Most of us have no idea how much anxious phenomena, people, and relationships are jerking our organizations around and robbing us leaders of our own time, with no way to deal with it.

Our families combine to make one whole organism. So does an organization. It’s a bigger way of thinking, and it stretches our intelligence and our minds. It is well worth the stretch.


Dr. Roberta Gilbert, M.D., is a psychiatrist specializing in Bowen Family Systems Theory. She is the founding director of the Center for the Study of Human Systems and is on the faculty of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family.


This article is reprinted from Vol. 3, No. 2, of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!

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