Roberta Gilbert


Leaders who are connected in their families do better in their organizations than those who are not. We have seen this over and over in our Extraordinary Leadership Seminar. I have seen this so many times that I am sure it will someday be acknowledged as a scientific fact.

Like organizations, the community, and the world, families are living, growing, and changing. How do we keep up with the changes?

One of the best ways to keep the brain flexible and able to change as needed is to stay in contact with one’s family. The science of family, family systems theory, tells us to stay in contact with important relationships. I have been watching for years as leaders do – or do not – stay in contact with their families.

Families are always in flux. Someone is dying, having a baby, getting married, or something. In order to keep up with it all, the brain of every individual is always making changes. These changes involve new information and new relationships. Old ones pass and new ones develop. When one stays in contact with that big organism we call the family, the brain automatically takes it all in and makes adjustments. These adjustments, not only for the knowledge that someone new has been added or taken away, but also for learning the new relationships and how they will work, mean that our brains make fundamental changes. These changes, as we track our relationships better, stay with us.

Many social scientists who have studied the human brain believe that our brains developed as social brains: as humans congregated into families, then clans, and then villages, long, long ago, the human brain grew in size. The frontal cerebrum, just behind the forehead, is larger than that of any of our close primate relatives. The large size may have been needed to deal with the social relationships we were developing. It is not much of a leap to see that, in the same way, the functioning as well as the size of the brain will be affected by social relationships.

The most formative of all the social groups that any of us belong to is our family of origin. And the brain formation continues as we form our own nuclear families. Murray Bowen, in his theory about the family, saw it as a system that is greatly influenced by the emotional states of its members. He hypothesized that people who stayed in contact with their important relationship units would do better in life than those who did not. In fact, in the consulting room, he, and those of us since have seen the prediction borne out. As people get in touch with their families of origin and improve relationships within their present families, they drop symptoms, report greater inner calm and stability, and gain energy to go toward their goals.

Staying in touch involves, among other things, being present and accounted for at important family events. Weddings, funerals, and christenings have become the stuff of many absorbing stories as people tell of the connections they have made there.

As people are intentional and careful about staying in relationships with various people in their family, they begin to be looked upon as a family leader. People want to be around them. They want to know what they think. This defines a high-level leader.

The abilities that the brain develops in these activities translate to leadership talent at work and elsewhere. It is not so much that we lead others, as it is managing ourselves in a way that others want to see what we are up to. So getting in good contact with family members (some of whom may have been sadly neglected) becomes a little-known but highly efficient way toward becoming the kind of leader we would all like to be.

Dr. Roberta Gilbert, in addition to maintaining a private psychiatric practice, is a faculty member of the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family and the founder of the Center for the Study of Human Systems (, author, and speaker. She works with business leaders, pastors, and therapists, particularly in Bowen family systems theory for individuals, families, and organizations. Roberta is the author of a trilogy of books on leadership: Extraordinary Leadership, The Eight Concepts, and The Cornerstone Concept. She is the founding director of The Extraordinary Leadership Seminar.

This article is reprinted from Issue #8 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!

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