Wednesday 08th April 00:22

"Was Margaret Thatcher a Differentiated Leader?"

MTL Newsletter April 28th 2013

Hi everyone,

Last Monday, April 8th 2013, the death was announced of Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister of the UK from 1979 to 1990. While her death was not unexpected, - she was 87 and had been in declining health for some years, - the reaction to her death has been unexpected. Many in the UK who disagreed with her political views have chosen to mark her death as an excuse to celebrate. They have even orchestrated a campaign to send the "Wizard of Oz" song, "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead", to the top of the music charts in a parody of her role as prime minister of a country that under her leadership underwent enormous and not always popular change.

According to one theory, this reaction does not diminish Margaret Thatcher's status as a leader; it actually enhances it.

The theory is Edwin Friedman's theory of the differentiated leader. In his 2007 book, "A Failure of Nerve", Friedman suggested that in an age of extreme anxiety, leadership is not so much about the possession of certain traits and skills as it is a process in which the leader is the person who is able to regulate their own emotional feelings in the face of surrounding anxiety. Friedman calls this process "self-differentiation" or knowing where one's own self ends and another person's self begins.

In his youtube video, (see below), Dr Jonathan Camp explains that Friedman's theory is rooted in cell biology. A healthy cell has a nucleus which controls the activity of the cell and a cell membrane which keeps the cell separate from other cells. Each cell is differentiated because each cell has a different purpose. A heart cell pumps blood; a lung cell contributes to breathing; a kidney cell purifies blood and so on. Not only are we humans made up of these cells, we function like them. We also form ourselves into groups, whether these are families, companies, or nations. Like an individual cell, a differentiated person can be a part of the larger unit as well as having his or her own identity and purpose.

The thing is, some people in the organisation are poorly differentiated. They don't have a core purpose or a clear identity and easily succumb to the anxieties that beset the organisation in times of change. To ease their pain, the poorly-differentiated people seek others to share their anxiety as a way of lessening their pain. However, by focusing on it, and recruiting others to it, they spread the anxiety. They are like viruses which have no nucleus and no purpose other than to seek out others and infect the greater body.

Fortunately, and at key moments of serious infection, there are people in the organisation who are immune to the infection through their self-differentiation. By being a non-anxious presence and not reacting to the anxiety of others in the way these others want, these differentiated people are able to tolerate other people's discomfort without the need to lose connection with them. This helps to transform the anxiety from a negative effect to a positive one. In short, they are the antidote to the infection and so healers of the organisation.

Friedman says that the well-differentiated leader has a clarity about their own life principles, vision and goals. This certainly fits with the leadership style of Margaret Thatcher. As a result, she created anxious reactions in many groups, from the UK trade unions to the IRA, the European Union to Argentina. Astonishingly, for a woman with so many apparent enemies, she foresaw the reaction that would erupt on her death. But, like the leader that Friedman describes, she not only was unfazed by the prospect of their reaction, she actually welcomed it as a way for people to take personal responsibility for their lives. As Jonathan Camp says, differentiated leadership is a direction in life and the only way we can move in this direction is to both take care of our self and of others.

Find out more about Edwin Friedman's theory of the differentiated leader in this youtube video from Dr Jonathan Camp on


(c) ManageTrainLearn 2013