Welcome to Spring were ever you are!
Developing A Self in Your Organization
I met Blythe McGarvie in 2004. One of my friends, Laura Martin, told her about a meeting on developing leadership skills based on knowledge gathered in the far distant world of family therapy. (Laura also wrote up the one page outline of the concepts in Bowen Theory: https://ideastoaction.wordpress.com/dr-bowen/)
Being curious and brave Blythe left the comfort of the corporate world and came to visit the people in the relatively obscure world of family systems theory. She had published one book called Fit In, Stand Out when we met and continued her board work and public speaking, since then, she has published another book on the development of leadership skills. We have continued to have intellectually alive exchanges.
Left to right back row: Blythe McGarvie, Laura Martin, Andrea Schara, Jan Whitener
Front row: Kathy Wiseman, Priscilla Friesen, John Engels, Kathleen Guinan, Frank Gregorsky
Photo taken after the Leaders for Tomorrow Meeting
I interviewed Blythe at this meeting in 2006. In addition to being able to tell her own story I think her newestbook, Shaking the Globe: Courageous Decision-Making in a Changing World is important and I will tell you why and, I’ll share the insights gained from the interview with Blythe concerning her early leadership training in her family of origin.
In Shaking the Globe Blythe considers the unique challenges of leading in our global community.
“ Success requires a new and different set of competencies, particularly the ability to coordinate, communicate, and cooperate across borders and cultures.
Executives must be able to transcend their biases to adapt to today’s economy, learn to establish opportunities for future growth, and lead multinational corporations with strategies unrestrained by culture or nationality.”
I would add family knowledge to that list of needed
competencies. We form early on our basic skills in how to
relate. No one seems to get away without some sensitivity to his or her
family of origin. In addition, I would hypothesize that those with deeper
roots and knowledge of their multigenerational family would have greater
competencies in adjusting to different cultures and values.
Overall, your country of origin affects your ability to be a
participant in a global culture. Just think about the relative wealth, power,
and cultural norms of the U.S. that give Americans the competitive fuel to
travel to other countries. However, the challenges, no matter your particular
nationality, are similar. In every culture people are trained to
manage relationships and to learn about their impact on others. The
challenge is to keep building useful personal bridges, to others. The
challenges individuals face can arise from and in one’s family and then show up
in our functioning in small groups or in large organizations. One can ask
oneself this basic question: what are we up against in becoming our best
as a leader? Or, how have we built our skill set in our family of origin to
relate well to difficult others?
There is no greater challenge than to bring different people
into alignment to achieve common goals without threatening their individuality
and autonomy at the same time. People want different things, they have
different objectives and therefore being a leader in a global world is
Blythe’s book highlights evidence of the many ways social
system pressure individuals and how individuals can handle theses
pressures. Some have deep personal values that sustain them; others
automatically give up, or dominate the work group. She is focused more on
the facts of functioning and the results produced when people are courageous
enough to change the status quo.
It is important to gather facts to understand how people
have and may function optimally in social/emotional systems. There is so
much evidence now of failure to function well. We see evidence of
confusion and regression in behavior all around us. There were errors in
the understanding of the models that were believed to predict risk. There was a
belief that markets will “self-regulate.” Then there are the continuing headlines
related to Ponzi schemes and greed. The result of these
changes in the global environment has provoked a greater awareness of how
dependent we are on experts.
Do we need any more clarification about the importance of
self-focus and responsibility? Do we need more reason to identify courageous
and ethical leaders, capable of communicating realistic ways through these
As one of the first ten women to become a CFO of a Fortune
500 company, Blythe has first hand knowledge and the observational skill to
identify the traits of mature leaders who are effective in managing the culture
of corporate social worlds. In her first book she identified six key traits
enabling leaders to both fit in and stand out: (financial acumen; integrity; an
ability to envision, build, and maintain alliances; learn; offer perspective;
and practice global citizenship.)
While there are many questions about how we know people have
these traits and are not “pretenders,” there is an obvious link between Bowen’s
ideas of differentiation of self and the process Blythe describes in her
books. Few people link one’s ability to fit in and/or stand out in an organizational
environment, to one’s family history.
In 2006 I thought it useful to see if leaders like Blythe
could describe how they learned to be a leader by fitting in and standing out
in their family of origin. I asked Blythe if she would participate
in an experiment interviewing leaders about what they learned in their own
families about how to be a leader, and do it in front of others who would
listen and ask questions. The reason for this format was to encourage
more openness and learning for a larger group.
In the late 60’s Dr. Bowen began a video series at Virginia
Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia. This was the first time in
history that a psychiatrist, in real time, interviewed patients and the
interview was broadcast to other family therapists for training purposes. After
the interview the families would then be invited in to listen to the comments
of the audience. Dr. Bowen set up rules so that the audience could not have
direct contact with the families.
Designing a Meeting to Consider the Links Between
Being a Self in One’s Family of Origin and Functioning in Organizations
Building on these ideas I thought it might work to take
Bowen’s basic idea that people could learn from one another about what comprise
an emotional system by separating out a more thoughtful and effective self, and
combine it with ideas on mindfulness.
Learning in the moment has been well researched in an academic
setting. I found this research in
the book Leadership Can be Taught, (2005) by Sharon Dalz
Parks tells us about the work of Ronald Heifetz of the
Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. His method is called, “case in point.”
Heifetz uses the moment-to-moment experience in the classroom as a
“studio-laboratory.” This theory and experience model goes back to
the traditions of John Dewey, who saw that we humans learn best from reflecting
on our real life experiences.
What I took away from the ideas of Heifetz’s experimental
method was that there was something to be gained from bringing people together
to work on a common goal and then giving up control over the group. So, I
would start by asking questions of the person, in this case Blythe, and I would
not “control” the group. Every one could ask questions. Hopefully
each one would be thoughtful and aware of their impact on others.
Everyone’s behavior in the group would be subject to questioning. Even
“the leader” does not get a free pass.
In this kind of setting there is more uncertainty and risk
for anyone willing to participate in such a learning experience. There
were positives and minuses that come out of the day. There were not enough
positives to create an ongoing series of interviews and I returned to the old
fashioned way of interviewing people one on one.
A couple of the participants said they learned a great deal
from telling their story. Others reported that they could see how hard it was
to tell their story when many people ask them questions. Some in the audience
said that it was difficult not to jump up and ask questions when the
others stories were unclear or made them anxious.
The ability to tolerate differences and to see the impact
one has on others, were two of the major learning points people noted. On the
down side it was challenging for people to tell somewhat personal stories about
his or her life in a group. It probably requires that one be practiced in
telling the story and then seeing what they themselves and the group gets out
We are all faced with very limited knowledge about the make
up and impact of social groups on our functioning. This is not for a lack of
effort, because professionals from social scientists to journalists offer
explanations of the social fabric that determines or at least influences the
behavior of individuals.
Psychological Research on the Influence of Social System
To understand the extremes of functioning in social systems
after WWII, researchers like Stanley Migram began to look at the dynamics of
people in authority and the ability of individuals to resist being told to
participate in shocking events that they would ordinarily never do.
Later, Philip Zimbardo chronicled his Stanford prison research and questioned
our collective responsibility for the world’s ills.
Social systems have properties about which we know precious little compared to
what will eventually be known. Part of the anxiety of this era is
seeing how our individual fate is tied up in our participation in the social
In every newspaper and TV show on the subject, there are
various theories to account for the downfall of our economy. The two main
camps are (1) that leaders of major companies were greedy people who captured
power (see “The Quiet Coup,” by Simon Johnson in
the most recent issue of The Atlantic) or (2) the “stupidity hypothesis”, that
no one on Wall Street was smart enough to see the folly of the short-term gains
and the long-term growing imbalances (see David Brooks, NY Times, Opinions
4/3/09). There is no arguing that all of these factors and more collided to
bring a house of cards down. Emotional systems are complex and non
linear. There is not one cause that can produce a regression like the one we
are living through today.
I am not sure how far this or any regression is enabled by
blame. Some say more mature people only lightly blame self and look for
ways to improve his or her situation.
This is far better than the less mature people who blame others and then
feel entitled to be revengeful.
The main point is that there is a reciprocal relationship
between people. Research in game theory and economics has demonstrated that we
are nice to the people who are nice to us and motivated to hurt those who hurt
It seems clear that the more people feel the lack of ability
to alter their situation and blame others for it, the more likely they are to
commit revengeful acts. Just in the last month we have seen four separate mass
murders resulting in the death of a record (38) innocent people. Those who “feel” wronged by society can
also “feel” entitled to seek revenge and in the above cases killed innocent
More mature leaders are mindful of the dynamics creating
different levels of functioning within the group. They are able to take positions to mange the emotions by
being more of a calm presence. This gives people the idea and the feeling that
there is an opportunity to be heard and respected.
Shake the Globe: Thoughtful Courage and Actions in
When people are deeply emotional they seek emotional
answers. This path results in more primitive behavior by the people most in
need of help and least able to accept help. Yet as noted, when the group is
confused there is also the opportunity for new courageous voices to
arise. If the voice is one that inspires optimistic thinking then there
is genuine hope that the anxiety of confusion will be subdued. As Blythe
notes throughout her book, to arise as a leader now requires that leaders be
willing to Shake the Globe.
Another of Blythe’s hypotheses is that market laws are
universal. We know that both people and markets can undergo unexpected
changes. We also know there are paths to a brighter future. For example
she sees the opening of markets through free enterprise as promoting
opportunities for woman and other minorities. Change one significant factor in
the system and you see a tipping effect. Educate woman and you see lower
fertility, reduced maternal and child mortality and better heath.
One way of seeing how social systems operate is to look at
the numbers and see what happens when change occurs. Her book contains many
examples of how one change influences other positive changes. Another one
of my favorite examples from her book is that research shows that companies
that have several vs. one-woman board member, report better financial
results. Clearly leaders need courage to risk doing something new based
on a deep value like equal opportunity.
There is much to be gained in using relationship knowledge
in order to be a more effective and efficient leader in an
organization. As the world changes ever more quickly, many people
become stressed and are unable to adapt well to the new conditions.
Adapting often demands changes of habits, and assumptions. People are looking
for ways to think well and make better decisions. Therefore a book like Shake
the Globe offers us a broader view and reasons for courageous optimism for
those willing to both fit in and stand out.
My belief is that it often helps people to comprehend the
future by learning about the past. So whenever one can take the time to learn
more about their personal history, strengths and sensitivities, it is possible
to deeply address and improve our ways of relating to others.
Dr. Bowen used to advise people to get to know all the
living members of their family. If they could do it there was no better way to
gain emotional maturity. Due to
variations in functioning among family members one can easily gain broader
knowledge of human functioning and compassion for self and of course others.
Another plus is that going to visit your family mindfully can
be a kind of free group therapy. They can and often do tell you stores of the
unresolved emotional issues and of course of what they and others really think
about you and your line of the family. This kind of effort is only for
the courageous who would like to have a stronger emotional backbone.
President Obama took seriously the idea of getting to know his extended family
and it served him well. If you read his book you may laugh, as I did, at
the somehow recognizable misadventures in getting to know his extended family.
Interview with Blythe
Andrea: Sometimes it is hard to see what our early
life in our family has to do with our leadership skills. But just
suppose you could go back in time and imagine coaching your parents to resolve
one of their conflicts that you might have been caught up in?
I ask this because I wondered what it might be like to have
learned enough from the past, that you know what you would say to your Mom or
to your Dad today, to enable them to cooperate and be more understanding of the
other one’s position?
Blythe: Coach them to have been a more effective
Andrea: Yes, to be a more effective team, because
conflict that undermines people’s functioning goes on all the time. People
often tell me they feel like a child with their boss and there seems little
they can do to alter the relationship with them. But there are other
times when individuals do have the courage to step up and enter into a
different kind of conversation with the boss or the authority/parental figure.
Often this happens after they have made some kind of change in relationships
with their parents or other authority figures.
Blythe: I think if I were coaching my mother
and father as if they were working with me in an organization I would have a
goal to enable a more effective team. If they had this conflict dynamic
going on, and needed to work together I wouldn’t tell them anything at first.
But I would ask a lot of questions and listen. After the questions would
be some kind of challenge to try and get them to look at the situation
I think with my father, I would say, “Can you try to speak
up instead of avoiding the situation. If you just do what you want to do
and avoid it and go away for a day, the problem can get worse.” I might remind
him of how he would say, “I’m just going to go to the cleaners, hon,” and then
he’d take the kids with him, and we’d all go to different places with him and
we’d be gone for sever hours instead of one hour. All this to just get out of the house, we’d go to the bank,
the cleaners, maybe the park, you know, everything.
In the past I would have gone along. Now I would be more up
front, and I’d say, “Help manage the expectations of your teammate who knows
you’re not just going to the cleaners.
Can you do more to manage expectations? Go ahead, speak up, and
confront the situation. If she (my Mother) says, “No, I don’t want you to
do that, I want you to stay home and repair the garage” then say “I’ll get to
that,” or “I understand your needs, but these are some things I need to do.” So
I would encourage my father to speak up, manage his teammate’s expectations,
and maybe just observe a little bit more if he wanted to achieve things a
little sooner in life rather than later in life.
On my mother’s side, and I know because she struggled with
the principals of her schools for years, it was hard for her not to react to
them and say things she wished she had not said. Therefore she had a lot
of difficult relationships. So seeing that I’d say, “Mom, you were never cared
for as a child, you were shunted off to a boarding school in high school,”
which she always thought was the peak of her life.
On the one hand she thought that the best time of her life
was in high school at this Catholic boarding school because she had some
stability there. But there were a lot of difficult issues for her. By
observing how she was caught reacting to her history I would say, “Mom,
work on yourself, go to therapy, recognize some of the issues that you’re
carrying forward, as you have a lot to give. Old stuff gets in your way.
You are a brilliant storyteller. You have a way of teaching that people want to
learn from you. They want to hear your stories.” I know because I used to
listen to the stories that she told me in that double bed until I fell asleep.
So I would be positive and also alert her to the power of
her negative reactivity. I would try to be wise in how I advised her to
try to change these reactions. I might say, “Just keep your temper out of it,
because you have so many sharp barbs, that people shrink away from you.
If you can drop the barbs, and just show the sweetness and the passion in a
positive manner instead of a negative manner, it would be a lot more
productive, and you might even be happier.”
Andrea: She might not need therapy if you talk to her
Blythe: In fact at one point we did finally convince
her to go to therapy, and she trusted the Catholic priest. However
this is a story with a sad ending. I still have hard time believing it. It took
us years to convince her to go therapy, and she finally went to the Catholic
priest, and she came home from her first session and she said, “He didn’t
listen to me.” And we said, “C’mon Ma, he must have listened to you, this is
his profession.” “He fell asleep!” He fell asleep and she never went back.
Andrea: It is hard to convince people to do
something for you and have it work out in a positive way. The
majority of successful women whose stories I’ve heard seem to have almost
always related well to their fathers and were not interested in their mothers’
professions. Most did not have early fantasies of wanting to stay home and have
children either. Often career-oriented woman saw their mother as not
really being as happy as she might have if she could have been out in the world
doing her own thing.
Blythe: In my case my mother was out in the world.
She was working when I was age 3 – I got dropped off at the nursery school and
she went to teach the 3rd grade. She was never a housekeeper.
We had clothes from the dryer in a big pile on the dining room table. She would
say when I was very young, “Blythe, let me tell you a secret. Hang up clothes, the wrinkles fall out,
don’t leave them on the dining room table.” And when we lived in Virginia with
lots of humidity, she said. “You never have to iron clothes if you hang them
right up.” So she was not a very good housekeeper.
My father was the one who was at home more. He was a
college professor, and so he had more flexibility. I used to joke, “Dad, you only
have to be at college 7 hours for an entire week.” He said, “Oh, but I have
meetings and I have office hours.” I said, “Yes, but technically, if I
understand your class schedule, you only have to be there 7 hours a week,
that’s a pretty good job!”
Now he worked a couple of other side jobs when we were
young, to make more money, and they were able to save. They were thrifty, very
thrifty. My parents bought three apartment buildings at different times and
then sold them. That was their retirement money. My Dad would
shovel the coal at the first apartment building – so not only raising a family,
working 2 jobs, getting his master’s, but also shoveling the coal so the
tenants would have heat in that six-flat apartment house.
Both of them worked hard. I actually admired that Mother was
able to raise a family, work hard, and get her master’s in English. She went to
school at night. On Wednesday night, when she went to class, Dad would throw in
the chicken, boil it, and that’s when we ate boiled chicken. He’d throw out the
broth, and we’d eat an hour-boiled chicken, not knowing we should have been
drinking the broth too.
Andrea: So you learned early on from career-oriented
parents. How about your grandmother?
Blythe: My maternal grandmother did not work when I
was around but she married several times. She had worked for over 33
years at the Western Union until reaching retirement. My grandmother was such a
strong force in our life, and was around for us when mom was working.
Andrea: It is worthwhile to see the social forces
operating differently on both your mom’s and your grandparents’ generations.
There were many different career paths taken by the women in your family.
How helpful were their experiences in your finding your path?
Blythe: I think it depends, like so many things – you
may say, “Oh I saw this parent work but I wish they had been home more” and
maybe then you rebel. Or you can decide to stay home because that is what you
want to do and that makes sense to you.
Andrea: Did you rebel or did you do what made sense
Blythe: I don’t think I had to be as rebellious. My
younger sister was the rebellious one. My mother doted on Brian, my older
brother. My father doted on me. And then Marge was kind of like,
whatever. In fact, Mother used to say, “Brian, you’re going to be a
doctor. Blythe, you’re going to be a CPA because you’re very analytical, good
with numbers, you like to count things. You count all of your Halloween candy
and have it all organized. I can’t steal Snickers from you, I can steal from
Brian and Marge, but you always know exactly how much Halloween candies you
I remember that, I thought, “Yes, I know, metrics, this is
how you get things done.” And then Mom would say, “Marge, I don’t know what
you’re going to be.” Today Marge still does not have a satisfying life.
She hasn’t worked consistently in many years. She has floated around
different jobs the few times she decided to work. So I think it’s very
interesting when you think about that family dynamic.
When my parents first married, they lived on the North side
of the city, because my father lived on the North side. My mother lived on the South
side. My maternal grandmother, who was very strong said, “You live on the North
side, but you should be near me.” So a year later they moved to the South side.
Another funny thing was how my mother and father made decisions:
“We want to have all of our children’s names start with the letter ‘B’.” Just
some kind of code – Brian – unusual names – Blythe, they wanted a more unusual
name than Brain as it turned out there were more Brians than my mother
My grandmother said, “You had a daughter and didn’t name her
after me?” So the third child, the second daughter Marjorie was named after my
grandmother. She was a major matriarch in our whole family. She died at
age 73. But even when I was in my 20s and I had a couple of weeks’
vacation, I would make sure I visited my grandmother. She had a condo in
I went to see her a) because it was warm, and b) she was
fun! The only time in my life I took Prozac was one day I was depressed because
I had 4 days in Florida and I didn’t have much vacation. I said,
“Grandma, it’s my 3rd day on vacation, it’s rained, I’m going
back without a tan. I’m so depressed.” “Take half of my pill,” she said. She
gave me half of her pill, and a half-hour later she said, “Why don’t you take
an umbrella and go walk in the rain?” So I felt like Gene Kelly walking in the
rain. And I came back and I thought, “Never take these drugs again.” I
never want to walk in the rain! And I hate getting wet!
But my grandmother was fun! You know, she’d give us sips of
the foam on her beer. Every Friday night they used to have beer parties, all
the relatives and she said, “Here just take the foam, that’s not dangerous.”
She was just fun.
Andrea: I really appreciate, and I wish we could hear
more from you, but our time is running down. In the spirit of openness, I
would say if you have someone in your family who can be fun even a bit
rebellious, I don’t think you take life so seriously, or rules so seriously, or
authority so seriously.
Blythe: Sometimes you’re forced to make up your own
rules. Grandmother was forced to make up her own rules, because her husbands
were not functioning well. So she had to support herself and her
Andrea: She may have influenced you to be a good
Blythe: Three and a half years ago, I started
my own company, so I guess I am.
Andrea: Now you can make up your own rules.
Blythe: But then I have to follow them. But that’s a
very good point. I still do a monthly status report, even though I report to no
one. I write down my monthly status report, and at the end of the month I
look at what I’ve done, check it off, and then I create the next monthly status
Andrea: Like a budget?
Blythe: Like a budget – to me, it’s my rules, I have
Am I working toward the right things?
Am I using my time wisely?
Andrea: The main point that I get out of your story
is, that your quest to enable people to function better, may arise, partially
at least, from watching the dilemma that was unsolved between your parents.
Blythe: Absolutely, I think it’s grounded in that.
Andrea: Every person who is a leader has to deal with
their followers and has to enable them to function better.
Blythe: If you have people working for you, they
don’t work for you, you work for them. You have to figure out how to get them
to use their potential the best way– and hopefully efficiently, so that you
don’t lose the opportunity – because we’re only on this earth for a short time
and you have to focus on what you can do to bring out people’s potential today,
Andrea: Thank you for this interview and for your
time and good thinking.
Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by