Self-differentiated Leadership and Crucial COnversations

Our last topics of study in Leading Organizational Change at Lamar University were the ideas of leadership by self-differentiated leaders as discussed by Thomas Friedman in A Failure of Nerve (2007), and effective communication as described in Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler (2012).

The Self-Differentiated Leader

In my time as an educator, I have come to recognize more and more that a large part of being an innovator is being a leader, not just a person who has great ideas. According to Friedman, a leader needs to be self-differentiated, meaning that they understand basic emotional processes and regulate their own anxiety to develop nerve. This nerve is the leader’s focus on their own sense of being, presence, and courage, which can overcome the chronic anxiety (in themselves and their organizations) that creates a climate that is toxic to leadership.

As a self-differentiated leader who is implementing an innovation plan, I need to have the nerve and presence to stand firm in the midst of other people’s emotional anxiety and reactivity. Quite often in my professional career I have seen I have seen resistance to change and complacency with doing things the way they have always been done: “That would never work” is a fairly common thing to hear when instructors are evaluating new ideas for their curriculum. Innovation in education results from attempting new strategies, figuring out which ones work and improving on them; not sticking with what is already tried and true. A self-differentiated leader can overcome anxiety over change and initiate new strategies, while encouraging others to do the same.

The video above illustrates the ideas of Friedman's Theory of Differentiated Leadership by using the analogy of  biological systems to describe self-differentiation. Like an autonomous cell, a self-differentiated person has their own identity and role and does not take on the discomfort or anxiety of the others in the organization. 

Leadership is often described as a process of social influence in which one person is able to enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task or goal (Chemers, 2014, p. 5). As a leader, I need to recognize that all members of my organization share the larger goals of improving student outcomes and serving as an institutional model for innovative learning, but they may not share the same vision for accomplishing these goals. This is where an important aspect of self-differentiation needs to be put in to action: I need to serve as an "emotional immune system" of the organization. To do this I have to able to regulate my own emotions to avoid being “infected” by the anxiety, impatience, or complacence of others, and not accede to their need for familiarity, certainty and quick fixes.

Friedman described effective communication as being governed by three things: distance, direction and anxiety (p. 136). In regards to the first two, my message should be phrased to draw others in the organization towards me; no matter how creative or innovate the ideas, if they are not expressed correctly they will not be effective in bringing others in. Anxiety comes across as static in the message and results in it being distorted; increasing the volume does not make it any clearer. In addition to the quality of the content, I need to be aware of the "emotional envelope" the message is being delivered in, because communication itself is an emotional phenomenon and "how" a message is conveyed matters as much as "why" and "what".

Crucial Conversations

While attempting to affect high-stakes changes in the organization with an innovation plan, we will face with both opposing opinions and strong emotions in the stake holders: to reach our goals and get the results we desire in our organization, we need to be able to have crucial conversations (Patterson et al., 2012, p. 30). As a self-differentiated leader, I need to be able to have these high-stakes communications where I handle disagreements and anxiety in my organization, and create conditions of free flowing dialogue. I have to endeavor to create a "pool of shared meaning" where all are free to contribute their ideas, feelings, doubts, concerns and feedback, irrespective of whether their ideas are controversial or at odds with others (p. 54). Without being able initiate crucial conversations we will never develop the tools to talk, listen and act together that will enable us to implement innovative strategies in our professional practice. The graphic below illustrates the steps I need to follow to initiate and maintain the process of crucial conversations, in order to achieve the desired actions and results :

Advancing my change strategy

I feel that the ideas of both self-differentiated leadership and crucial conversations will help me in my goal of implementing my innovation plan. These two ideas complement each other: an effective leader is also an effective communicator. Being a self-differentiated leader will prepare me to address the inevitable resistance to change that will occur when launching innovations in digital learning, and give me the ability to initiate the crucial conversations that are necessary to start and sustain the process. I need to be equipped with the presence and nerve that helps me determine how and when to best initiate crucial conversations. It is important that I avoid reactivity and keep the lines of communication open to address the emotions and opinions of the other stakeholders who are working to implement the innovation plan within the organization.


Bardwell, M. D. [Mathew David Bardwell] (2010, November 10). Friedman’s theory of differentiated leadership made simple. Youtube [Video File]. Retrieved from

Chemers, M. (2014). An Integrative Theory of Leadership. Psychology Press.

Freidman, E. H. (2007). A failure of nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix. New York: Seabury.

Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2002). Crucial conversations: Tools for talking when stakes are high. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Quotes. (n.d.). Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum & Boyhood Home. Retrieved from

Vital Smarts India (2012, February 10). Crucial conversations explained in 2 minutes. Youtube [Video File]. Retrieved from