This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Mature leadership? a Family Systems analysis of the final presidential debate

10/19/08 at 05:55 PM

After watching the McCain and Obama debate on Wednesday, Charletta suggested a blog post using Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) as a lens for understanding the two candidates and their interactions with each other. If you don’t understand a term, click on it for a definition.

T: Can you tell me more about how your interest with Family Systems came about?

C: My fascination with BFST arose through my studies and work in conflict transformation. It is a theory of counseling that explains how anxiety moves through families and groups and so its concepts dovetail naturally with my training on interpersonal conflict. When we apply the theory at a societal level, through the concept of societal emotional process, Bowen provides a highly relevant framework for understanding anxious societies and leadership.

T: So what criteria does family systems theory set out for mature leadership?

C: I’m looking for certain characteristics such as self differentiation, which is being clear in one’s own thinking about one’s beliefs, values and practices while at the same time keeping an open relationship with others and connecting with them across differences.

T: How are Obama and McCain showing self-differentiation?

C: I see Obama as better self-differentiated because he steers the conversation away from personal attacks to talking about his stance on the issues. Here’s an example from the debate. Obama says:

I don’t mind being attacked for the next three weeks. What the American people can’t afford, though, is four more years of failed economic policies. And what they deserve over the next four weeks is that we talk about what’s most pressing to them: the economic crisis.

Obama also points out areas of agreement with McCain, such as the need to help homeowners get through the mortgage crisis. He’s more concrete and specific in the issues he’s addressing, and you get a clear sense through his demeanor and that’s he’s being forthright and honest, that he’s not easily ruffled. He conveys an open respectful attitude toward McCain. That’s the kind of character I want to see in bipartisan or international negotiations.

The theory also emphasizes the need for a less anxious presence. I could cite several examples, but I’d ask readers to consider for themselves who showed more calm under pressure in the debates.

T: What are some of the immature communication styles you saw?

C: In contrast to Obama’s respectful approach, McCain is on the attack, making faces. The morning after the debates Laura, a staunch Republican, responded to the debate on National Public Radio. She decided not to vote for McCain because Obama showed respect for McCain, but McCain didn’t, he made faces. She said, “I don’t want McCain making those faces at international leaders.”

I also suspect McCain to be fear mongering. In a short space, he uses the phrase “spread the wealth around” six times, while he alleges that Obama’s plan would take money away from Joe the plumber, and then decide how to spend that money. He says, “The whole premise behind Sen. Obama’s plans are class warfare, let’s spread the wealth around.”

These repeated references appears to be an attempt to tap into people’s fears of socialism. Though the candidates were talking about small businesses, the audience is alert to the extent of wild corporate greed. So they may not be so adverse to the idea of spreading the wealth around as during the Red scare.

T: What part of the debate was most revealing from a family systems perspective?

C: For me the most interesting part of the debate was the question about negative ad campaigning. There’s a real need to differentiate between the negative attacks on character, and ads that debate policies. McCain postured as a victim of negative ads, claiming that Obama has spent more than any other campaign of negative ads. A specific ad McCain cites is Obama’s ad attacking McCain’s health care plan:

Every other ad — ever other ad was an attack ad on my health care plan. And any objective observer has said it’s not true. You’re running ads right now that say that I oppose federal funding for stem cell research. I don’t.

So his example of Obama’s negative campaigning is calling his policies into question, as a campaign should do, as well as a belief that Obama misrepresents his views. This is nothing in comparison to the kinds of character attacks McCain’s campaign has made against Obama. In his examples of Obama running a negative campaign, McCain doesn’t distinguish between character attacks and issues.

T: What did you think of how the two handled the conversation about the comments by Congressman John Lewis? Lewis compared recent polarization by the McCain campaign to segregationists.

C: McCain said he was very hurt by Lewis comparing the current context to the civil rights era. Obama responded saying that the comparison was out of line and that his campaign had immediately issued a statement to that effect. Yet Obama did give the context, and name the behavior of McCain’s fans that was inappropriate: “shouting, when my name came up, things like “terrorist” and “kill him,” and he pointed out that Palin didn’t say, “Hold on a second, that’s kind of out of line.”

In response to the reports of racial slurs at his rallies, McCain said his crowds were patriotic, that he’s proud of the people that come to his rallies and that they are honorable people. He avoided the issue of the racist polarization encouraged by himself and Palin. He claims that his campaign has taken a stand against inappropriate comments when necessary, but I don’t see him demonstrating enough of that maturity to take a stand.

Obama responds:

The important point here is, though, the American people have become so cynical about our politics, because all they see is a tit- for-tat and back-and-forth. And what they want is the ability to just focus on some really big challenges that we face right now, and that’s what I have been trying to focus on this entire campaign.

Here again you see the theme of Obama bringing the conversation away from hurt feelings and back to the issues:

“And what is important is making sure that we disagree without being disagreeable. And it means that we can have tough, vigorous debates around issues. What we can’t do, I think, is try to characterize each other as bad people.”

When asked whether Obama thought that Palin was qualified as president, he did not attack her, but instead spoke well enough of her.

T: So how do you see these patterns affecting the way the candidates make decisions about issues?

C: The debate opens considering quick fixes and long-term fixes about the struggling economy. McCain says, “We also have to have a short-term fix, in my view, and long- term fixes.” McCain then describes how we should buy up home loan mortgages to negotiate with people so they can stay in their homes. When asked what he would specifically cut to balance the budget, McCain says, “I would have, first of all, across-the-board spending freeze, OK? Some people say that’s a hatchet. That’s a hatchet, and then I would get out a scalpel, OK?” Obama’s responds:

Well, look, I think that we do have a disagreement about an across-the-board spending freeze… And, in fact, an across-the-board spending freeze is a hatchet, and we do need a scalpel, because there are some programs that don’t work at all. There are some programs that are underfunded. And I want to make sure that we are focused on those programs that work.

He’s not ready to make such an extreme move because he’s counting the cost, and considering how to make existing programs work better. Obama also outlines specific ideas to stabilize the fundamentals of the economy. He says we need for a rescue package for the middle class by keeping jobs in the US, offering a tax break to the middle class and helping home owners negotiate to keep their homes.

He says that we need to look to the long-term health of the economy. “We’ve got to fix our energy policy that’s giving our wealth away. We’ve got to fix our health care system and we’ve got to invest in our education system…”

Under pressure, anxious society and governments tend to look at quick fix answers rather keeping than the long view. Obama has his sights on not only on the current economic situation, but he talks about broader factors. He offers more realistic benchmarks, like freeing us from our dependence on foreign oil in 10 years. He speaks to the long-term economic implications of clean energy.

T: How would you respond to someone who says you just like Obama and you’re using your theory to justify that?

C: I’ve clarified my preference for myself because of the character and issues I’ve seen expressed between these two candidates. I see Obama giving thought to issues more than trying to win a popularity contest. I hear him naming solutions that are not just a matter of caving into pressure, but rather looking at the big picture. A Family Systems Theory analysis has confirmed my choice to vote for Obama. He reflects humble leadership every time he emphasizes he is most concerned about inspiring society to action. As a Mennonite who sees the dangers of placing hope in any leader or government, that excites me even more than his policies.

Charletta Erb wants to enable nonprofits to function sustainably to transform society through her work as a consultant with Evergreen Leaders.

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