Geneva College



MSOL Book/Article Review May 2012

failure-of-nerve.gifReview of the book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.
Written by Edwin H. Friedman and published by Seabury Books, copyright 2007.

“None of the books I've read this summer have provided quite as new a perspective, have provoked as much continuing thought, and have rung quite as true to my experience as A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin H. Friedman.

Friedman uses his prior work on multi-generational family dynamics as a springboard to addressing his perception that our current society has become stuck in an unhealthy relational dynamic. Specifically, he looks at leadership as an emotional process, describing the dynamics that sabotage or paralyze leaders (be it in families, churches, educational institutions, or the civic arena) and providing some guidance for becoming "unstuck."

In seeking a historical example of a leader who broke free of a "stuck" society, Friedman refers to Christopher Columbus and the quest that brought him to the Americas--a place that his society could not even have imagined. Similarly, Friedman says, our society and time in history are ready for leaders who can differentiate from the thinking of these times, who can see new vistas and who are willing to risk sailing into waters where others have been too fearful to go. Or too tunnel-visioned to even perceive.

Friedman identifies four specific dynamics that are causing problems for leadership in America (and while this applies to leaders of families and churches as fully as to organizations, I'm going to focus on organizations for purposes of this review): The weakest or most dependent members of the organization set the agendas, "leveraging power to the recalcitrant, the passive-aggressive, and the most anxious members of an institution, rather than toward the energetic, the visionary, the imaginative, and the motivated. "Individuated leadership has been devalued to the point that leaders tend to seek consultation elsewhere (consultants, endless searches of data and research on research) rather than developing "their own capacity to be decisive." Decision makers have denied the realities of emotional processes in their organizations as contributors to decision-making, instead becoming obsessed with information-seeking and gathering endless data in hopes that it will make their decisions for them. People misunderstand "the relational nature of destructive processes" in organizations. Thus leaders assume that if they behave as reasonable, caring, insightful, ethical role models who seek consensus, they can actually keep toxic forces in check. This leaves their organizations vulnerable to the invasiveness of people who don't regulate themselves. Friedman describes what he terms the "well-differentiated leader" as someone who is "less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about." A well-differentiated leader can maintain connections with others, yet be separate, thus able to "maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence." It's someone who can take a stand and hold their ground even if others might be displeased with that stand.

Once the leader is differentiated, interacting in non-anxious ways, staying connected and making their best decisions and standing by them even in face of criticism, Friedman claims, the entire organization will begin to act in healthier ways. The leader functions as an "immune response," forcing those who are more invasive and chaotic (Friedman likens those individuals tounregulated organisms--cancer, for example) to change and become part of the coherence of the organization again.

Unfortunately, Friedman died before he could finish this book. There's plenty here to chew on and digest, and I didn't perceive any gaping holes in the exposition of the book, but there are parts of the writing that likely would have seemed a bit more polished had he been able to completely finish the manuscript.

This is, I think, a "must read" for any leader's library. I found myself wanting to sit down and listen to Friedman, and participate in a Q&A session with him. Here's my recommendation: read it, underline it, write notes in the margins, and put stars and exclamation marks by the points that gather people's names on them as you read Friedman's descriptions. The vocabulary will continue to float through your head over time, you'll talk to others about it, and I suspect you'll even find yourself making decisions about your leadership approach based on what you've read. It's one of those books that sticks with you.”

From the website “For Any Eyes.”


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