Every now and then, a book comes along that is truly insightful.  There may be any number of reasons for this.  Possibly the book espouses revolutionary ideas.  Or, like a lamp that is lit in a darkened room, maybe it reveals certain truths that are obscured by common assumptions and tendencies in a given culture.

I am convinced that A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin Friedman is one such book.   He enlightens his readers by taking a radically different approach to leadership (one that focuses on self rather than others) and by exposing some apparently benign yet insidious elements of our culture’s organized relational systems.

Friedman (1932-1996) was an ordained Jewish Rabbi and family therapist.  Prior to his death, he was sought after as an expert on leadership and well known for his work in family systems therapy.   He died while writing A Failure of Nerve, but his ideas are worth exploring.

His main premise is that America is in a state of regression, exhibiting the signs of a chronically anxious family.   Such families consistently demonstrate the following four characteristics:

  • Reactivity—typified by automatic responses and relational boundary erosion
  • Herding—exemplified by elevating consensus/togetherness as the supreme virtue
  • Blame displacement—characterized as cynical and pessimistic while finding fault “out there”
  • Quick fix mentality—distinguished by a focus on certainty, simple answers, and a low threshold for pain

If America as a nation fits the description above, then it stands to reason that there are some significant effects on leaders in particular and leadership in general.  According to Friedman, as a result of the aforementioned characteristics, “leaders become less imaginative and are eventually worn down and resign or ‘go through the motions.’”  Further, “leaders become indecisive because, tyrannized by sensibilities, they function to soothe rather than challenge.”  Still further, “the least mature are selected while those with the greatest integrity, precisely those who have the best capacity to pull a society out of regression, do not even seek office.” The net result is that “leaders are not challenged to grow.”  In other words, these symptoms contribute to and perpetuate a failure of nerve in leaders.

Of particular significance are Friedman’s ideas regarding the nature of self.  Whereas many popular works on leadership focus on the need to “get people on the bus” and on various ways to motivate those whom one leads, Friedman argues for something different.  He makes the case that the key to leadership is the ability to recognize sabotage for what it is (those wishing to hijack a leader’s agenda), to remain steadfast in the midst of emotional and relational chaos, and to be the immune system for their organization.

According to Friedman, “self is not merely analogous to immunity; it is immunity.”  By this he simply means that in any organizational/relational system the integrity of a system is maintained by the ever-present “self” who is able to differentiate its “self” from those wishing to disintegrate it.  In the human body, the degree to which a cell is able to keep  its “self” intact in the midst of being together with other cells (by not allowing foreign invaders to sabotage its designed purpose or hijack its agenda) is the degree to which a body remains healthy.  If a cell isn’t able to ward off attackers, it is eventually undermined, and its integrity, not to mention the integrity of the body as a whole, is in jeopardy of survival.

While there are other compelling insights from Friedman’s work, such as his somewhat controversial ideas regarding data decision-making, emotional triangles, and what he calls the “Fallacy of Empathy,” space does not permit an exhaustive exploration into these.  Having said that, for the Christian, a few items are noteworthy.

First, Friedman’s approach towards leadership, at least on the surface, seems to fly in the face of Jesus’ teachings about the importance of the death of “self” (Matthew 16:24).  Second, his understanding of self-differentiated leadership may have implications for how we understand God, in terms of ontology and in terms of function.  Practically speaking, Friedman’s ideas with respect to the leader’s identity as immunity has implications for how church leaders handle discipline among the body and may shed some light on Jesus’ rather harsh approach to expelling from the body those who are willfully sinning.

There are certainly more implications for the believer than those listed above, but the purpose of this review is not to provide them.  Rather, its purpose is to give the reader taste for what A Failure of Nerve has to offer in terms of leadership insight, particularly as it interfaces with Christian orthodoxy.  My hope would be that your interest is piqued and that the book may impact you like it has me.

11 Responses to “A Failure of Nerve: A Guest Review by Gary Ross”

  1. Scott Stan


    Gary’s enthusiasm for Failure of Nerve is compelling, perhaps even contagious. In our society we tend to lead through consensus which is akin to governance through polling. Those with compelling vision are demonized, their character attacked, and belittled by a society that asks us “What is truth?” Who dares then raise their head above the fray to lead knowing they will be targeted by those with less talent and more venom?

    I look forward to Gary’s leadership book called “What about ye?”

    • Gary Ross


      Yes, indeed I am passionate about this book.

      Can’t say I know when the book “What About Ye?” is coming out, but when it does I will let you know. I suppose the main thrust of the book will be to examine the many ways that we as North Americans brutally assault the beauty of the English language when trying to imitate the accents of our brothers and sisters in England, Ireland, and Scotland. Should be a real winner of a book 🙂

  2. bethyada


    I haven’t read Friedman, but I am not certain about your statement

    First, Friedman’s approach towards leadership, at least on the surface, seems to fly in the face of Jesus’ teachings about the importance of the death of “self”

    though perhaps this is why you mention “surface”? Jesus’ teaching about death to self is about death to self interest. And serving others is about others best interests, not what their sensibilities demand. Thus a sense of self that does not sway to the fickleness of the masses, yet seeks the best for them and not oneself does not appear to me to be the least bit contradictory.

    Perhaps the solution is in this comment

    In the human body, the degree to which a cell is able to keep its “self” intact in the midst of being together with other cells (by not allowing foreign invaders to sabotage its designed purpose or hijack its agenda) is the degree to which a body remains healthy.

    The cell is for the body, but needs to maintain a strong defence against that which would destroy the cell and the body, whether that be foreign infection or, more importantly, a cancerous growth. Or to change the analogy, the shepherd exists for the sheep but must protect the sheep from false shepherds that arise from within the flock.

  3. Gary Ross


    With respect to your comment regarding the apparent disconnect with Jesus teaching on “self”, what I meant was this. Jesus clearly taught the denial of self. He taught his disciples that in order to follow him, the must deny their “selves” and pick up their crosses daily.

    Friedman’s claims are that in order for leaders to be the most effective leaders they can be, they must focus on their “selves” while warding off those who would wish to disintegrate their “selves”. Well, their appears to be a contradiction. Jesus says deny self, but Friedman says focus on self.

    The solution is to recognize the counterintuitive truth that leaders must know what they stand for, and be sure of their “selves” in order to be the best functioning part of society and or whatever organization of which they are a part.

    Incidentally, this idea of individuality being important for the body is something not only admonished by the Bible (see I Corinthians 12:12) but something which our founding fathers used as a bedrock for our nation’s initial conception.

  4. bethyada



    My roundabout comment was not so much a question as a proposed solution.

    So we deny our fleshly desires (self) yet are certain of our true convictions (self)?

  5. Gary Ross


    Certainly, this is the deal.

    I see you are from New Zealand. I have a former player of mine (I am a collegiate soccer coach at Taylor University) who is doing some work in New Zealand as a guide to hikers. He’s a missionary of sorts. Small world, eh?

  6. Margaret Marcuson


    I’ve found Friedman’s ideas compelling since I heard him teach over 15 years ago the material that became Failure of Nerve. I’ve come to think that taking a stand is a critical component of leadership that is often lacking in the church culture of niceness. Many church leaders, including, myself, tend to be conflict-avoidant. This can get in the way of growth and progress.

    Perhaps one way to think about the “self” question is this: if you’re going to deny self, you’d better have some self to begin with. Jesus’ ministry shows this –he knew who he was and what he was to be about, and was able to let it all go.

  7. Elliott P.


    The counseling department here at Covenant Seminary is a huge fan of Friedman. As an MDiv student, I have profited immensely from his insights into the roles of leader (as a pastor) and counselor (of marriages and families). I’m grateful for greater Friedman exposure due to this post. Thank you!

    • Gary Ross


      I wonder what Friedman’s take was on original sin. I am rereading the book currently, and I am at the beginning where he is mentioning that there are those characteristics of emotional relationships in families that transcend the camoflauge of culture. Consequently, families (organizations) of all cultures who are chronically anxious exhibit the same characteristics. Maybe this is due to original sin?

  8. Margaret Marcuson


    I’m not sure about original sin, but I know he thought the nature of evil was to be invasive. From viruses to totalitarian nations — all are unregulated and do not respect boundaries. The least functional church people act in the same way.


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