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.