Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

A Failure of Nerve

Written by: on November 27, 2014

“The task of leadership is to create an alignment of strengths
in ways that make weaknesses irrelevant.”
Peter. F. Drucker

I wrote down that quote by Drucker many years ago. I wish I could find the source – I’ve looked, but keep coming up empty. It has been a guiding theme in my training, consulting, and leadership work. All too often, organizations and leaders focus on trying to improve their weaknesses. What they fail to recognize is that when we put most of our energy into addressing our weaknesses, we stop investing in what we are good at. The result?

  • Poor staff morale;
  • Reduction in strengths;
  • High turnover;
  • Poor customer service;
  • Low productivity. [1]

Imagine if Michael Jordan’s mom had noticed that her son was passionate at basketball, and through practice was becoming excellent. But his mom decided that Michael was not so good at playing the piano. He was a natural athlete, but music? And so imagine if Mrs. Jordan had required that Michael spend just as much time practicing the piano as he did playing basketball. The result likely would have been an adequate piano player, though not gifted, and an adequate basketball player. It seems ridiculous. But we do it all the time in our lives, families, businesses, and ministries.

In “A Failure of Nerve”, [2] Edwin H. Friedman draws from his years of experience as a consultant, family therapist and rabbi to present a model of leadership that is steeped heavily in Systems Theory, Strengths Theory, and Attachment Theory (though he never really says it). Friedman argues that leadership today is stuck in a quagmire of responding to crises, anxiety, reactivity, and lowering standards to accommodate the lowest functioning member of the group. He notes that systems change, however large or small, when one member of the system, notably the leader, changes. The group follows the leader. Friedman also presents a strong case the leaders should be “differentiated”, or in the language of Attachment Theory, have achieved object constancy so that they may function in a healthy manner in relation to self and others. Someone who had achieved object constancy is able to hold onto their concept of self (identity) as well as their concept of relationship with significant others (attachment), regardless of the current context. One’s self concept is stable and not drastically influenced by the winds of change. This allows the individual to develop an appropriate balance between independence and dependence.

I like this book. The concepts are familiar to me in many ways. What stood out to me is that Friedman wrote prior to 9/11. He wrote prior to the fear driven state of the world that resulted from terrorism. He spoke of the elements necessary for terrorists to be successful – namely, weak leadership. Friedman put out a prophetic and passionate call to lead with courage; to take responsibility; to confront what is difficult; to know “where” you are; to maintain a sense of adventure; to build on strength. In other words, to lead.

As I read the book, I thought how I would like to share this quote with this person, or that quote with another. I wanted to hand it to half a dozen different people to read. It resonated with me in an affirming manner. I find that I have little to add at this point. I see his thought processes. I see the very issues that he outlined. I understand his recommendations. I guess I just wonder how many people are healthy enough to lead in this way. In my life I can only say that how I have grown and how I lead, is a product of the healing work of Christ in my life. And I will leave it there.

[1] Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton, “Now Discover Your Strengths”, New York: The Free Press, 2001.
[2] Edwin H. Friedman, “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix”, New York: Seabury Books, 1999.

About the Author

Julie Dodge

Julie loves coffee and warm summer days. She is an Assistant Professor of Social Work at Concordia University, Portland, a consultant for non-profit organizations, and a leader at The Trinity Project.

One response to “A Failure of Nerve”

  1. Stefania Tarasut says:

    About 7 years ago I was attempting to learn how to play the guitar. My teacher and I were sitting on a chair in front of the church office when one of our pastors walked by… he stopped, looked at me and said “focus on your strengths” and then he walked away. I put down the guitar and haven’t played since 🙂 HA! He was right though… I’m tone deaf! It’s funny how we do spend so much time focusing on our weaknesses… why don’t we ever think about that?

    Also, I wonder if he would change anything in the book in light of 9/11 and the culture of fear that we live in today.
    As I write this I’m watching CNN have a conversation about Sony choosing to pull the movie “The Interview”… fear and threat make us do things that we wouldn’t normally do.

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