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

A Failure to Lead

Written by: on October 13, 2022

To say “reading A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman was inspiring” would be an understatement and borderline insulting to my psyche.  I’ve read several books on leadership but none like this. Most self-help books serve as temporary motivation for me and commonly become short-lived with minimal action. I can usually manipulate my way around certain arguments or systems to defend my less productive way of living or leading my undifferentiated life. My defense is unconscious and automatic and the product of many years of poor habits, addictions, lack of wisdom, and immaturity. A Failure of Nerve has interrupted my unconscious tolerance and helped me gain a new perspective on life optimization.  The wisdom and point of view are completely different than traditional leadership books and I anticipate different results from it.

I believe I have crossed a learning threshold this week through Friedman’s insight. I noticed a different motivation and change immediately. Before completing the book I noticed my perspective shifting in four major areas of my life; my family, my business, my church, and my future ministry. I’m predicting there will be additional modifications as I continue to assess my life through a lens of differentiated leadership. Friedman helped me realize that I have created a level of conscious tolerance and behaviors that are quite embarrassing. Instead of maximizing my potential for success, I’m often doing the exact opposite and sabotaging my own happiness and the potential for those around me I lead.  I can see now that the cycle has repeated for years, inflated stress and anxiety, and created emotional triangles that could have been easily avoided.

Chapter seven focused on Emotional Triangles and was a real eye-opener for me. I wasn’t aware that I had relationship instability and worse, I have been forming and fueling these triangles in every area of my life. Friedman states, “once formed, emotional triangles (1) are self-organizing, (2) are perpetuated by distance; and (3) tend to be perverse.” [1]  I’m typically not the one forming the triangles but somehow I get roped into them because, with all honesty, I thought it was my job as a leader to hear the concerns of my team. I have learned that I need to resist the triangles and lead by example by differentiation.  A new goal of mine is to become a non-anxious presence and show my team and family differentiation by example and influence others to take responsibility.

I believe I now possess the correct ingredients to lead in a differentiated way, create healthy relationships, and avoid emotional triangles, however, I’m still not clear on how the change will start and how long it will take to diffuse years of built-up anxiety. Friedman states on page 247 that “the counterproductively of trying to change emotional triangles head-on is one of the most frustrating endeavors for leaders.” [2] Later in the same paragraph, he perfectly describes my leadership struggle for the past decade. “Leaders are taught how to motivate, and their leaders constantly try to motivate them to be better motivators.” [3] Part of me really connects with motivation, and I still believe there is power in motivation. What was not clear to me before this book, and is certainly now, is that I have some triangles that I need to address. I have unfinished business in all of the areas I mentioned in the introduction; my family, my business, my church, and my future ministry.

This book has been a humbling and transformative experience for me and I greatly appreciate the perspective I have gained through it. I’m not sure how I could have been so immature in so many areas of my life for so long.  Friedman’s book revealed wisdom that was enlightening and stimulating and was presented in a way that I have never heard before. It felt like I was reading the answers to life’s test. It seems extremely simple now that writing about it but unfortunately I’m far away from leading exclusively differentiated. I have new goals and aspirations but I believe it will require time and another read-through. I’m still processing a lot and I am not exactly clear on the best strategy to attack my triangles in the least disruptive way?  I am excited to try though. Overall, I think this book is for anyone, not just leaders. Unlike the leadership training I’ve received in the past, I’m certain I will never be the same after seeing life through this lens.

[1] Friedman, Edwin H, Margaret M Treadwell, and Edward W Beal. 2017. A Failure of Nerve : Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. New York: Church Publishing.

[2] Ibid, 247

[3] Ibid, 248

About the Author

Michael O'Neill

Director of Operations / Executive Pastor at Kinergy, Inc. Federal 501c3 Non-Profit Organization. An experienced entrepreneur, leader, father, wellness professional, and owner of a multi-location medical practice with my wife, Nicole O'Neill, MD.

7 responses to “A Failure to Lead”

  1. mm David Beavis says:

    Hey Michael,

    I am thrilled to hear that the material from this book opened up a new portal to see the world differently, and you crossed that threshold! Friedman’s work is significant in that it goes, as you mentioned, against the grain of popular self-help leadership books. Now is the tricky part: application in your own life. As you pointed out, that means attacking the triangles.

    Your comments on being a fully differentiated leader caused me to wonder what that could look like while remaining connected with others. We do not want to be leaders who are completely disconnected to people. That’s not what leadership is about. And that is not what Friedman is advocating for. However, I do believe that was a missing element in Failure of Nerve. Painting the picture of what a connected, yet differentiated leader looks like was missing. What do you imagine staying connected yet being differentiated looks like, Michael?

    • Michael O'Neill says:

      Thanks, David. I agree with you that the book needs more examples of the finished product. Not just examples of how to get there or recognize qualities of a differentiated leader. I think in general a differentiated leader is different than most. Someone that leads by example and is not swayed by cultural norms. I think staying connected is important and perhaps this could be accomplished through regular meetings and good communication, not necessarily differentiating ourselves to the point that we are absent and untouchable. I have noticed in my own practice and team that I lead, they want more of me. They tend to respond and work harder when I’m present and guiding the process. This is great when I have time but lately I have been removing myself more and more. I still communicate but I think I need to make more of an effort to connect with my team so they stay accountable just like I am there. I also think it’s important to take time and ask about them personally. Your post and this response has made me realize that I haven’t gotten personal with them lately and it may be time for a team lunch or something where we do not talk about work. I guess I do not have a definitive answer for you although for me, a well-rounded differentiated leader would encompass would be able to stay in touch with work needs and personal needs of the team that supports the work. To keep the culture positive and productive. And finally, train the team to also be differentiated and self-driven. I can’t help but think I need to pass along some of these amazing skills that I have picked up in this program and build them up to create new leaders.

  2. Caleb Lu says:

    Michael, appreciate your thoughts and hearing how it’s transforming you! I think I struggle with a similar question to David. I recognize both the importance of differentiation and yet strongly believe in the sense of community that my Chinese upbringing has instilled in me. I’m also curious how we hold differentiation and healthy community together.

    • Michael O'Neill says:

      Thanks, Caleb. I personally think you can do both. I think it’s crucial. I often see myself retreating too often because I’m busy, or want to differentiate myself. But I see a lack of productivity and moral when I’m absent so it’s a struggle. I think there are personality traits in all of us that need to be present and at the forefront but without straying to far from the goal. We need to meet the needs of our people in ministry or corporate workplace and I believe that we need to find the right balance of both and let the Spirit fill in the gaps.

  3. Kristy Newport says:

    Michael, David, and Caleb,
    Doctor Clark has recommended the book Rare Leadership. I believe this would have been a good book to be reading in tandem with Failure of Nerve.
    The author makes “RARE” an acronym. The first “R” stands for Return to relationship. I believe this brings some good perspective. I am looking forward to continuing to listen to this.

    • Michael O'Neill says:

      Thank you, Kristy. I loved The Failure of Nerve but I feel like there are gaps in the leadership style and although it was life-changing for me in so many ways, I think that relationships are key, especially in ministry. I will definitely pick up the book and do my best to incorporate all of the great leadership qualities. I mentioned this briefly in my response to Caleb, but I think the Spirit is the missing ingredient. If we stay connected to the Spirit, we can sense what is needed. I think God uses our talents and experiences to mold us and move us in the right direction and there is a great leader in all of us and it is possible to find a nice balance of it all.

  4. Kristy Newport says:

    Yes, the Spirit’s leading!

    This is a great promise:

    Prov. 4:10
    I instruct you in the way of wisdom and lead you along straight paths.

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