Because of God (and Friedman) Leaders Need Not Give Into Fear
Edwin Friedman (1932-1996) was a practicing family therapist, leadership consultant, and ordained rabbi (Reform Judaism). Friedman applied his four-decade work with family systems thinking to leadership applications. His innovative perspective on leadership was more about a way of thinking and being than about traditional leadership technique emphases. Because of his innovative approach to leadership, his family systems methodology has applications to families, congregations, the workplace, and institutions.
A Failure of Nerve is promoted as a summation of Friedman’s ideas, and his manuscript was compiled and published by friends and family members following his death. Friedman contends that the regeneration needed in America to overcome chronic anxiety (“that currently ricochets from sea to shining sea”) is resolute, well-defined leadership. Conversely, whenever a “family” (be it nuclear, congregation, or community) is propelled by anxiety, there is a habitual failure of nerve among its leaders.
This assigned reading is my first experience reviewing this source, although I have heard of it for years. I seem to recall it was quoted by a certain lead pastor who was the most anxious senior leader I have ever served. Despite the previous “referral,” I was initially attracted to this source due to the broad range of fieldwork the author had engaged in, his longevity over four decades, and his focus on being rather than doing the next quick bang-for-buck technique. Also, as a pastor who coaches and leads coaches of pastors, I always listen extra keenly to another’s perspective born out of their pastoral context.
Although Friedman’s notes were compiled and published in 1999, his observations are consistent and applicable to today’s environment. Truly, chronic anxiety is reverberating and feeding a ceaseless cacophony throughout our families, congregations, and communities. So how is a leader not to lose their nerve in the face of this devilish inspired onslaught of contagious fear?
Friedman contends the leader’s presence and being, not technique and know-how, is what counts. Leaders must shift their orientation from motivational techniques (“the colossal misunderstanding of our time is that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change.”) to the leader’s presence and being. That is, the leader must stay connected with those they are leading while changing themselves rather than trying to fix others.
Chapter Six Take Five is a treasure trove of lists summarizing Friedman’s principles. Here is a couple that connected with me. Under Society, “A major criterion for judging the anxiety level of any society is the loss of its capacity to be playful.” I wonder if, as a cohort, we are more connected, more like friends and even doctoral kin, because we have laughed together and perhaps enjoyed a few beverages together? Play/joy/fun are not frivolous, and they are the essence of life. Digby, Mario, Jenn, and others, you are a gift to us all!
Under Relationships, “Stress and burnout are relational rather than quantitative, and are due primarily to getting caught in a responsible position for others and their problems.” Wow, I used this one today as I coached a female church planter who is feeling overwhelmed to move into what God is opening up for her because she is so tired from striving to “fix others” in her congregation. I regret not learning and applying this lesson much earlier in my pastoral career. While not endorsing Friedman carte blanche, his family systems approach to leadership is onto some very practical life-giving truths for leaders.
Let me pause here and say I need to leave for an early airport departure in about five hours (groan) to be part of a think tank discussion (I hope) concerning the coaching and training of church planters. I am very excited by this opportunity to learn from and connect with like-minded leaders from 12-14 other church organizations. I am expecting content and network connections to become key components of my research. Having said the above, I expect to return to this source and probably explore other Friedman writings again and again. While I am not sure what role A Failure of Nerve will play in my research, I can see it becoming an immensely helpful resource within my coaching network and practice.
 Cox, David. “The Edwin Friedman model of family systems thinking.” Academic Leadership: The Online Journal 4, no. 4 (2006): 10.
 Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 1999), 2-3.
 Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 17.
 Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 4.
 Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 201.
 Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 202.
7 responses to “Because of God (and Friedman) Leaders Need Not Give Into Fear”
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Hi Harry. I appreciate your reflective post on our reading. Just like you, I wished I had read some of his stuff, especially on anxiety. I think he’s right on on this issue. I for one have struggled with anxiety and self-doubt the last couple of years in my leadership position.
Anxiety is truly debilitating. I know some of the challenges with this is thinking that as leaders we can fix everything. Or that we have the solutions. Better yes, we think those we lead will listen and unflinchingly follow our lead. It’s a learning process of which I am committed, by God’s grace, to see through.
You mentioned that you don’t endorse Friedman carte blanche. I’m curious, what ideas don’t you like from him?
Why as a fledgling research scholar I thought we were trained to be reasonably skeptical and cite/endorse only the threads we valued in each author’s work? All tongue-in-cheek aside, this is the only work I have read of Friedman. However, his focus on leaders changing themselves rather than others in the face of contagious anxiety seems to be spot on.
Thank you for this amazing quote Harry:
I seem to recall it was quoted by a certain lead pastor who was the most anxious senior leader I have ever served.
What a gem!
And yes, I think you are spot on about how our cohort is more connected because we have laughed together. What a gift that has been!
Every time I think of you in your fashionable kilt, I smile and so appreciate our time in the UK. Your smile and your wit are a joy.
You’ve highlighted a very important aspect of applying what you learnt from Friedman. I personally will add Friedman’s book to my toolbox and have the book for frequent reference.
I pray A Failure of Nerve will enhance and bless your research. How do you think it will fit into your artifact/desire to publish a book on financial literacy?
Thanks for your insight Harry! I wonder how we might better tease out the difference in generalized cultural anxiety and responding decisively to real problems? I fully admit this has always been a tough one for me. When ought we to respond to the murmuring of our people given they also have the Holy Spirit and wisdom? When do we press on claiming bigger picture? How do we balance this healthy separateness he advocates for and being an empowering leader, investing personally in our people? I ask because I find I’m often only able to answer these questions for myself in retrospect and would love to read it better in real time. Blessings on your gathering!