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

Failure of Nerve

Written by: on September 18, 2015


In his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Edwin H. Friedman takes a different approach than most books on leadership. I have read countless leadership books that are all about head knowledge and logical decision-making. I have also read many authors that recognize the spiritual aspect of leadership, but Friedman draws out the emotional aspect of leadership that is often overlooked, but can cripple a leaders ability to be decisive and effective. Friedman does not disregard the cognitive side of leadership and clearly states that, “Differentiation is an emotional concept, not a cerebral one; but it does require clear headedness.”[1] One needs to be clear-headed, but many leaders mistakenly believe that effective leadership is a matter of having all the right information, all the right techniques, and all the right formulas; they believe that this head knowledge will make the a great leader. The reality is that just because one person knows more than others does not make that person a qualified leader. Most of us have worked with leaders who have the right knowledge and education, but are emotionally unable to lead in a healthy, effective way

Whether we admit it or not, our decisions are driven by our emotional state. I love the story Friedman relates regarding a conversation with a major U.S. denomination in which they said, “We are about to start a project that will raise fifty million dollars for our five hundred most troubled ministers. How would you spend it?”[2] When he questioned the wisdom in spending millions of dollars on troubled ministers and instead suggested that spending it on the best ministers would ultimately be more effective, the response was, “But we could never raise the money for that.”[3] I love that story because it emphasizes the reality that we can know the right choices to make as leaders, but often make the wrong choices because of our emotions. This seems to be particularly true in ministry and volunteer organizations.

Freidman says that a well-differentiated leader is not “an autocrat who tells other what to do…[it is] someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about.”[4] Rudyard Kipling wrote about keeping your head while those around you are losing theirs. Perhaps Friedman would say that if you can keep control of your emotions while those around you are losing theirs, you would have the nerve to lead. There will always be reasons for losing the nerve to lead, but “differentiation is taking maximum responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context.”[5] We need differentiated leaders in the church today who have the guts to make the right choices and lead from a place of emotional strength. A leader who has integrity between their emotional, intellectual, and spiritual self will be in a great position to be mightily used by God.


[1] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, [new ed. (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 183.

[2] Ibid., 72.

[3] Ibid., 72.

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] Ibid., 183.

About the Author

Brian Yost

Brian is a husband and father of three. He works with Free Methodist World Missions and is currently serving in Latin America.

9 responses to “Failure of Nerve”

  1. Nick Martineau says:

    Brian, I also loved that denomination illustration you shared about raising money for the troubled pastors. It’s so easy to see how we can go down that path and how our emotions lead us to the easy carrot in front of us instead of making the difficult correct choices. Looking forward to seeing you soon!

  2. Dawnel Volzke says:


    Excellent post – Emotions can, indeed, be a strength and a weakness. I agree when you say, “a leader who has integrity between their emotional, intellectual, and spiritual self will be in a great position to be mightily used by God.” I’ve found that too often people are placed in leadership roles because they have made friends and emotionally connected with those who are in charge of promoting them or assigning them to a position. This is especially true in Christian organizations. Emotion driven decision making is dangerous. Sometimes there is a struggle to differentiate between emotions and discernment. I’ve seen too many pastors and organizational leaders make poor decisions in the emotion of the moment or because they avoid any emotion and drama that can come from disagreement or conflict with others.

  3. Jon Spellman says:

    Brian, I wonder if this book had been written in a more current context, would the “science” of emotional intelligence (EQi) have been a factor? I wonder of Friedman would have considered to just be another one of glut of data and information that leaders are inundated with or would it have been seen as a helpful discipline?


  4. Travis Biglow says:

    Brian, this reading took me by surprise. I thought he was leading into a scientific theory of leadership but it was not. I think that leaders cant use numbers all the time to equate success. There is something going on in leaders that cant be measured by statistics. And i understand this so much. That drive to go forward when you can stop is not something that can be measured by statistics or by exterior calculations. Its in us and it is what keeps us moving forward.

  5. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Brian, Good summary statement here: “Perhaps Friedman would say that if you can keep control of your emotions while those around you are losing theirs, you would have the nerve to lead.” I would initially think “emotional control” means just avoiding knee-jerk responses and hot-headed statements or silent-treatment or conflict avoidance, but I really think Friedman was talking much closer to home with the interior of a leader and deep-tissue self-awareness. I somehow really connect his “differentiation” thinking to “self-awareness” maybe even “self-actualization.” Did you think that most of his emphasis was on the leader and less on his/her leadership??? Looking forward to next week … with that is this week … holy smokes … see you on Wednesday:)! Talk to you then!

    • Brian Yost says:

      I love your phrase “deep-tissue self-awareness.” It brought to my mind the image of deep tissue massage, which can be therapeutic, but also rather painful. Self-awareness can be brutally painful, but ultimately bring about much greater health.

  6. Mary Pandiani says:

    I think if more leaders kept their head as others were losing theirs (Kipling), we’d all be in a better state. When I reflect on who the kind of leader Friedman is describing, I would put you on the top of the list as one who takes into account what’s going on emotionally, spiritually, and socially. Appreciate your insight.

  7. Dave Young says:

    Brian, I think from your post you also appreciated that Friedman’s focus on emotional processes are always at play. That if we can’t be differentiated from our context then we’re going to be manipulated by the emotional processes – regardless of our awareness or lack of awareness of them. It seems like denominational and church leaders can be especially vulnerable to this. Maybe it’s that we’re not emotionally healthy, or maybe it’s that the church is more of a family then an organization and as you well know families are very emotional. I liked your post, and I’m looking forward to hanging out together. 🙂

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