Edwin W. Friedman’s book, “A Failure of Nerve” is unique in the non-fiction, leadership genre and its 10th anniversary reprinting stands as a testament to the book’s impact. Friedman had the experience of clinical practice coupled with the opportunity to teach on the theories of leadership and management at conferences and universities across the globe. His training is in family practice systems, but his original contribution is applying those theories to businesses, churches, educational institutions, and indeed any organization. His two critical points, 1. Self-knowledge 2. self-control, at the outset seems so simple that one wonders if this book is going to be worth reading. But he quickly wins the reader over because his depth of perception into the human psyche. He also writes with a disarming wit and humor reminiscent of Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde.
His unique background and experience also include being a formerly trained rabbi. Perhaps because of this training, he was able to see clearly into the dynamics of an organization beyond the data and pierce the emotional and human elements that make up families, schools, and businesses. He describes in the first half of his book, “the emotional processes in a society that I see affecting the functioning of parents and presidents” (p.4). That encompasses a large range. In the second part of the book, he presents new ways of understanding leadership that are applicable to the whole spectrum of human groupings and institutions. His analysis in the first half is insightful, but his real brilliance comes in the second half.
The greatest insight he provides is making the point emphatically that so much of what we see out of leaders today is ‘management’ and not bold, courageous leadership. There is so much emphasis on trying to be empathetic, conflict-avoiding, and compromising in order to make as many people happy as possible, that something has gone missing. That something is a leader who can differentiate themselves form the organization and at the same time be so plugged into the group that they can navigate people’s emotions and reactivity. They can do this because of their proven integrity and calm, steady influence. I agree with his assessment and he spends a lot of time in this book developing the idea. In the ten years since this book first came out, this trend has proven to be even more widespread in organizations. This leadership decline is having a detrimental effect in the world of business, politics, education and even the family unit. As this world grows ever smaller and interconnected, this book’s message is as timely as ever.
There is good news to those of us who are leaders and want to become better leaders. The growth curve isn’t in knowing more, understanding computers and technology more, or expanding our area of expertise more. Those demands make anyone groan with the pressure of doing more, being more, and working harder. We are currently under enough pressure to perform and prove ourselves worthy and capable, either from within or without. But Friedman asserts, “What counts is a leader’s presence and being, not technique and know-how” (p.18). For Christians leading a Christian organization this is good news. The same walk of faith and a life well-lived that is pleasing to God can be brought into the organization. Honesty, character, humility—these are the markers that characterize a Christian and since all of us are already Christians, we can be assured that we have it in us to be a great leader.
Friedman expressed that the leader is the, “Strength in the system.” If the leader is going to be successful, he has to have self-differentiation. We can provide a calm, steady presence to put people’s anxiety and fear aside. And the criticism we receive as a leader can be noted, but not allowed to create resentment in us towards our team members. Because of our faith, that battle can be won and then we get to show the world why our faith provides such strength in difficult times.