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

Going To The Balcony

Written by: on February 21, 2024

When I read A Failure of Nerve, by Edwin Friedman, I thought I was only going to write on pastoral leadership. However, the book struck a more personal nerve for me.


Two and a half years ago Wendy and I made a decision that would alter our lives significantly. We moved my mom and aunt, both widowed, from British Columbia to Alberta. We purchased a home a block away from our house and helped these two women in their eighties to move in. We knew it would be a lot, but we didn’t realize how demanding it would be. After a geriatric assessment, we found out that both women have dementia. Trying to manage their complex medical conditions, their cognitive decline, unhealthy relational patterns, and unreasonable expectations just about sent us over the edge. Our highly demanding lives suddenly became even more complex and more stressful. Every conversation with these ladies ended in frustration as there seemed to be no reasoning with them. Wendy has done a lot of research on dementia and Alzheimer’s and has found the acronym CART to be a helpful reminder. CART reminds one not to Criticize, Argue, Reason or Test when you’re with someone who is struggling cognitively. It’s just going to end badly. Being in a relationship with someone who is struggling with cognitive decline, especially as a family member, is challenging as we try to help them navigate the difficult transitions from independence to supportive living. A path not willingly embraced, but necessary.  We can feel like we are drowning almost every day as we pay bills, drive them to doctor’s appointments, sit with them in the Emergency at the hospital for a weekend, celebrate birthdays, manage their unrealistic expectations of what life should look like, displeasing them with difficult decisions, and all while still trying to honour them and maintain their dignity. My wife is amazing at it. She is supporting her mother-in-law and her aunt-in-law. “DON’T CART”, we remind one another when we’re struggling to remain calm and not get drawn into the swirl of unreasonableness, anxiousness, argumentativeness, and blaming. It’s hard because, if I’m brutally honest, I WANT TO CART!


In A Failure of Nerve Friedman maintains that leaders fail because they get drawn into the swirl of anxiety and emotional reactivity found in most relational networks and systems.[1] When leaders lack the nerve and presence to stand firm amid an unhealthy system, be it family or society, they contribute to the eventual disintegration of that system. [2] “Leadersmithing”, by Eve Poole, took the apprenticeship approach to leadership, practicing the craft of leadership built on a foundation of character.[3] Friedman , however, believes that leadership is not as much about skill and technique but more about an emotional process that can sabotage good leadership.[4] The kind of leadership that is effective, in his mind, arises from a “self-differentiated” leader. The self-differentiated leader, he writes, “can be separate while remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity in response to the automatic reactivity of others and, therefore, be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.”[5]


Remaining separate yet connected can be most challenging for me as a son and as a leader. As I deal with challenging situations at home and work, I find that I need more than “DON’T CART” to deal with my inner life in the moment. What do I do when negative emotions are threatening to pull me under? Negotiation expert, William Ury writes that in highly charged situations, “We forget our purpose and often act exactly contrary to our interests…we give away our power – our power to influence the other person constructively and to change the situation for the better.”[6] That sounds a lot like Friedman. He encourages leaders to go to a place of emotional and mental calm amid the sabotage. He calls this place of perspective “the balcony” in which we can see everything unfolding before us. It’s a place of observation rather than reactivity. The balcony is not a place of retreat or avoidance but a place of self-observation which notices fear, anxiety, and other negative emotions that arise inwardly. These emotions are not to be judged, but rather to be identified with empathy. Once we notice these negative emotions, we are better able to choose a more positive path forward, rather than be driven by them.[7]  Friedman writes, “Mature leadership begins with the leader’s capacity to take responsibility for his or her own emotional being and destiny.”[8]


I have found that going to the balcony is difficult when the pressure is on. However, I found that it can be cultivated through regular practice during times of prayer and meditation in the quiet hours of the morning. The psalmist invites God, “Search me, God, and know my heart test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139.23,24 NIV) This regular time in the presence of the Lord has been a lifeline for me as a daily practice. It’s a reminder that I don’t have to go to the balcony alone to observe my life. Rather, I recognize the presence of God, when I feel sabotaged, and invite him to forgive, restore and transform. It can then become more natural, when being sabotaged, to invite God to do the same amidst a challenge.


Can we grow or are there just certain people who are more self-differentiated than others? Friedman writes, that being self-differentiated is not easily accomplished and that most leaders need to develop this.[9] This gives me hope when I falter. In my daily prayer practice, I regularly invite God to forgive resentment and anger. I confess to giving in to those negative emotions when I want to remain non-anxious. I also write down what I need to watch out for as I face the day. I note what might just trip me up so that I can be prepared. As I do this, I recognize growth in my life. I recognize more maturity, less anxiety, and more separation from family members while staying connected to them. I can love and serve them better when I’m more self-differentiated. I’m increasingly in a better place, not because my circumstances have changed. They’re getting more complex. However, I note in my journal, it seems that God is doing something internally as I go to the balcony.


While A Failure of Nerve has been applied personally this week, I also recognize the valuable leadership lessons for those who are seeking to lead churches. In fact, this informs my NPO, which seeks to equip pastoral leaders to become more collaborative. Understanding family systems and self-differentiation are concepts worth exploring as I consider how to better equip leaders to influence the ministries that they lead.

[1] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, ed. Margaret M. Treadwell and Edward W. Beal, 10th anniversary revised edition (New York: Church Publishing, 2017), 15.

[2] Friedman, 15.

[3] Eve Poole, Leadersmithing: An Apprenticeship Approach to Making Great Leaders (London ; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Business, 2017).

[4] Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 14.

[5] Friedman, 16.

[6] Ury.Kindle.

[7] Ury. Kindle.

[8] Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 215.

[9] Friedman, 16.

About the Author

Graham English

I was born in Cape Town, South Africa 30 minutes from Table Mountain, the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. My family immigrated to Vancouver, Canada where I spent my teen years, met Wendy, and got married. We now live on the Canadian prairies in northern Alberta. I think God has a sense of humour. I'm a follower of Jesus, work in leadership and church development, love my family and walk a lot.

18 responses to “Going To The Balcony”

  1. mm Ryan Thorson says:

    Thanks for your honesty and openness Graham! Its beautiful to hear how you are growing in your life and leadership in both the church and your personal life, as they are inextricably linked.

    I also appreciate your reminder that being a less-anxious presence does not necessarily reduce complexity in our lives and leadership but it does bring health and transformation!

    Have you come across Mark Sayers, “Non-Anxious Presence” book? He does a nice job of talking about Friedman’s concept in relationship to the changing church landscape.

    • Graham English says:

      Thanks, Ryan. I have listened to Sayer’s podcasts on secularism with John Mark Comer but have not read this book.
      I agree that being a non-anxious presence helps bring health to the system and helps the other person feel more secure with you.
      A friend once said in a sermon on leadership, “Leaders absorb the toxicities and pathologies of the organizations that they lead.” I remind myself of this often AND that I need a place to detox and heal as well.

  2. mm Kari says:

    Graham, thank you for your vulnerability about your family’s journey with dementia and your personal growth through it. This resonated personally as we have just started this journey with my dad. I will be passing along the don’t CART analogy to my family.

    Your practice of writing down things that may come up during the day or potential roadblocks is a great, practical idea. I would like to try to implement something similar in my own prayer journaling. Thank you for sharing this part of your growth journey and allowing others (me!) to learn from you.

  3. mm Glyn Barrett says:

    Graham thank you for your blog. Among many things, it helps me to know how to pray for you. You have a lot on, and I’m praying that as you grow through this Doctoral Program, that God will enlarge your capacity, but that you will also find rest.
    How do you envision leveraging your personal experiences to enhance the support and training provided to pastoral leaders in your NPO, particularly in fostering collaborative leadership within their respective ministries?

    • Graham English says:

      Thanks, Glyn. Prayer is definitely appreciated. Good to be on this journey with you.
      I would say that collaborative leaders need to learn to be a non-anxious presence and to be self-differentiated. So this is definitely something for me to help leaders grasp.
      Secondly, collaborative leaders have to learn how to share power and control with others. I think this requires a good sense of awareness of relational systems. Friedman provides some good material on this.

  4. Jeff Styer says:

    Thanks for your post, I appreciate your wife’s CART acronym. My mother-in-law had 3 brain surgeries in 3.5 years, the last one being last August. She is now requiring skilled nursing, but my wife is her POA and we have noticed some cognitive decline with the last surgery. Is it still a side effect of the surgery or something else is a question we keep asking. The CART acronym will be useful for us.
    I have noticed something else about going up to the balcony. Yes, you get a better view and are able to remove yourself from everything going on down below, but I’ve found its easier to fall asleep in the balcony. Things seem more peaceful up there. Sounds like you are making prayer and meditation a priority, but are you able to remove yourself from your stress at other times (exercise, hobbies, etc)? I stress with my students the need to practice self-care as a lifestyle.

    • Graham English says:

      Jeff, I totally agree that self-care is significant. I need to develop a new sabbath rhythm for myself as this season has created some chaos. However, I exercise and walk to relieve stress and stay healthy.

  5. mm Shela Sullivan says:

    Hi Graham,
    Your story of selfless dedication to your mother and aunt is truly inspiring. It’s evident that you and Wendy have embraced this difficult journey with love and commitment, despite the overwhelming challenges you face daily. Your use of the CART acronym shows a deep understanding of the complexities of dementia care, emphasizing the importance of patience and compassion in your interactions.

    Unfortunately, I do not have a question for you, just admiration. Your story serves as a reminder of the transformative power of love, faith, and perseverance in the face of adversity. Thank you for sharing your journey and for inspiring us all to embrace each challenge with grace and compassion.

    • Graham English says:

      Shela, thanks. I feel like I’m just doing this very imperfectly. We agreed to do this as an act of obedience to Jesus and seeking to honour my aging mom and her sister.

  6. Diane Tuttle says:

    Hi Graham, You are truly living one of God’s commandments. Thank you for sharing your journey with us. You mentioned that we often act contrary to our best interests and give away our power to influence others. How do you think that will impact or inform your NPO as you work with pastors to work more collaboratively?

    • Graham English says:

      Hi Diane, thats a great question. I think this is the quote you’re referring to, “We forget our purpose and often act exactly contrary to our interests…we give away our power – our power to influence the other person constructively and to change the situation for the better.”
      I wonder if collaborative leadership has to maintain a non-anxious presence to collaborate with people who may not share their ideas or opinions. If people feel pressured, manipulated, forced or pushed etc it seems that it will no longer feel like a truly collaborative environment. I have a friend who jokingly likes to say of himself, “I’m a highly collaborative leader. I love it when people collaborate with me on my ideas.”
      So how does it impact? I’m not 100 percent sure yet.

  7. Daren Jaime says:

    Hi Graham! Thank you for your personal testimony. You and your wife are being lifted in my prayers. As a caregiver of sorts to my mother and now with my siblings, I find the ministry of detachment trying. In some ways, I want to egg one of them out of settling, but I have resolved to allow them to make their personal choice and take my emotion out of walking alongside them. When you speak of pastoral leaders collaborating, how does this week’s reading interact with that from your perspective?

    • Graham English says:

      Hi Daren, I’m still processing this but as I study collaborative leadership I think it really requires a self-differentiated leader to pull this off. Someone who attempts to collaborate cannot be threatened by opposition, debate etc. It is an attempt to move the “herd” in a positive direction rather than allowing them to give in to anxiety and polarization.

  8. mm Chris Blackman says:

    Graham, I know some of your pain. My mom had dementia and passed from Alzheimer’s, and my mother-in-law is fighting dementia. It is draining. I love the CART acronym, and it is spot on. Your post is a perfect example of balancing personal responsibilities while in a leadership role, and it’s not easy. What is your personal balcony?

    • Graham English says:

      Thanks, Chris. My personal balcony is a quiet time daily and a sabbath weekly. These have been significant. They help me to more readily go to the balcony when I’m in the midst of a charged situation so that I am not sabotaged by negative emotions. I have mastered this but it’s been a growth process.

  9. Elysse Burns says:

    Graham, I appreciate hearing more of your decision to care for your mom and aunt. Thank you for presenting this idea of going to the balcony. I have never heard this before. I should go there more often.

    What promises has the Lord reminded you of during your most recent time on the balcony?

    • Graham English says:

      Elysse, in general it’s a time to write out gratitude, what I should be watching out for and what I want to lean into.
      I’ve been thinking recently of God’s desire to bless his people. He’s a blessing God.

Leave a Reply