Growing Into a Calm, Steady Presence
I am slowly digesting the thoughts of Edwin Friedman as presented in his book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Friedman’s main idea is that successful leaders operating in the current, highly anxious climate of the United States, must show up with a strong sense of self, an ability to make clear decisions, and a calm, steady presence. As a country, we have made the mistake of trying similar leadership approaches repeatedly and have not obtained effective results. The key for Friedman lies in shifting our focus from leadership techniques to an emphasis on “a leader’s own presence and being.” He adds, “Clearly defined, non-anxious leadership promotes healthy differentiation.” Ironically, as we define the boundaries that separate ourselves from others, people around us are encouraged to do the same, and the result is a healthy, functioning, connected organization or family system.
I am particularly intrigued with Friedman’s thoughts on the role of empathy as expressed by a leader. He says, “It has rarely been my experience that being sensitive to others will enable those ‘others’ to be more self-aware, that being more ‘understanding’ of others causes them to mature, or that appreciating the plight of others will make them more responsible for their being, their condition, or their destiny.”  He stresses that putting a lot of energy into understanding the feelings of others will most likely dilute that person’s, and potentially the leader’s, sense of responsibility for themselves.
Friedman’s words surprised me. Doesn’t the world need more empathy? According to Clifton and Harter, the instinctive ability to understand the feelings of other people is a powerful addition to the workplace. My leadership style has always included empathy and striving to hear and understand the needs of others. I have, however, noticed that my approach does not work well with everyone on my team and at times has allowed for mission drift and harmful deconstruction of our processes. In addition, it has allowed these same teammates to make excuses for their lack of productivity, blaming other people and circumstances for their paralysis. This has been frustrating for me and my team. Friedman believes that leaders who focus on being nice, get repeated sabotage. This is definitely food for thought.
This week, I had some conversations with two coworkers that offered an opportunity to focus on responsibility over empathy. Though I tried to communicate clearly and respectfully, working to “differentiate” myself, my words were not received well. It’s one thing to learn to speak the words that define you and another to navigate the responses that ensue. This will take practice and I will need to find the balance of empathy and responsibility that reflects me as a person.
I am committed to getting better at this and hope to embrace the journey of ever maturing, more deeply understanding myself, and striving to steadily bring positive leadership to my current and future teams over the course of my lifetime. Says Friedman of this learning process, “No one does this easily, and most leaders… can improve their capacity.” I look forward to growing more fully into a leader who can show up with a strong sense of self, demonstrate an ability to make clear decisions, and at the core, be a calm, steady presence.
 Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2017), 14.
 Friedman, 3.
 Friedman, 4.
 Friedman, 215.
 Friedman, 145-146.
 Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, Now, Discover Your Strengths (New York, NY: The Free Press, 2001), 97.
 Friedman, 14-15.
 Kevin Neuner, https://vialogue.wordpress.com/2017/07/01/a-failure-of-nerve-review-notes/, video, July 1, 2017.
 Friedman, 16.
11 responses to “Growing Into a Calm, Steady Presence”
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Jenny – I hear what you are saying, in this world and I agree. In the broken world that we live in… it seems that if people would have more empathy in some cases that the playing field could be more understanding between both parties. Sometimes leaders tend to not even seem human at times because they are so hardened and distanced. Would empathy not help to soften that disconnect?
I’m sorry your words were not received well. I am praying over your next conversation now. This book is very deep and I know speaking only for myself I will need to sit on it for awhile and possibly even read it more than once.
Thanks for your comments. I agree and am also going to need to digest Friedman’s ideas a little longer, perhaps going back to reread some of his chapters. I do think empathy is needed today and that leaders that lack empathy are not operating at full capacity. It seems that Friedman would say empathy is a good quality, but that at it’s extreme, at which point one might wonder if it is still true empathy, it can actually be a detriment for a team.
Also, I am wondering if there might be a tendency for Friedman to value some of the harder, more “masculine” qualities of leadership. Did you sense any of that in your reading? I’m eager to learn more on this as we continue pondering this topic.
Thank you so much for your prayers. It’s so important to have God’s wisdom on how to create healthy relationships in the workplace and beyond! I need that.
Friedman’s stance on empathy was jarring for me too. For I have heard over and over in leadership talks, blogs, and books that empathy is an essential quality of leadership. Friedman’s approach to empathy in leadership is problematic if taken to the extreme. He doesn’t completely discredit empathy. But it seems he gets close.
Empathy is a key part of my leadership style. If there is one thing I do well, it is listen to my team. But I do wonder if this is hindering growth and team members taking responsibility. I am sorry your words were not received well by your team members. I am sure you were in the right in regards to what you communicated and how you communicated it. I guess we cannot take responsibility for others lack of taking responsibility. I am encouraged to know that I am not alone in this journey of learning how to help others take responsibility rather than solely relying on empathy.
I am curious, what was your process for “differentiating” in those situations? Was there a mental pre-game talk you gave yourself?
Thanks for your comments and questions. The balance of showing empathy and knowing when to encourage people on our team toward responsibility is interesting and challenging, isn’t it? I agree with you that Friedman does seem to value empathy, but at the same time, argues strongly against it. I noticed one comment on a book review that mentioned if Friedman were still alive and writing this book for himself, he would probably clarify more deeply for us what he intended in the empathy and responsibility balance. I’m encouraged that we can journey this learning curve with others pondering the same thoughts.
Thanks for asking about my mental pre-game talk to help me in “differentiating” in these conversations. I did try to deliberately ground myself in remaining calm, firm, and kind before talking to these people. And, I prayed for wisdom. I will definitely keep working on this. What about you? Do you have a strategy that helps you in the process of differentiating in your conversations at work?
Fascinating. Thanks for sharing! I honestly don’t have a go-to strategy for helping myself “differentiate” prior to “tough love” conversations. Fortuntately, I have a great team that doesn’t require too much tough love yet, but I do anticipate needing to lean into the conversations rather than avoid them. Hopefully, I’ll have a good “pre-game” mental talk with myself by the time we get to the end of our program.
Yes, we are going to have some great growth by the end of our program. I’m excited to see what that will look like for all of us.
Jenny, I appreciate you sharing so personally. It seems like yourself and David, I have held empathy as an important leadership characteristic. As I’ve tried to work through how to hold to being both a differentiated and an empathetic leader, it’s led me to reflect on validating in contrast with affirming. Perhaps in empathy I can still validate what others are feeling while still being separate?
Thanks for your comments. I like your point on the potential difference between validation and affirmation. You might be on to something there! Maybe we can always validate what another person is feeling as their own experience, but not always put ourselves in a position of affirming that we agree. It seems maybe that would really be exercising some true differentiation, while still showing empathy, and also allowing everyone, including ourselves, to take responsibility.
Glad we can keep pondering these things together!
I also struggled with the lack of empathy in leadership. You were not alone in this at all. I have always thought it was an essential character trait of a well-rounded leader. After reading Friedman, my thinking on it now is that perhaps there is a balance between empathy on my part and the responsibility of the other player on the other part. I don’t know.
I’m also sorry your conversations this week did not go as you desired them to go, and am praying now that you are better received next time.
Thanks for your sharing your thoughts and comments. Showing empathy does seem to be important in the workplace and lacking greatly at times, to the point of causing harm. Like you said, perhaps the key is in finding the balance between extending empathy and allowing for everyone to take responsibility for themselves. Maybe in that way, everyone on the team actually has the opportunity to differentiate and work on healthy attachment.
Thank you for your prayers! I greatly appreciate that. I definitely want to hear God’s wisdom and grow in my ability to encourage a healthy working environment for my team. There is so much to learn!
Thank you for sharing. It is hard to have those conversations where we have to hold someone accountable to their actions. I have been pondering this concept of empathy and the differentiated leader. I think there has to be a balance. Kind of like getting on track with the blog posts and comments. There is grace and understanding as we learn the rhythm, but also the expectation that we will get the work done.
I pray that the situation with your coworkers gets better and that they are able to take responsibility. One of the hardest lessons I have learned is that I can only control my own response. I can set healthy boundaries, I can express what needs to be said, but I cannot make someone else listen or make the right choice. As the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make him drink.”