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

Leading without an ETA

Written by: on October 16, 2019

I am grateful for GPS. It gives me turn-by-turn directions, but it also gives me an estimated time of arrival. I can even let my GPS know when I need to arrive at a destination, and I will be notified when I need to leave. Since I live in an urban area that is under constant construction, this feature is especially helpful. I like to know when I will be arriving at my destination. I often wish leadership came equipped with a GPS.

In Failure of Nerve, Edwin Friedman, a long-time rabbi, family therapist, organizational leader, and public servant, describes a fundamental flaw in leadership. According to Friedman, leaders do not fail because they lack information or skill, but because they lack the nerve to stand firm in the midst of other people’s emotional anxiety and reactions.[1] He explains that every family and every organization has an emotional environment. Effective leadership has less to do with technique and more to do with the ability to navigate this emotional and relational landscape. The leader who does this well is referred to as a “differentiated leader.”[2]

Friedman goes on to discuss the anxiety that plagues today’s American family. He says this is manifested in five regressive characteristics: reactivity, herding, blame displacement, quick-fix mentality, and failure of nerve in leadership. He explains that these regressions are not only present in family systems, but also in organizational systems.[3] Therefore, it is the responsibility of the leader to be the strength in the system, a sure presence in the midst of chaos. Similar to gravitational fields, families and organizations have “emotional fields.” The self-differentiated leader has a positive effect on this field, calming anxiety with their steady presence. According to Friedman, “what counts is the leader’s presence and being, not technique and know-how.”[4]

Friedman’s is a similar message to many of our presenters during the London/Oxford Advance. It seems he would assert that one of the most valuable contributions the ministry leader can make is what we would describe as “ministry of presence.” The posture and orientation we have toward others could be the greatest indicator of our influence. The strength of our soul and our ability to rest securely in our identity apart from the institutions and people we serve, keep us from the trappings of constant striving. Friedman says,

“People cannot hear you unless they are moving toward you, which means that as long as you are in a pursuing or rescuing position, your message will never catch up, no matter how eloquently or repeatedly you articulate your ideas.”

As Christian leaders, we stand in Christ. We are able to calm the pull of the anxious emotional fields and call those we lead to move deeper into life in the Spirit (a creative force field in itself). What an exchange!

Unlike the ETA provided by my GPS, I am not sure that any of us arrive at differentiated leadership. Rather, it seems to be a journey we commit to. This can be frustrating as one who likes to know the end from the beginning. However, I am confident in the promise of Philippians 1:6, “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”



[1] Bob Thune, “Summary: Edwin Friedman’s “A Failure of Nerve” in 500 Words,” June 6, 2016, http://www.bobthune.com/2016/06/summary-edwin-friedmans-a-failure-of-nerve-in-500-words/.

[2] Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, ed. Margaret M. Treadwell and Edward W. Beal (New York: Seabury Books, 2007).

[3] Ibid, 61.

[4] Ibid, 17.

About the Author

Rhonda Davis

Rhonda is passionate about loving her Creator, her wonderful husband, and her three amazing sons. She serves as VP of Enrollment Management & Student Development at The King's University in Southlake, TX.

11 responses to “Leading without an ETA”

  1. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Rhonda! You used one of the quotes I highlighted from this book. I thought that part about communication and being heard was really good – especially with my kids right now. This is an excellent post. I appreciate your style and ability to get to the point and be relatable at the same time.

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      Thanks, Andrea! Yes, I found this whole section very interesting as I reflected on the difficulties of parenting my teenaged sons. I appreciated what he had to say about “differentiated parenting.”

  2. Hi Rhonda. Thanks for your post. I sensed a subversive theme in Friedman. He tends to say things with such finality. It’s refreshing to read this kind of writing in today’s culture in which we prioritize safety over adventure.

    As far as getting to being a self-differentiated leader, Friedman actually said that no one gets there, but it’s a lifelong commitment worth pursuing. I think our path toward being a self-differentiated leader is becoming more like Christ. Easier said than done, I know, but just like Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      I completely agree, Harry. It is difficult for me to commit to something that does not have an end date or at least a vague timeline. However, living life the Jesus way is proving to be a journey worth the commitment.

  3. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Thank you for your hilarious and poignant GPS metaphor Rhonda. It definitely spoke to me!

    Differentiation – here we come!

  4. Mario Hood says:

    Such a great post.

    Commit to the Journey! What if this is the key rather than trying to be a perfect leader/perfect person. Brings to mind the understanding of sanctification. Good stuff!

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      Thanks, Mario. I have spent way too much time and energy pursuing perfection, only to find failure in the end…not to mention complete exhaustion.

  5. Mary Mims says:

    I love your post, Rhonda. I like the reminder that we are on a journey. There will be times we will still get on that treadmill and have to be reminded to try another way. We will get there in God’s time, and that’s ok with me.

    • Rhonda Davis says:

      Thanks, Mary. Yes, I am grateful for God’s faithfulness to nudge us back in the right direction when we try to create our own path. I am also grateful to be on this journey with excellent people like you.

  6. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    Thank you so much for your focus on the self-differentiated leader from Friedman’s book. Your reminder of the goal and the journey is so practical and encouraging to all of us. I am reflecting on how Jesus would pull away from healing the crowds to follow the Father’s calling despite the “anxiety” of his disciples and the crowds. I pray we will all sustain our nerve to stay on the journey!

  7. Rhonda,
    This is great post, I like your concluding remarks that none of will reach perfection in self-differentiation, it’s a goal that keeps shifting and therefore call us to a commitment to continued growth. This was a reminder that I should surrender to the Leading of the Holy Spirit.

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