Through a second and deeper pass at Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve, I found myself focused on how self-differentiation manifests in the context of realistic issues that leaders face today. As a quick recap, Friedman’s work is classified within the social science field of psychology and is aimed at empowering leaders of today to embrace self-differentiation as a key leadership tool. By becoming a well-differentiated leader, one is able to guide through various circumstances that are often riddled with anxiety, sabotage, data overload, and dysfunctional emotional systems. In short, Friedman defines differentiation as “the capacity to become oneself out of one’s self,” and “refers more to a process than a goal that can ever be achieved” (194). In digging in deeper to the book this round, two topics emerged in a new light: the chronic and systematic anxiety surrounding a leader and the necessity for a leader to move intentionally from empathy towards responsibility.
While anxiety is nothing new to our society, its prevalence across generations, geographical boundaries, vocational spaces, and family systems has never been so high. Friedman states that this chronic anxiety in society has spurred an “emotional regression that is toxic to well-defined leadership” (59). It has become clear that simply finding solutions to problems does not alleviate the anxiety that exists within institutions across all spectrums (66). Whether from a data overload, need for togetherness over individuality, or individuals having developed within an unregulated family system, I would consider the systematic anxiety that leaders face today to be one of the most significant challenges to navigate.
Likewise, personal responsibility seems to be less emphasized as a necessity for growing adults which then limits the ability for the institution to function at full capacity. Friedman argues that this emphasis on empathy over responsibility is a significant emotional barrier to reorienting leadership today (143). He states that, “the focus on empathy rather than responsibility has contributed to a major misorientation in our society about the nature of what is toxic to life itself” (143). In the desire to connect and identify with all people, we are losing the ability to guide individuals towards taking responsibility for themselves. In doing so, this chronic and systematic anxiety will only continue as it is only after a system is regulated emotionally that true empathy can function in a healthy manner (146). Through the well-intended objective of empathizing, a new system of obstacles is cultivated for an institution in which personal responsibility is taken off the table as a means to contribute towards the collective health. It is when a leader is able to successfully lead individuals towards responsibility that the negative impacts of chronic and systematic anxiety are alleviated.
It is no surprise to me that these two themes have surfaced through this reading as I find myself confronted with them daily working in the field of higher education. I often see how the desire to make students feel understood and known on a deep level, albeit well-intended, can inadvertently provide them with an excuse from learning and/or practicing the necessary skill of personal responsibility. Read any higher education publication and it is full of statistics and examples of how the education system is overloaded with students’ diminishing mental health, increased anxiety, and challenged to navigate even the simplest of processes – even before a global pandemic hit. And at the same time, I recognize that the state of society and the world that I was in during my collegiate days is drastically different from what they experience today and have grown up in. I entered college just a year after 9/11, received my first cell phone as a high school graduation present, Columbine was the only school shooting I can remember over that time period, the internet was still dial-up, and the first social media account (MySpace) was still years from being launched. So I find myself today, now a higher-level leader at an academic institution, wrestling with continuing to become well-differentiated while also trying my best to usher this new generation into the same. As I do so, I find myself asking a few questions:
- What does it look like for me as a Christian leader to equip and empower students towards responsibility, even when that may not appear to look like the ‘loving’ thing to do?
- How do I acknowledge the impacts of this current global anxiety-producing climate these students are navigating while still guiding towards hope, freedom, and stability?
- Within so many unknowns and ‘unprecedented’ changing circumstances, how can I remain differentiated and a non-anxious presence?
Reviewing the other literature we looked at last semester and are diving into these next few months, I am excited to discover more of how Friedman’s work connects to everyone from Poole’s practical leadersmithing concepts to Winchester’s discoveries of the importance of mapping. As with much of what we are reading, Friedman’s encouragement that well-differentiation is a process and not an end goal is what I hope to keep in view as I navigate all that is ahead.