“No good deed goes unpunished. No good deed goes unresented.” These words are sung by Elphaba in the musical Wicked as she wrestles with her self while facing sabotage to her leadership. Elphaba’s journey through the musical is a fascinating study of leaders working out—or not—self-differentiation in the midst of the chronically anxious community of Oz. Edwin Friedman makes a reference to “no good deed” as he proposes 5 factors that are present for a leader to cross “equators” into radical transformation. Factor 4: “Stamina in the face of sabotage along the way” reminds leaders who are taking risks to move an organization to a new understanding will undoubtedly face sabotage from those who have lost their nerve due to challenges or difficulties. The “good deed” of leading people to a better version of them selves (or organization) is at a cost for the leader. Elphba felt the cost of rejection as well, as living with a “bounty” on her head from those who did not want her to succeed. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, utilizes psychology, biology, sociology to frame Friedman’s argument that healthy leadership requires one to have a strong sense of self in order to engage a chronically anxious organization that clings to security, easy pain, and the “need” of the quick fix to problems. Friedman goes through great lengths to show how emotional barriers that bubble out of anxiety, will lead to imaginative gridlock in leaders and is evidenced in the compulsion to rely on data, the impulse to be tripped by empathy, and be imprisoned by the “togetherness force”.
I admittedly did more of deep dive into this book than was expected. And as I read, I saw so many connections between what Friedman developed in his book and the characters/story line of Wicked. As Friedman admits, self-differentiation is a life long process that takes the intentionality of self-awareness in the midst of anxiety. Elphaba is the very embodiment, in her green exterior, of the anxiety that society has over anything or anyone that is different. She leans into her call to lead for good but in the process she faces what it means to move from being “unlimited” to “limited”. Elphaba faces the challenges of reactivity when she speaks out for Dr. Dillamond and he ends up being fired,. The Ozians herd together against her because of her greenified skin, but Elphaba her call for justice for animals plunges them into crisis. The Wizard incites the community against Elphba by blaming her for the chaos and naming her a fugitive. The Ozian community wanting a quick fix to their discomfort hunt her down. Sabotage, rejection…no good deed goes unpunished.
Self-Differentiation; according to Friedman is a state of being that requires self-definition and self-regulation. Admittedly I was incredibly uncomfortable with his use of “selfish” as evidence of this differentiation. His frequent call to being selfish reminded me of Ayn Rand’s “The Virtue of Selfishness” and how uneasy I feel as a Christian pastor who leans more into how community is shaped. However, Friedman late in the book, unpacks the word “self” and it’s usage history then tethers it to biology. Friedman then clarifies how the self is not a self if unable to be connected in community; being of one mind while being distinctly other is the heart of the Trinity. I could not help but hum For Good, the closing song from Wicked,
I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason,
bringing something we must learn.
And we are led to those who help us most to grow,
If we let them, and we help them in return.
Well, I don’t know if I believe that’s true
but I know I’m who I am today because I knew you.
Friedman has been helping me loosen my grasp on my perceived ills of individuality and embracing the integrity that comes from honoring my self as a leader. One may ask why Wicked even makes a difference in my world. In 2007, I was facing a “crisis” of my leadership identity. I choose to go to NYC to see Wicked. The story resonated with my struggle to be a Presbyterian pastor that didn’t fit the mold. I understood Elphaba’s heart to work for good and the heartbreak that came when other “forces” work to “take her down”. The musical comforted me. Emboldened me. Partnered with me. Yes, I ended up being fired from the church (it’s hard to even type those words). The end result…I have been dealing with a failure of nerve to be a visionary, prophetic pastor. Freidman’s book has reminded me of those areas in my leadership that need to be stretched but also invited me to embrace my nerve again. As I practice Self-differentiation, I must self-regulate my response in the midst of reactivity while not allowing the anxiety of others pull me down. I must embrace the joy of being alone. I must not fear my intuition in seeing things differently and being persistent in leading toward a new vision even in the face of rejection or when others give up and go away. I must maintain my self awareness so that I am able to better sift through the blame and know what truth to own. Freidman challenges me to remember that indeed no good (self-differentiation) deed goes unpunished, and that is a good thing because it means I very well am on the right track.