O wow! Reading Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve was like drinking from a fire hydrant — there’s just so much to assimilate. I found myself highlighting many parts, frequently re-reading sections, trying to comprehend his ideas about leadership. Then there were the familiar concepts we’re told not to emulate, such as empathy and togetherness1. There was a welcomed subversive theme in his writing, doing away with the old, ineffective ways of dealing with organizational issues that looked to external regressive forces2. But instead he asserted that the way forward is to look into our “self” and become what he calls a “self-differentiated” leader.
There were also what I call the nuanced juxtapositions of commonly amicable words that made me think harder about them. Side by side words such as peace over progress, flexible or wishy washy, rigid or principled, selfish vs. self-‘ish,’ genius or madness, etc. Not only were they clever, but I found the literary approach helpful to discern more carefully my own attitudes and behavior in situations that trigger my actions. Choosing one over the other makes a big difference in how we become mature.
There are too many good lessons that I’m afraid I can only put to practice some of them. The following are the ones that resonate with me in my present leadership context.
Anxiety. There’s the garden variety kind of anxiety that many of us are familiar with and experience with some regularity. Some triggers may be due to unmet goals, missed deadlines, etc. Then there’s the unacknowledged anxiety. This is much harder to deal with because it lies beneath the subconscious. If not dealt with properly, it leads to empathy3, which then leads to a spiraling regressive triangle4 relationship. Fortunately we have a third member of the triangle who can break in at any point and redeem the broken relationship. That person of course is Jesus. He invites us to come to him, to trade our burdens for his because they are light and he will give us rest5.
Self-Differentiation. Friedman makes it very clear that a good leader is one who is self-differentiated. He describes that person as:
“I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still 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 to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.”6
Friedman says we never get there but rather it’s a life long process that we must persevere through. I see this person as fully mature, well-balanced and secure. So the key to a successful family or organization is having a leader who is self-differentiated. I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s admonition to “not think of yourself more highly than you ought…”7 There is the implication that there is a desirable and expected state of who we are as individuals. A mature person does not think lower or higher than he or she actually is. In the same passages Paul exhorts us to fulfill our calling by exercising our gifts. This parallels Friedman’s idea of “specialization” in which members contribute to the good of the larger society8.
Like I mentioned earlier, there are so many helpful concepts on what it means to be a good leader. These two takeaways are what stuck with me.
1 To be fair, Friedman mentioned that “togetherness” had different dimensions to it. Togetherness resulting from a self-differentiated individual is good. “Togetherness” without self-differentiation (like a tumor) is bad.
2 Edwin H. Friedman, Margaret M. Treadwell, and Edward W. Beal, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Church Publishing, 2017). Loc. 420, Kindle.
3 Ibid., Loc. 507, Kindle.
4 Ibid., Loc. 3695, Kindle.
5 Matthew 11: 28-30
6 Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Loc. 331, Kindle.
7 Romans 12:3
8 Friedman, Loc. 2496, Kindle
10 responses to “Nuanced Juxtapositions”
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Harry, you always do such a wonderful job of tying Scripture in to what we read for this class. Super impressive and such a delight to see the way you make these connections.
Self-differentiation also resonated with me, I think it would be great to “workshop” different scenarios to help developing leaders continue their maturation process. Thanks!
Thanks Jacob for the kind words. Yes, I was thinking the same thing. Doing a workshop on leadership, pulling in Friedman’s ideas and how it helps provide a modern context to today’s organizational challenges.
Part of me was wondering if Friedman would have read further than the Old Testament and discovered the New Testament was full of principles that talk about the invited tension in the self and togetherness. Friedman realized that the importance of the self re-emerged in the 16th century Great Reformation. Hmmmm… I wonder where those ideas came from. 🙂
Great post. Yes I love this book top 5 for me. I have applied many of the concept in my personal and professional life. Love the connection you made with Paul and maturity. You touched on the anxious issue and it is so key to the next gen and all of us today really. I might move on the idea of a workshop for real! These two points you made were they the most relevant for your topic of study or were they the most relevant to you personally at the moment?
Hey Mario, thanks for the comments. My initial gut reaction to your question was to be objective and say it’s the former. But in all reality, the two things I pointed out were two things I’m personally and currently working through in my own life.
Although, I could still imagine that these two things are relevant enough in our current culture in the US that it would make for a great afternoon break out session for a conference on leadership. Friedman thinks that anxiety is destroying our society. However “anxiety” is defined, we can all agree that a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome is happening collectively within our souls. We ought to address that.
Then, I think Friedman is absolutely correct in that, the solution is for leaders to step in. But not just any leader. We need the self-differentiated kind, to help us sort through all of these issues. Nothing is sacred. We need to dump everything on the table and put it all back together. Anyway, I need to stop here before this gets unwieldily verbose.
Harry, I agree that there was a lot of information to take in here, and most of it very interesting. I wholeheartedly agree with you that we have Jesus, and that makes all the difference in the world.
Harry, this is a great post and I like your take always too. Personally, the concept of self differentiation really struck home and I was able to see the critical role the leader plays in keeping things moving forward and not being stalled by the systemic sabotage that is often too hard to discern. How did the issue of being able to discern sabotage sit with you?
Hi Wallace. Good penetrating question. I feel like I experience every other day at work. I don’t like sabotage. Friedman says sabotage happens as we move towards self-differentiation; and that when it happens the leader tends to stop all progress that led him or her in the first place. I can attest to that. It’s debilitating, confusing, demoralizing, draining and just plain sucks. It’s unavoidable. I wish someone had told me this a long time ago, then I could’ve been better prepared in how I evaluated things at various moments in life.
Friedman offered certain principles, but what stuck with me is to continue to persevere. He uses our body’s immune system as an analogy to combat the viruses of saboteurs. In other words we need to continue our own progress towards maturity, self-differentiation and learn ways to manage anxiety.
I could go on and on here, but suffice it to say, expect sabotage, don’t run away from it and learn to manage anxiety as we continue to press on.
Thanks for the focus on the juxtaposition of seemingly “good” or “nice” words. Thanks for reminding us we must always return to Jesus as we process towards Holy Spirit formed self-differentiation. This construct helps me better understand Jesus “setting his face like flint” in being about the Father’s business.
I love how you layer Jesus into this thinking because I think I wrestled a little with how Friedman started things. At times it came across as somewhat selfish to me—as opposed to our called to be surrendered. While many of these books require us to ‘insert Jesus’, in this one I felt like I would want to nuance it with privileging the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than staying goal focussed. So how might we walk persistently in a self-differentiated space, surrendered to the Holy Spirit? It’s one thing to have a clear goal to focus on, but we follow a God who is on the move, which I’ve found makes it much more complicated. Bless you my wise friend!
Thank you, Harry, for your take away from Friedman’s book. I am the way to strongly presented the self -differentiation person that is a journey in life. Building up to good leadership is a process in life. Thank you for raining up this brother.