In A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman, a new paradigm is given when considering leadership. The conversation escapes the “irrefutable laws” and all of those other “irreplaceable principles” and enters into the category of character or, one could say, the ethos of a leader. Part of what has caused Freidman’s book to be used across so many fields is that Friedman informs his writing with ministry, leadership, therapy and organizational leadership theory, as well as family systems theory.
Despite the book being almost 20 years old, there are still many principles that seem rather counter-intuitive and actually speak out against common sense knowledge of current leadership practices. I would have thought that such a powerful leadership book would have seeped it’s ideas into other leadership dialogue, but this read still feels rather counter-intuitive. A few of these large shock-value teachings are the following:
- Imagination is emotional, rather than cerebral
- Anxiety is between people, rather than in the mind
- The capacity to be decisive is more important than being as informed as possible
- Stress results from one’s position in relational triangles, rather than hard work
But Friedman’s most pivotal concept, one in fact that he credits to the primary difference between the success of thousands of clients he has worked with is the concept of a well-differentiated leader. This more specific application of “self-individuation” is defined by Friedman as, “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.” Friedman says this is the important process of Knowing when one ends and another begins. This sort of personal knowledge and presence leads to a profoundly powerfully ability, called leadership presence. It’s a quality or energy that gives a sense of calm to all of the followers around you. It’s your silent authority and assumed ability to lead. It’s an unspoken ethos. It’s what Maxwell calls the level 5 leadership. I see now that when John Maxwell calls it Level 5 Leadership and even splits into five phases, he is bringing it into the world of data, and into the language of quick-fixes.
Being a well-differentiated leader, and having leadership presence leads to Leadership effectiveness which Friedman describes as an emotional process of regulating ones own anxiety. I think perhaps the best imagery one can conjure up to capture this idea of leadership presence, is the image of Sir Francis Drake finishing his game of Bowls despite learning of impending attack. (TELL STORY) The story goes that on July 18, 1588, learning the ‘invincible’ Spanish Armada had set sail toward England, Sir Francis Drake said, “Time enough to play the game and thrash the Spaniards afterwards.”
Or perhaps you could also think of Winston Churchill, The British Bulldog, napping almost every day of WWII. That’s two well-differentiated leaders for the Brits!
Along with this well-differentiated leader, Friedman clearly emphasizes that leadership is actually less about skills, technique and data. Instead it comes down to a leaderships ability to navigate emotional and relational climate. At this point I have a little push back on Friedman because, I feel the word “ability” is synonymous with skill or maybe even technique. It is after all what Friedman is saying, something that can be learned, if one has intentionality. That is why he is writing a book about this subject, so he can teach this ability/technique to others. I’m reminded of a question I’ve pondered for a few years now, “Can you teach integrity?” to Friedman, I’d ask “can you teach differentiation.” I think you can teach about it, but it really only be grown. Or perhaps “trained in.” But I don’t think its possible for you to come into a seminar and leave 45 minutes more differentiated. Motivated to be more differentiated but not so yet.
Reading this book I had the sense of, “it all comes down to this. The missing piece I’ve been looking for in leadership is this!” Of course I’ve read a handful of books that have made me feel the same thing, and a read many who have outright said they were the same thing. Most similarly is the book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey. He actually does talk these idea of individuation, have personal clarity and self-visualization. My practice of having clear life goals and a life vision has come from Covey.
Getting caught in the anxiety of others peoples in between. Leaders can resist being in the triangle which can influence others. Differentiated leaders can tolerate other people’s anxiousness. They can diffuse anxiety. Even in reactionary situations that can exude a calm steady presence. I think of the parent who hears from their child, she got drunk last night. “WHAT, I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU WOULD DO THAT!?” This is emotional and reactionary and even shows a lack of maturity. You do not need to react to other people’s reaction.
A few other key takeaways that will have a lasting effect on me are.
burnout is not caused from overworking, but from getting caught in other peoples triangles.
- To grow as a leader I often look for more insight, knowledge and practice. I love the discussion questions that was presented in this book, “If you saw leadership as primarily about your presence, not about skill or technique or know-how – what would change?
- Personally I would change how I go about my training. I would read less and reflect more.
- For myself as I leader, I would meditate more and mentally prepare and visualize through more meetings.
- For my work, I would help interns prepare and visualize how they want to come across as a leader. When they fail I will help them reimagine and walk them through how they should have responded in that situation.
- For my dissertation, I am considering how to systemizes the development of leadership presence. I think meditation and visualization as STEVEN COVEY 7 habits of highly effective people
- Overall I would do more of what I am doing right now as I write this. Think through what I would do if, ___________, and then fill in the blank.
But this DMIN program has also helped me see how reading is not enough. With this book I’ve only gotten to the place of data accumulation, and not Deep Change. I have read this book and written down some neat ideas, but I have the conviction I need to truly implement and internalize this into my life to truly be someone who can resist and repel anxiety.
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