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

A Failure of Definition…

Written by: on February 23, 2023

I was particularly interested in reading Friedman’s Failure of Nerve for two reasons: First, it is another book in our reading list that is specifically related to leadership (see previous post on Leadersmithing). Second, my daughter recently committed to a university to play volleyball and her future coach named A Failure of Nerve as one of his favourite books on leadership, so I was curious to see what sort of mentor my daughter would have for the next five years! I was generally encouraged by what I read!

Before I dive into some comments, it is worth noting how many obvious connections there are between Friedman’s book and some of our previous readings. These include:

• Chapter One: Imaginative Gridlock and the Spirit of Adventure has clear associations with Threshold concepts . Friedman describes the expedition that crossed the equator as ‘breaking an emotional barrier’ (pg. 47) which created a new understanding of the world and opened up global expeditions.(1)

• On page 43, Friedman suggests that it is ineffective to, “perpetually seek[ing] new answers to established questions rather than reframing the basic question itself.” In this respect he is essentially providing a different sub-title to Wedell-Wedellsborg’s book, “What’s your Problem? To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve.” (2)

• On page 113 Friedman reports some of the faulty or misleading statistical communication that can take place to grab a headline, echoing one of Chivers and Chivers primary points in their book, “How to Read Numbers.” (3)

Now…an appreciative comment and a concern as I read Failure of Nerve:

A Comment: As someone who plans to focus a good portion of my NPO research on the importance of an emotionally healthy leader, I certainly appreciated Friedman’s primary assertion that ‘differentiated leadership’ is the most important quality of an effective leader. While Friedman often had a unique way of describing the unhealth of a leader, he was often touching on essential elements such as healthy boundaries, not being a people pleaser or a conflict avoider, and not accommodating unhealth within relational systems. Each of these critical elements describe the healthy inner life of a leader and it reminded me of a couple other ‘classic’ books that address these critical issues:

Boundaries: When to Say Yes, When to Say No to Take Control of Your Life (Henry Cloud & John Townsend)

The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Team, and the World (Peter Scazzero)

A Concern: In my view, Friedman unnecessarily diminishes, or even disparages, the concept of empathy, when his actual concern is how empathy is being used or weaponized by our current culture. He says as much on page 146: “It is possible, of course, to define empathy in a way that tries to nullify these effects, but I am concerned here not with the “true” meaning of the word empathy but with its use, and thus with what it has come to mean.” (4)

I’m not sure this approach is fair, and it may even be misleading. While Friedman has clearly declared his intent in the above quote, it would be quite easy for the reader to conclude that ‘empathy’ (as his short-hand expression to mean, “empathy as it is now being used by some in our culture”) is not a good thing when, in fact, it is the “how it is now being used in our culture” that is the primary problem. I believe that this distinction gets obscured throughout his book, and many readers could finish the last page and have an unfairly pejorative view of empathy (and probably couldn’t actually define the term).

If I understand Friedman correctly and could summarize in my own words: Friedman is concerned with empathy being a ‘destination’ where people identify and stay as victims, and the rest of us (family or society) must then accommodate this person in that place without any kind of ‘ask’ or responsibility being expected of them. I suspect many of us would agree with Friedman’s concern in this respect—and this ‘weaponization’ of empathy and the ‘forced acceptance’ of a person with no ability to challenge or invite them to enact agency has only gotten worse since he wrote this book.

However, I do not believe the answer is to ‘cancel’ empathy as an important concept and stick with compassion instead. My wife, a Registered Clinical Counsellor and the creator of a Trauma-based response for the only workers compensation company in the province of British Columbia, would argue quite convincingly (and quite strongly I might add!) that empathy is one of the most important characteristics for insurance agents to possess as they interact with injured workers. Until these traumatized workers feel heard, their brains are literally unable to interact in productive ways. Far from being a ‘destination point’ where we all adjust to the most dysfunctional, empathy opens the door to meaningful conversation where important topics like responsibility can meaningfully take place. My wife would be able to add 22 footnotes on recent papers and studies that are beginning to statistically bear this truth out (if you can trust statistics!). I don’t have any….but I’ll footnote my wife! (5)

That being said, my primary point is not to argue whether empathy is essential or not (My undergrad Psychology class remains my lowest grade in my post-secondary studies!)….it’s to challenge Friedman throwing the baby (the actual definition and goodness/power of an empathetic response from one person to another) out with the bathwater (how people are tempted to use the word/concept to avoid responsibility). While I enjoyed his book and agreed with much of its content, I would have appreciated it even more if he appropriately differentiated the term from the popular use throughout his book.

(1) Meyer, J., & Land, R. Overcoming Barriers to Student Understanding: Threshold concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: Linkages to Ways of Thinking and Practicing within the Disciplines. New York, Routledge, 2006

(2) Wedell-Wedellsborg, Thomas. What’s Your Problem?: To Solve Your Toughest Problems, Change the Problems You Solve. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2020.

(3) Chivers, Tom, and David Chivers. How to Read Numbers: A Guide to Statistics in the News (and Knowing When to Trust Them), 2021.

(4) Friedman, Edwin H., Margaret M. Treadwell, and Edward W. Beal. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. 10th anniversary revised edition. New York: Church Publishing, 2017. 146

(5) Tracey Dickie….really smart and even more effective at moving people from un-health to more healthy

About the Author

Scott Dickie

6 responses to “A Failure of Definition…”

  1. Travis Vaughn says:

    Excellent post, Scott. I’m curious if you’ve read Kim Sanford’s post, yet, as she expressed some pushback on Friedman’s take on empathy, too.

    By the way, congrats on your daughter committing to play volleyball at the university (whatever one that might be).

    I’ve recommended to one of the organizations that I serve on the board of to add Failure of Nerve to their reading list as part of their curriculum. That being said, my reading of Friedman was quite inspectional, and I’d like to go back and dig deeper in his discussion on Empathy, especially now after reading your post and Kim Sanford’s.

    • Scott Dickie says:

      Thanks Travis,

      Pumped that our daughter chose a university close to home so we can watch her play live (rather than heading across the country or down to your country). She committed to Trinity Western University, which is one of the few Christian Universities up in Canada…it’s small, but they have the number one women’s volleyball program in Canada…so it’s a win all round in our view.

      Now re: the actual book. I liked it and agree with a lot of the concerns he raised. I just don’t think ’empathy’ is the problem, but how that concept is being employed. I could think of a similar situation with the word ‘love’ right now. Our culture increasingly uses it to mean, “accepting everyone without any boundaries or limits”…but I wouldn’t begin to say ‘love is the problem’…and I believe Friedman essentially does this with the term empathy.

      I haven’t read Kims blog yet…but I will!

  2. mm Jonita Fair-Payton says:

    Your post is incredible, Scott. I really like the way it is organized and how you included similar concepts from previous books we’ve read. Great Job! There are some things in this book that hit me in the gut…spoke directly to this season in my life. I agree with you, I believe that Friedman misses the mark with empathy. Empathy is not the problem; I believe we need more of it.

  3. Jenny Dooley says:

    Hi Scott, thank your for the clarity of your thoughts and for mentioning the books by Cloud, Townsend, and Scazzero. All their books are great and mine are well-worn!
    I appreciate this summarizing statement,
    “Friedman is concerned with empathy being a ‘destination’ where people identify and stay as victims, and the rest of us (family or society) must then accommodate this person in that place without any kind of ‘ask’ or responsibility being expected of them.” I agree. Empathy is something we offer voluntarily. It should not be coerced or manipulated out of us or overused to keep the peace. Empathy requires maintaining good boundaries or it becomes something else… co-dependence and potentially a threat to safety. We can be empathetic and still walk with other’s as they face the consequences of their actions. Your wife’s work sounds amazing!

  4. Scott, I could not have said it any better than you or your wonderful wife: Yes empathy is essential and necessary. In fact, abused or traumatized people do not care how much a person knows about abuse, trauma, or mental health. They want to know if the person truly cares (has empathy). Simply because the person who hurt them did not have empathy. I definitely disagreed with Friedman in this area!

  5. mm Tim Clark says:

    I wonder Scott, if Friedman is talking about empathy itself, and not just as is being used by some in our culture? I like your assessment and it would be easier to swallow, but I get sense that he may actually be trying to “cancel” empathy for leaders in the sense that trying to step into someones pain creates a lack of self-differentiation and may cause leaders to pull back in leadership because we don’t want to hurt people.

    I’d be happy to be proven wrong about how I’m reading Friedman if I’ve missed something.

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