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

Thoughts from the Grave

Written by: on October 17, 2019

A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix was written ten years after Edwin Friedman’s death by permission of his family trust along with the editorial work of Margaret W. Treadwell and Edward W. Beal.[1] At its core, the book is an attempt to apply the societal regression theory of Murray Bowen to the practice of leadership in any current setting.[2] And this is what makes the book interesting to me as I work with leaders in multiple social contexts.

Failure of Nerve is essentially family therapy on steroids; a new way of thinking about modern leadership in conflicted times. As a result, there are some brilliant sociological and therapeutic insights not seen in other leadership books: namely the explicit emphasis on how leadership often propagates community dysfunction and immaturity in the same way it occurs in families. The root of that failure, claims Friedman, is the inclination of leaders (in troubled times) to accommodate immaturity within the herd, which is simply “a failure of nerve.”[3] Yet this is a modern experience only. Friedman contrasts social accommodation with the quantum leap that occurred around the year 1500. At that time, a complete reorientation to reality resulted from the nerve of the great navigators who led the way for Western civilisation out of the imaginative gridlock of the medieval period. I found the three aspects of gridlock remarkably similar to current leadership approaches: amateur and professional.[4]

  • An unending treadmill of trying harder.
  • Looking for answers rather than reframing questions.
  • Either/or thinking that creates false dichotomies.

Friedman points to leaders such as Columbus, Michelangelo, DaVinci, Drake, Shakespeare, and Cervantes as antithetical examples of gridlock thinking that changed the world;[5] people he claims shared five characteristics:[6]

  1. A capacity to get outside the emotional climate of the day
  2. A willingness to be exposed and vulnerable
  3. Persistence in the face of resistance and downright rejection
  4. Stamina in the face of sabotage along the way
  5. A perception (by others) as being “headstrong” and “ruthless.”

By comparison, Friedman suggests the atmosphere of modern America has become so chronically anxious that they are in an emotional regression that is toxic to well-defined leadership.[7] This kind of over sensitive gridlock can only be diffused by leaders with the aptitude and capacity to perform well when the world about them is both disoriented and transfixed by a particular way of thinking. In the introduction, Friedman presents his leadership thesis: the need for clarity and decisiveness in a civilisation that inhibits the development of leaders with clarity and determination. The rest of the book unpacks the need for leaders who question the widespread “triumphing of data over maturity, technique over stamina, and empathy over personal responsibility”.[8] He argues for an emphasis on strength, not pathology;[9] on the challenge, not comfort;[10] on self-differentiation, not herding for togetherness. Such leadership is not for those who prefer peace to progress.[11] It is not for those who confuse a well-defined stand for unadulterated coercion.[12] It is not for those who fail to see how, in any family or institution, a constant concern for consensus leverages power to the extremists.[13] Moreover, it is not for those who lack the nerve to venture out of the calm eye of good feelings and togetherness and weather the storm of protest that inevitably surrounds a leader’s self-definition.[14]

Friedman uses the label of the “well-differentiated leader”. By this, he means someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals and is, therefore, less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. A well-differentiated leader can separate while remaining connected, maintaining a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence.[15] All this reminded me of Brene Brown’s work, Dare to Lead[16] and Vulnerability[17] because they encourage the leader toward a form vulnerability that can only be fully established in a strong sense of self among the herd.

The first five chapters of the book are well developed, but the remaining chapters are not so clear. I imagine that is because Friedman died, and the work was completed by others. However, despite this, some insights connect well with the early parts of the book that I suspect are Friedman’s notes from his application of Bowen’s theories.

What draws me to this work is the apparent challenge to popular notions of leadership drawn from pragmatism, personality theories and excesses of the social sciences. Concepts of Social Regression have given me pause for thought alongside the ideas of togetherness, separateness and differentiation. Of course, the greatest challenge is dealing with the concept of Self as it relates to leadership in emotional systems.

Because the book was never finished, there are some glaring holes. There are several places where the author references other works and examples which are unsubstantiated. Actually, there are no references at all in my version. In the 2007 publication, there are even references to other possible chapters that never came to be.

However, this is possibly one of the best books I have read on leadership. Not because I agree with everything it says, I don’t. Instead, it is impressive because it gets to the root of leaderships most significant problems: a leaders self-perceptions and differentiation alongside their people groups and those group capacities to ward dysfunction through blame displacement and herd accommodation of immaturity for comfort. An ageing friend of mine (he’s much older, so perhaps mentor is more appropriate) said, “in his experience, churches are always at their happiest in slow, dysfunctional decline.” I wonder if he met Friedman?



[1] Edwin H Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, ed. Margaret M Treadwell and Edward W Beal, 10th Anniversary Kindle ed. (New York: Church Publishing, 2017).

[2] Michael E Kerr, “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory,” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, 2000, https://thebowencenter.org/theory/.

[3] Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. 1167

[4] Ibid. 792

[5] Ibid. 749

[6] Ibid. 3692

[7] Ibid. 1150

[8] Ibid. 173-191

[9] Ibid. 1712ff

[10] Ibid. 1150

[11] Ibid. 3243

[12] Ibid. 2659

[13] Ibid. 1458ff

[14] Ibid. 191-220

[15] Ibid. 4491ff

[16] Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts., Kindle ed. (London: Vermillion, 2018).

[17] Brené Brown, “Vulnerability,” TED Talks, 2010, Accessed April 2019, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.



Brown, Brené. “Vulnerability.” Last modified 2010, Accessed April 2019, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.

———. Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Kindle ed. London: Vermillion, 2018.

Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. 10th Anniversary Kindle ed. ed. Margaret M Treadwell, and Edward W Beal. New York: Church Publishing, 2017.

Kerr, Michael E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” Last modified https://thebowencenter.org/theory/.

About the Author

Digby Wilkinson

I am currently the Vicar of the Tawa Anglican Church in Wellington, New Zealand. I have only been in this role since February 2018. Prior to this appointment, I was the Dean of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul, which made me the senior priest of the diocese working alongside the Bishop. I guess from an American perspective this makes me look decidedly Episcopalian, however my ministry background and training was among the Baptists. Consequently, I have been serving as pastor/priest for nearly thirty years. My wife Jane also trained for ministry, and has spent the last decade spiritually directing and supervising church leaders from different denominations. We have three grown children.

7 responses to “Thoughts from the Grave”

  1. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Digby, clearly you liked this one! I find it interesting to note that the majority of the leaders Friedman lifts up were often chastised and rejected during their day, yet are revered and championed now. They all valiantly “weathered the storm.” Thanks!

    • … hahaha, that is unless you come from a particular political persuasion that would rather see Columbus Day be replaced by Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Funny how this all coincided with both our readings: Frankopan and Friedman.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Of course I liked it. No big words. No footnotes. No bibliography. My kind of book. I thought it might a little childish to critique its lack of pictures.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Yes, Jacob, they did. History seems to be littered with people who forged ahead against the dysfunction of the day. I don’t know if I’m that brave, but age does tend to put the illusions of social and professional success in perspective. Sometimes we just need to do what we know we needs to be done. But who challenges our assumptions? It was covered ethically in a very general way in the book, but I would like to think more about that. There’s a fine line between being one of history’s unsung heroes and just another tyrant.

  2. Thank you Digby, I concur that it’s obvious that you liked the book and took time reading thoroughly. It’s a big help for me and I’ll keep it as part of my frequent reads.

  3. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    For you to state, “…, this is possibly one of the best books I have read on leadership.” is quite an endorsement. While I think you did a great job of pointing out the gaps and rough edges perhaps due to Friedman not personally overseeing this publication, what would be companion volumes that would flesh out some of this source’s holes? Friedman’s focus on self-differentiated leadership caught my attention as I think he is truly addressing hope for leadership on the ocean of angst that is pandemic in the West. Again, I appreciate your pastoral insights.

    • Digby Wilkinson says:

      Hi Harry. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I did enjoy the book, but mainly for the reason I stated, it’s the first leadership book to address the chaos of human dysfunction and the issues leaders face in that dysfunction. The idea of the importance of leadership differentiation isn’t popular these days as leaders often feel they need to subsume themselves into the whole, which generally means consensus thinking, which is all about comfort. That much I liked. Where the book doesn’t go well, is to address the ethics of that kind of differentiation. It is covered, but there is little detail in the complexity of knowing how to juggle that differentiation in a politicised environment. I guess that’s because a lot has changed in the last decade. I also have some questions around his platforms for determining an ethical leadership mandate, and more particularly, cross-cultural mandates when determining what dysfunction looks like and how to respond. Where do the rights of individuals feature? Do they need to feature at all, and if not, who decides? It’s one of those books that needs a lot more consideration than I gave it. But it did resonate for me around attending to dysfunction and social regression.

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