Edwin Friedman’s work A Failure of Nerve offers a paradigm shift in the approach to healthy leadership. Responding to the cultural inflation of empathy, Friedman suggest that healthy systems are cultivated by self-differentiated leaders who value maturity over data, instinct over technique and individual responsibility over empathy. Undifferentiated leaders perpetuate systems of anxiety, reactivity, and triangulated homogeneous togetherness – ultimately these systems appeal to the “squeaky wheel,” rarely develop their potential, and eventually meltdown. Near the end of the book, Friedman writes on emotional triangles, which bring stability and substance to systems enduring a leadership vacuum. He suggests that leaders, “[…] use their symptoms (desires, heightened drives, imbalanced impulses) as early warning signals that they are in an emotional triangle […]” (223). These emotional triangles are an indicator that the system is not orbiting an ethos of differentiation, but enmeshment parading as empathy.
I agree with Friedman’s assessment of empathy broadly speaking. In different words he writes that differentiated leadership can seem authoritarian to a system whose highest value is empathy. Yet he distinguishes differentiation from. Friedman uses the term self the way Jungian psychoanalysis use the term ego. A well differentiated ego promotes systemic health and makes room for others, which is the opposite of an undifferentiated egotistical narcissist who obliterates others in order to compensate for his weak center. I am curious what Friedman would say about the role of community and accountability in the ongoing work of differentiation for leaders. It seems differentiation is not a point one reaches, but a way one commits oneself to in the context of vulnerable, challenging, and relatively safe community. However, if a leader approaches differentiation as an arrival point, curiosity dies and the system regresses into an unevolved anxious-togetherness. This is a common archetypal pattern where the grassroots charismatic leader rises to the level of demigod and outgrows self-reflection, collective critique, and becomes over differentiated. It seems over-differentiation in leadership results in indifference toward the needs of its members. Perhaps this is at the root of Westerners collective skepticism of leadership.
I am drawn particularly toward Friedman’s work around the role of empathy in systems. It seems Friedman associates the heightened need for empathy with the collective masses, and that leaders must resist the temptation to employ empathy where a call toward responsibility and challenge is needed. This is valid in many cases, but my experiences has often been that leaders, particularly white, male, Christian leaders, use empathy as a “power tool” to manipulate underlings toward stasis, maintain power, and avoid change. Friedman writes, “[…] empathy may be a luxury afforded only to those who do not have to make tough decisions. For “touch decisions” are decisions the consequences of which will be painful to others” (137). I agree in theory, but many leaders and decision makers in systems built around persona-restoring Christian values (values that are culturally accepted as “Christian” but are not substantiated by scripture, reason, or healthy sociology) have the luxury of avoiding conflict thereby dispersing anxiety toward their members. When this is done, leaders are able to lead with a feigned empathy that perpetuates the anxious system and gaslights those who feel alternative decisiveness is needed.
I know of one such leader who cries each time he has to make a hard decision. Reflection from former underlings collaborates that tears, coming from such a place of authority, manipulate the situation in such a way that those receiving hard feedback are made to choose between caretaking or responding coldly to their supervisor. Leaders who cultivate this kind of organization typically create workflows and reporting structures that keep them oblivious to the cultural anxiety by deflecting it back down the reporting chain. Friedman speak extensively of saboteurs who seek to dismantle and discredit leadership, and even goes as far as to say that these attempts are a sign of the differentiation process is working. However, I’ve also seen this as a sign of indifference toward injustice, birthed out of a desire to maintain the status quo, stay in the womb of togetherness and avoid curiosity, imagination and the possibility of “new land.”
Friedman’s work informs and substantiates my work around the need for shadow integration and the archetype of initiation. At a high level he confirms the need for wholistic formation among leaders. Talent acquisition within Christian circles is often bias toward charisma, technique and empathy, values which perpetuate anxious systems. Those promoted to places of leadership with such systems have the rocket busters to achieve thrust, but rarely do they have the presence to lead for the long-haul. Leaders who learned to play the game of capitalism must return to their unpopular shadows and integrate them – what the ego has segregated must be reintegrated for the purpose of differentiation. Those who have been promoted due to their harmonious nature must learn to have healthy conflict, and those who have been rewarded for their tears must learn to make hard decisions and live with the consequences. Jungians call this individuation – the state of being fully differentiated yet fully present to one’s world.