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

Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

Written by: on October 8, 2021

In 1955 Peter Seger wrote and sang:

Where have all the flowers gone?

Long time passing…

Oh, When will you ever learn?

Oh, When will you ever learn?[1]

In the totality of his song, Seger lamented the enduring reality of war and suffering across our globe, in every age of humankind.  “When will you ever learn?” is a question of yearning, the long-held hope for peace that yet remains unfulfilled. In reading Friedman’s, A Failure of Nerve, I could hear echoes of Seger’s lyrics running through my head with a slight revision:

Where have all the leaders gone?

Long time passing…

Oh, When will you ever learn?

Oh, When will you ever learn?

Friedman also lived and died with a long-held hope for something that yet remains unfilled—enough well-differentiated leaders to inoculate contemporary American culture against the toxic, reactive, and chronic anxiety that overwhelms society, institutions of all types, and families across the nation. In a thorough introduction, eight densely written chapters, and a not fully developed epilogue, Friedman develops his argument for why it is a leader’s differentiated being and presence that will most effectively bring about transformational change and health in all of the emotional (instinctual) processes of the relationship systems in which that leader is a part—family, work, and society. Along the way he also writes an incisive analysis of what has gone wrong in American society and elucidates the challenging work of becoming a well-differentiated leader. It is not a journey for the faint of heart.

(As an aside, I do wonder how his analysis and historical references might be received by non-European heritage societies…especially those societies and peoples who have literally borne the burden and paid the price of my European forebears’ spirit of adventure to move past the edge of their known world. I get the point he is making about the spirit of adventure–and its current lack in American leadership, but there is also a cost to adventure that seems wise for effective leaders to keep in mind, costs that have multi-generational and negative systemic impact, even as it has the potential of bringing good.)

I found myself arguing most with Friedman over his initial analysis of empathy. He writes, “A leader must separate his or her own emotional being from that of his or her followers while still remaining connected.”[2] I whole-heartedly agree with this statement. I have lived through the pain of enmeshment and I have witnessed the carnage it brings to both the leader’s family and the institution being led by that leader. I’ve been working on self-differentiation for most of my adult life, a journey that will continue for the rest of my life.

But then in Chapter Four, he begins to unpack the ways in which empathy disempowers personal responsibility, thus contributing to toxic, reactive, chronic anxiety. Herein lies my confusion and thus the heart of my argument with Friedman. I experience empathy to be central to remaining connected in situations where I’m faced with enduring the storm of an individual’s or group’s chronic anxiety. It is empathy that allows me to see their pain and humanity and yet remain non-anxious (or at least less anxious) in the storm. The journey of differentiation thus far has taught me that I don’t need to take on their anxiety (become enmeshed). It has taught me that I can’t solve their anxiety—that work belongs to either the individual or the group, i.e., it is their responsibility and choice.  But empathy gives me the capacity to stay connected without becoming exhausted. It may be the limitations of an inspectional reading that leaves this argument unresolved. Perhaps a deeper dive into the book will help me to better understand Friedman’s definition of empathy.  Perhaps what he is getting at is the danger of enmeshment or something similar. If that is the case, then I am able to agree with him over how enmeshment or a parallel definition of empathy can disempower personal responsibility.

Friedman’s initial analysis of empathy also raises questions for me about the role of compassion and proximity in leadership.  Both of these leadership practices featured prominently in the Advance presentations and discussions. Both compassion and proximity also hold tremendous theological freight. In Scripture I see the compassion of Jesus Christ through a multitude of his actions. I see proximity in his assurance that he will be with us through the Holy Spirit until the end of this age. Jesus’ posture of differentiated compassion and commitment to being proximate speak to staying connected. This is the very tension articulated by Friedman—a leader is most effective when differentiated but remaining connected. But what animates connection? This is where I believe compassion and empathy, very closely related capacities, can play an important and healthy role. I’m motivated to more deeply read Friedman’s work. My curiosity about this apparent tension won’t let me rest until I do.

[1] Pete Seeger – Where Have All the Flowers Gone? n.d. Accessed October 7, 2021. https://genius.com/Pete-seeger-where-have-all-the-flowers-gone-lyrics.

[2] Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve (Kindle Location 504). Church Publishing Inc. Kindle Edition.

About the Author

Elmarie Parker

16 responses to “Where Have All the Leaders Gone?”

  1. mm Eric Basye says:

    Thank you for your thoughts! I too noticed that about his thoughts on empathy. In fact, I emailed Dr. Clark with a comment, wondering what Brene Brown might think about his position! It would be a very interesting conversation!

  2. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Elmarie, your post made me think long and hard about how much to today’s toxic culture, including toxic leadership, is due to undifferentiated leaders. I also appreciated your take on the “spirit of adventure” used by Friedman as an illustration for the good. Those examples are not universally accepted as positive. I can still remember the first time Columbus Day was termed an invasion rather than a discovery. I, too, wonder where legitimate empathy becomes enmeshment. Friedman sounds like his empathy would manifest more often than not as “tough love.”

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Roy, for your feedback. I find it an interesting coincidence that we will be discussing Friedman’s book on Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples Day. Your ‘tough love’ comment is a helpful reframe for me. Thank you.

  3. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Elmarie, I absolutely loved reading your reflection on Friedman. You brought up several interesting perspectives. I especially appreciated your questioning of the cost of adventure and the role of proximity and compassion. It is such an interesting concept to see play out when you do have a well-differentiated leader that still can have a presence to the point that they have a pulse on the heartbeat of those they lead. I’d love to hear more as you explore the tensions you discovered this week.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Kayli. Your comment, “…a well-differentiated leader that still can have a presence to the point that they have a pulse on the heartbeat of those they lead” has caught my imagination. Thank you for that.

  4. mm Henry Gwani says:

    Elmarie, an excellent piece as usual. Friedman very modestly limited his comments to the American society, but I think his observations apply so aptly to several other places. Unfortunately, the Nigerian and South African contexts, where I was born and where I currently reside, suffer from a very similar toxicity to what inspired Friedman to write his remarkable book. We too need self-differentiated leaders who steer the affairs of their families. churches, companies and government establishments with integrity, courage and calmness in the face of mediocrity, corruption and the other giants confronting our world.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Henry, for contextualizing Friedman’s thoughts to your context. It’s valuable to me to hear how his thinking is heard in a space outside of the USA. It helps me to better appreciate what may be a “universal” principal and what may be context specific. In what ways do you think self-differentiation may be embodied in similar or different ways in your context versus a USA context?

  5. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Elmarie, Your connection to the Seger song made me smile knowingly in the lyric change you made. I too imagine the question of where have all the leaders gone could be what inspired Friedman to unearth answers. Living into a self-differentiated state of being is difficult when ones buttons are pushed.
    Your push back on empathy is one area I too struggled to make sense. Your hunch that if you did a deeper dive into his book you might have an inclination to embrace his thought probably would be accurate. Friedman engages this subject in the context of a hostile environment. I think this is an important distinction. I hear him saying that in the midst of chronic/hostile environment, being empathetic in leadership will not shift the self-awareness of participants. Remember he has the hope that leaders will behave in a way that the system will rise to that level and empathy in the anxious system will not accomplish that goal. As I read page 146 I finally got a sense of Shelby Steeles argument in Shame. I wonder if you are like me in that my initial reading of Friedman’s notion own empathy caused it’s on anxiety within myself. I had to ask why that was. Friedmans work on connecting biology of malignant cells to hostile environments blew my mind and offered a new way of understanding how to be connected (balanced empathy) while being poignantly self-aware.
    I am interested in the question you raise about contexts outside of the US (and I was appreciative of Henry’s thought on this). But I wonder if you already have a reflection to your question from your Lebanon context? Could you share your experience?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Nicole, for your thoughtful engagement with my post. I really appreciate you sharing some of what struck you in your deeper dive into Friedman, especially around the empathy question. The context of a hostile environment not being changeable through empathy is helpful to understand. I do wonder, however, what leads to the creation of a hostile environment. I’ll take a closer look at the pages you referenced and see what I discover. I think part of what raised it as a question for me is being in an experience with a colleague who shows very little to no empathy. She has excellent technical skills, but not a lot of empathy and she is in the role of personnel director. The way she shows up leaves me feeling weary, disconnected from my organization, and sad about that.

      Regarding my context comment (thank you for asking), I was mostly thinking about friends in the African American, Caribbean, Chinese-American, South and Central American and Indigenous American community whose ancestors literally bore the burden and paid the costs of European and European-American discovery and adventure movements. The generational impact is massive and the systemic emotional pain realities for the USA are abundantly evident. I wrestle with what is appropriate shame over wrong-doing (it seems to me that shame–not toxic shame–is one of the graces God gives to let us know when we’ve really messed up in a relationship) and how we go about seeking restorative reconciliation that sets everyone free (that isn’t cheap grace) (I need to spend more time with Augustine). I realize it’s a complex dynamic when one gets into generational pain. It’s complex when one is working with just one family. It’s overwhelmingly complex when dealing with over 300 million people, each with a different history. I think this can only happen in one local community at a time.

      In regards to the Middle Eastern countries to which I most closely relate, USG adventurism has taken on more of a militaristic tone in close collaboration with American international corporations/capitalism since WWII (as it has in many other places around the world), with a focus on securing resources we need to keep our own standard of living at one of the highest levels on the planet and/or to press a US-driven agenda.

      I think the adventurers of the 1400’s forward were also economically driven, supported by their militaries, and by the church of those eras (really scary to read some of the church documents from that time-period). As Jason reminded us during our Advance, there is nothing new under the sun.

      But, for me, I believe there is still a discipleship invitation I must engage…what does it look like to pray, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven, and be part of incarnating the divine realm and reign of God here on earth through the power of the Holy Spirit? Other generations have done that by force. We’re living with the consequences of that now. I’m hoping I can keep learning from Jesus what this invitation means for me and our generation. I’ve no doubt I have made and will make costly mistakes, but hopefully they will be different mistakes from my predecessors and I’ll have learned something helpful from their journeys.

      I’ve heard from many in Iraq–we wish we had no oil in our country so that the USA and Europe would leave us alone. And, of course, the USG has confiscated Syria’s oil fields, leaving Syrians unable to supply their own country with the fuel it needs (and has always been self-sufficient to supply) to allow people to heat their homes during Syria’s very cold winters. It’s painful to me to see first-hand what has been done in my name by my government.

      • mm Nicole Richardson says:

        Elmarie, your wondering about what creates a hostile environment is always an important part of research I quess…and I imagine has several facets depending on the organism in question. As I was reading his section on RISK AND REALITY starting on page 48 I started hearing “FEAR” in place of “emotional barriers” being an agent in what causes anxiety. On Page 59 he talks about systems avoiding pain and craving comfort. I see this also as elements in the creation of hostile environments.

        There is so much to unpack in your response!! I hear the frustration/pain/yearning in your words. Friedman would have some push back on the notion of “generational impact” in regard to outside forces on the organism. He says that the impact comes from within in how the organism handles the tension between individuality and togetherness and the ability of that system to maintain their integrity while dealing with the crisis. BTW… integrity is used by Friedman not with a ethical or moral meaning but in terms of the wholeness/strength of the unit…like the integrity of a piece of metal being able to keep its strength and not have a catastrophic fail.

        • Elmarie Parker says:

          Thank you, Nicole, for continuing this conversation. I really appreciate your careful reading of Friedman and your invaluable insights. I need to take that deeper dive with him :). I’m looking forward to further conversation.

  6. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Elmaire, thanks so much for sharing your perspective. I too, was very much in conflict over Friedman’s apparent opposition to empathy. I am still wrestling with it as well. I agree with you that overindulged empathy can rob the individual or group from the energy & responsibility to resolve their own situation. I wonder if empathy is the agent that creates an environment for engagement but we cannot stay there if we desire to move forward? I’m also interested in hearing more about the costs you were referring to earlier in you post.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Denise, for sharing your own wrestling with the dynamic of empathy. Your question is thought provoking to me: “I wonder if empathy is the agent that creates an environment for engagement but we cannot stay there if we desire to move forward?” My experiences leads me to think that yes, we cannot stay there…at some point we, and those with whom we are working, must ask, “Now what?” “Is this working for us?” “If not, then what tangible steps are we willing to commit ourselves to in order to move to a better place?” “And what is that better place?” “What steps will help us to move there?”

      I suppose the challenge lies in what to do when people respond to the initial questions with, “We’re fine here. We like this brick wall we are continuing to slam into.” My challenge at that point is how to self-differentiate and allow them the room to keep running into the brick wall AND stay connected to them. What are your thoughts on that part of the journey?

      Thank you too for your interest in hearing more about the ‘costs’ comment I made. Take a look at my reply to Nicole’s feedback above. I’d love to talk further.

  7. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Elmarie: I think you talked about good insights about the ramifications of Friedman’s ideas on empathy and leadership. When I first read Friedman’s ideas on empathy, I had similar a reaction. Taken to an extreme, it can sound cold and harsh. But he doesn’t take it to an extreme and really brings some good points that Leaders must understand. There is a lot of subtlety and nuance in his ideas of empathy. There is also tension, like you noticed, and that tension is unavoidable. We all have to learn with the tension and navigate it skillfully.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Troy, for engaging with my post. It sounds like you were able to do a deeper dive on Friedman’s empathy ideas. I’d value hearing your take on his subtlety and nuance around the practice of empathy, and the points you found helpful for leaders to understand.

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