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

You Can’t Lead if Others Aren’t Following

Written by: on October 6, 2021

Edwin Friedman was a man of many hats – an ordained rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant, to name a few. As part of his work, A Failure of Nerve was birthed to give insight into the leadership crisis he witnessed throughout his work. Two decades later, this book is as relevant now as it was then. He writes, “People cannot hear you unless they are moving toward you.”[1] Regardless of your title, genuine leadership is influence. Thus, you can’t lead others if they aren’t following you. In light of my work, to seek the flourishing of vulnerable communities, so much of which hinges on leadership development, I will highlight three fundamental principles.

First, Friedman claims that for an individual to lead well, a priority must be given to the wellness of the self. If an individual is not healthy, they will be incapable of effectively leading others. He writes, “What stood out from the very beginning is that to the extent leaders are successful in their differentiating efforts in their own family of origin, there is immediate carry-over to their functioning in the organizations (or families) they lead.”[2] In my experience of Christian leadership for over two decades, what is typically emphasized are concepts such as servant leadership, conflict resolution, vision casting, compelling communication, and the like. Most of these points of emphasis are outward-oriented, neglecting the weightier matters of self-development. While these leadership concepts are undoubtedly essential and Christ-like, unless a leader prioritizes their health and development, according to Friedman, they will be ineffective in leading.

Two, Friedman provides five characteristics of anxious leadership; leaders who are incapable of effectively leading for various reasons. Of these reasons, these leaders tend to be reactive in a vicious cycle of negative responses; be led astray by a herding mentality and follow ill-guided persons; quick to blame others rather than accept responsibility; settle for quick-fix solutions; and as a result, fail to function as self-differentiated leaders. Self-differentiated leaders are those with the ability to lead for the good of the whole. These leaders can separate themselves from the pitfalls of their context, maintain clarity and vision, demonstrate vulnerability, are long-suffering in difficulty, and be able to regulate their responses.[3]

Lastly, in addressing social dilemmas that result from chronic anxiousness, Friedman claims that when families and systems get fixed on problematic symptoms rather than focusing on the root emotional hindrance, “they will recycle their problems perpetually no matter what technical changes they make, how much advice they receive from experts, or how hard they try to understand their symptoms.”[4] Friedman continues, “The same is the case when an entire society stays focused on the acute symptoms of its chronic anxiety – violence, drugs, crime, ethnic and gender polarization, economic factors such as inflation and unemployment, bureaucratic obstruction, an entangling tax code, and so on – rather than on the emotional processes.”[5] As a result, “the society will continue to recycle its problems” no matter what solutions they attempt to provide.[6] In the context of our target neighborhood, a low-income and marginalized community, I have witnessed this firsthand as Billings’ city leaders have sought to offer symptom-based solutions to the rampant increase in homelessness, mental illness, as well as drug and alcohol addiction. Unfortunately, this approach has done very little to positively impact struggling individuals or the community.

[1] Edwin H. Friedman, 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), 215.

[2] Ibid., 22.

[3] Ibid., 96–97.

[4] Ibid., 66–67.

[5] Ibid., 67.

[6] Ibid.

About the Author


Eric Basye

Disciple, husband, and father, committed to seeking shalom.

4 responses to “You Can’t Lead if Others Aren’t Following”

  1. mm Andy Hale says:

    Self-development, what a fantastic takeaway. How often do we pour so much into others that we fail to consider our personal growth?

    I’m reminded of the airline safety announcement to put the air mask on yourself first before assisting others. How often do we, as Christian leaders, out of righteous piety, invest so much in the care of others that we’ve left nothing to enhance our capacity? Didn’t Jesus get away to pray, heal, and grow?

  2. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Eric, I totally agree with your definition of leadership as influence. In my reading on digital natives, influence comes through trusted relationships, not positions of authority. I wonder how Friedman would engage the emerging generations of our day. Would his writing be the same today as they were then? He acknowledges that his manner of self-differentiation can come across as aloofness. I hope Friedman helps you solve some problems your community faces in a lasting way!

  3. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Eric, as you reflected on self-development I immediately thought of the ways Jesus modeled his ability to self-differentiate from the chronic anxiety around him….the most poignant was his response to Pilate. He also showed the capacity to grow when challenged (throwing food to the dogs); instead of reacting out of emotion he respond with self-awareness.
    I appreciate your fleshing out of these key points. Could you say more about how you can see these impacting your leadership in your current context? What made these key points stand out for you?

  4. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Eric, by your request to clarify my questions, you lifted these up in your blog: “These leaders can separate themselves from the pitfalls of their context, maintain clarity and vision, demonstrate vulnerability, are long-suffering in difficulty, and be able to regulate their responses.” Can you reflect on how you utilize these characteristics in the work of your self-development and your vocational life? Or is there tension for you with these?

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