Edwin Friedman —A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
The late Edwin Friedman’s books are the product of decades of consultations in the religious, psychotherapy, educational, corporate, and political arenas. He was ordained as a Jewish Rabbi and was a family therapist, and leadership consultant. He died before completing the portion of the book that challenged conventional social sciences’ assumptions that “human beings function solely according to nature, gender, or background.” He argued that “human beings function according to the position they occupy within the emotional processes of their relationship system, whether family, church, or business.” Friedman’s family and friends initiated the completion and publication of this book.
Friedman was of the opinion that a highly toxic, reactive, regressive atmosphere pervaded all the institutions in American society that sabotaged leaders who wanted to be strong. “It contaminated the decision-making processes of governments and corporations at the highest level, and neighborhood churches, synagogues, hospitals, libraries, and school boards.” He declared that, “when institutional systems are driven by anxiety, what will always be present is a failure of nerve among its leaders.” He indicates this book is about leadership in the land of the quick-fix, it is about the need for clarity and decisiveness in a civilization that inhibits the development of leaders with clarity and decisiveness. His thesis is that leadership in America is stuck in the rut of striving to make great efforts without significant results, while simultaneously impacting all the institutions of our society irrespective of size or purpose. These institutions are paralyzed as are the thinking processes of those who would get them unstuck.
Friedman explains that America’s leadership rut has a conceptual and an emotional dimension that reinforce one another. The conceptual dimension is the social science construction of reality, but, it does not offer leaders a way of extricating themselves from regressive influence; it is a worldview that focuses on psychological classifications such as diagnosis of individuals, and sociological or anthropological categorizing culture, gender, class, race, and age. The emotional climate of a society affects not only the models it generates, but also influences the nature of information we deem important or what captures our attention. Friedman asserts “Our denial of those processes in both families and in society at large erode and devalue the individuation necessary for effective leadership and influence the way we conceptualize leadership problems to begin with.”
The way out requires shifting our orientation to the way we think about relationships from one that focuses on techniques that motivate others, to one that focuses on new ways of understanding leadership that are applicable to all families and institutions and emphasizing the importance of the leaders own presence and self-differentiation.
As in previous readings, this book shows correlations and interconnections of history and culture over time and space with our contemporary context. Friedman intimates that a reality of leadership is that it entails risk. This is exemplified in the Old World’s process of reorientation because that civilization produced individuals like Verrazano, Vespucci, and Columbus who were leaders willing to take risks. What they had in common was passion, resolve, decisiveness, and nerve rather than knowledge, data or technique. For Friedman what sets them apart from their contemporaries is their self-differentiation, a universal emotional phenomena not a social science construct. He believed the key factors that enabled these explorers to lead an entire civilization into a New World are the “very same factors that must be present in any social system if it is to have a renaissance.”
Factors such as: vision and capacity to get outside the emotional climate of the day; accepting vulnerability; relentless drive in the face of resistance, rejection and sabotage; and sustaining the mission when colleagues lose their nerve. These explorers were tenacious in goal-keeping over and above team-building, consensus, and camaraderie. They demonstrated universal attributes that were non-gender specific, and not connected to personality traits or cultural factors. That is, qualities that have to do with the capacity to “function well when the world about them was disoriented and stuck in a certain way of thinking. These qualities apply equally to marriage, family life and the corporate world.”
One of Friedman’s observations that contributed to his questioning traditional social science models was his experience with families from diverse cultures around the world. He deviated from the social science construction of reality that emphasizes how families differ from one another, by exploring what they had in common in order to promote change and enable leaders and consultants to recognize the universal elements of emotional processes found in all institutions as well as in all families. Rather than assuming that a family’s cultural background determined its emotional processes, he found it advantageous “to see culture as the medium through which a family’s own unique multigenerational process worked its art.” Friedman discovered that “once he focused on how families were similar rather than how they differed, it was possible to see universal “laws” of emotional process that were obscured by becoming absorbed in the myriad of data on family differences.” He later discovered that this principle applied to other kinds of institutions as well. This led to his understanding that whatever the nature of a family’s customs and ceremonies, the universal problem for all partnerships, marital or otherwise was not getting closer; it was preserving self in a close relationship.
Another universal principle he observed of family life transcending cultural or ethnic differences was that no matter what the affliction was, “individuals who are cut off from their families generally do not heal until they have been reconnected. Also, the children of all families that transcended their cultural and sociological characteristics, rarely succeed in rising above the maturity level of their parents and this principle applies to all mentoring, healing, or administrative relationships.” Friedman’s observations and conclusions are in accord with my current research on the dynamics of at risk children in relation to their families and communities.
- Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), x.
- Ibid., x.
- Ibid., 2.
- Ibid., 2.
- Ibid., 4.
- Ibid., 188.
- Ibid., 189.
- Ibid., 7.
- Ibid., 7.
- Ibid., 8.
Top of Form