DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Challenges of Leadership

Written by: on October 13, 2016

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3] He declared that, “when institutional systems are driven by anxiety, what will always be present is a failure of nerve among its leaders.”[4] 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.”[5]

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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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.”[8] 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.”[9] 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.”[10] 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.


  1. Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), x.
  2. Ibid., x.
  3. Ibid., 2.
  4. Ibid., 2.
  5. Ibid., 4.
  6. Ibid., 188.
  7. Ibid., 189.
  8. Ibid., 7.
  9. Ibid., 7.
  10. Ibid., 8.












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About the Author

Claire Appiah

10 responses to “Challenges of Leadership”

  1. Claire,

    Thanks of your insight and your work. Do you believe that every leader is under the attack of sabotage? Do you see that leaders in your life time have lost “nerve?” I think that having the ability to have presence takes being sure of yourself and willing to take on the onslaught of opinions and attacks that come with truly leading. Have you experienced sabotage of your leadership? How did you manage to work through it?

    God Bless
    Kevin Norwood

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Hi Kevin,
      God’s blessings to you as well my brother!
      From my observations it does not appear that in every single case without exception, leaders are under the attack of sabotage. This is especially true when the organization or entity is not very large and it is operating on a close-knit, intimate level.
      However, Friedman’s arguments stem from innumerable observations over a period of time and across many disciplines. He identified what he referred to as a systemic phenomenon in leadership that one hundred per cent of the time, the successful, “self-differentiated leader” experienced the crisis of sabotage/reactivity. I did encounter sabotage in leadership during the early days of my work experience when I transferred to a rival unit in my organization on a promotion. I was determined to succeed and pass my probationary period. So I practiced non-Christian type meditations, was decisive, maintained focus on my long term goals, recognized that the reactivity was evidence of preconceived anxieties about moving in the right direction of responsibility and accountability. Although conditions improved greatly, I was never their favorite person when I left for a better position.
      You nailed it in your statement, “I think that having the ability to have presence takes being sure of yourself and willing to take on the onslaught of opinions and attacks that come with truly leading.”
      I would not say that the majority of leaders in my lifetime have lost “nerve.” But, I believe the loss of nerve is most prevalent among those in the political, educational, and religious arenas especially relating to morality and social justice issues.

  2. Hi Claire. Nice writing! I too picked up on the quote that leaders who have broken relationships with their families tend to not be good leaders until they somehow reconnect with their past and find some type of reconciliation with it. It makes me think of all the pastors I know who come out of such broken family relationships. It is almost overwhelming. As emerging leaders with a global perspective, what would your advice be for pastors who are leading churches but have not thought out to heal their past?

    • Claire Appiah says:

      Thanks for replying to my blog with such a provocative question.
      “As emerging leaders with a global perspective what would your advice be for pastors who are leading churches but have not thought out to heal their past?” I believe many people that are walking around with a lot of emotional baggage and feel damaged deep down in their souls, are in denial of its presence or impact. Especially for Christian leaders, it’s easy to convince themselves that they are Spiritual overcomers and the turbulence from their past no longer matters, no longer disturbs them. But, it’s bound to affect the way in which they minister locally and globally.
      If these pastors are not highly responsive to the admonitions/counsel of the biblical texts and the witness of the Holy Spirit to effect redemption, reconciliation, and restoration in their lives, I would suggest that they might benefit from the tutelage of a trustworthy mentor. The mentor would hold them accountable for making progress in this area based on the Word of God and the leading of the Holy Spirit. Remember, this is an ongoing process; for most people a lifelong process.

  3. Aaron Cole says:


    Great blog, I find you a brilliant writer! After reading
    Friedman, do you think America is in a “rut” due to the lack of “nerve” of leadership?


  4. Claire Appiah says:

    Thanks for replying to my blog with kind words of encouragement.
    Before reading Friedman, I believed that America was in a rut in so many spheres. Yes, after reading Friedman, I agree with him that America is in a “rut” due to a lack of “nerve” of leadership? Friedman states, “The twin problems confronting leadership in our society today, the failure of nerve and the desire for a quick fix, are not the result of overly strong self but of weak or no self. . . But, democratic institutions have more to fear from lack of self in their leaders and the license that gives to factionalism, than from too much strength in the executive power.” (Friedman 163). We are seeing that played out right before our eyes at the present time.

  5. Jason Kennedy says:


    You are a great writer. Do you think we have reached a tipping point in America when it comes to leadership? I look at the political landscape and it seems that we no longer have leaders that lead, but rather lead according to populism. If Friedman was alive today, what do you think he would say about our country’s political leadership?

  6. Claire Appiah says:

    Thanks for your encouraging words.
    Indeed, we are certainly at a pivotal point of leadership in America. I think if Friedman were alive today, he would probably have been warning us all along of the slippery slope we have been treading which would have predictably led to our current political landscape.
    Friedman states, “The climate of contemporary America has become so chronically anxious that our society has gone into an emotional regression that is toxic to well-defined leadership. This regression is characterized principally by a devaluing and denigration of the well-differentiated self. It has lowered people’s pain thresholds with the result that comfort is valued over the rewards of facing challenge.” (p53). This has perverted the risk-taking, discovery, and pioneering that originally led to the foundation of our nation and the formation of its unique character. Friedman maintains that the anxiety is so deeply embedded within the emotional fabric of American civilization, it is as though a neurosis has become nationalized.
    Friedman explains that anxiety is escalated when a society is overwhelmed by the quantity and speed of change. Chronic anxiety accompanied by societal regressive thinking and functioning is a perversion of progress, leading into a counter-revolutionary mode. Society can be progressing technologically and simultaneously be regressing emotionally. He indicates that it is universal that chronically anxious institutions will always lack the well-differentiated leadership that can “maintain a non-anxious, well-principled presence.” (p89).

  7. mm Phil Goldsberry says:


    As usual you knocked it out of the park again. I was intrigued with his “family” experience and recommendations. Did you agree with his advice on seeking similarities versus differences in families will bring harmony? Do you also embrace the “ceiling” that he imposed on parents to children?


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