Let’s begin with some background music to set the stage for this blog post. Start the music, and continue reading…
You’re now listening to a familiar tune called ‘Take Five’. Catchy, isn’t it? If you’re not a musician, you might have a hard time putting your finger on what makes this song so alluring. Music historian Tony Sarabia states,
“In 1961, Dave Brubeck told Ralph Gleason on the TV program Jazz Casual that jazz had lost some of its adventurous qualities. He said it wasn’t challenging the public rhythmically the way it had in its early days. “It’s time that the jazz musicians take up their original role of leading the public into a more adventurous rhythm,” he said. Brubeck said it’s a good idea to shake things up a bit, and that’s exactly what he did with the song “Take Five.””
Dave Brubeck was a brilliant artist that wanted to lead down brave new pathways, so he crafted this song in 5/4 time. Most jazz music up to then had been written in 4/4. His fresh verve introduced a new take on jazz to the mainstream. Brubeck’s bold refusal to obey the conventions of the era have today become an iconic jazz tune for one’s classic library.
Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve likewise messes up conventional wisdom on leading well. It comes just at the right time in my personal and organizational life and bleeds over in a compelling way into my thesis research. Over the past several weeks in preliminary research I’ve been encountering Bowen therapy, Kets de Vries, Steinke, and other authors that champion the value of family systems thinking. (So, thank you, Jason, for including this resource.) I’m adding it to my working bibliography to enrich my research on the transfer of leadership for family philanthropy. Let me explain why.
Friedman and the others discuss the key concept of self-differentiation as being critical in a healthy movement forward for families and organizations. The failure of nerve happens when we cave under the pressures toward sameness and homogeneity. Unfortunately, in our current cultural environment of emotional regression we fear tall poppies that grow higher than the rest. The answer, says Friedman, is not to conform to the expectations of others or blame problems on everyone else, but to know ourselves, to have a dream, and to pursue that dream boldly. He exhorts, “You have to get up before your people and give an ‘I Have a Dream’ speech.” In leading from a well-differentiated centre, we focus on strength and vision, rather than the multiple pathologies of the systems where we lead from.
Characteristics of these sick and gridlocked systems include:
- “An unending treadmill of trying harder;
- Looking for answers rather than reframing questions; and
- Either/or thinking that creates false dichotomies.”
As a well-differentiated leader begins this journey, life will not all come up roses. In fact, we will usually encounter sabotage, subterfuge, and name-calling. Using an example where a wife is becoming self-differentiated, Friedman shrewdly states, “Whenever your husband calls you a bitch you are probably going in the right direction. See if you can get him to say that more often (my italics).” The goal in those moments is not to get sucked into emotional power games, but remain centred with a non-anxious presence knowing yourself and your calling forward.
Family philanthropy revolves around family systems, and money is the gunpowder in the mix. It’s a volatile cocktail. How can wealthy families work together for maximum impact without blowing themselves apart? Using approaches from Friedman, one might suggest that in order to not separate, we must learn to be separate. Valuing the contributions of each member, honouring their individuality, learning to listen, giving space when needed, and not insisting on sameness are all ways forward.
For organizations the message is similar. “Anyone who has ever been part of an imaginatively gridlocked relationship system knows that more learning will not, on its own, automatically change the way people see or think…. In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from the emotional processes that surround them before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently.”
Dr. Murray Bowen suggests as we lean into a differentiated approach, we won’t reach perfection, and at times we will fail. “It is a lifetime project with no one ever getting more than 70 percent there.” But surely, we need to start the process now. And with creative risks and an adventurous spirit, like Brubeck, we may be able march to the beat of a different drummer and make some beautiful music together.
 Inspired by a reference to the song in Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 199.
 Tony Sarabia, “The Story of Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’”, The NPR 100, November 19, 2000, accessed November 8, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2000/11/19/1114201/take-five.
 Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 23.
 Friedman, 38.
 Friedman, 197.
 Friedman, 35.
 Friedman, 195.