Of all the reading I have done on leadership during the recent past, Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix has been the most challenging and yet quite stimulating. Friedman’s approach to addressing the leadership crisis is from quite a different angle than that which most of us are commonly familiar with and used to. Unlike other leadership gurus of the present day who focus primarily on accumulation of skills, knowledge, data etc, Friedman attributes the crisis to ‘a failure of nerve’. This book has had my mind going in many directions trying to identify where I stand and what I am not doing right. It reminded me of a prior reading of Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science where the author argues that ‘chaos’ is acceptable and even helpful. That was a revolutionary thought for me and put my mind at ease freeing me from struggles I have had thinking that my call to leadership was to set the whole world just right.
Even though Friedman discussion concerns itself primarily with the crisis of leadership in America, it does speak well for the direction in which the remainder of the world is also headed whether it is a nation, state, the schools, business or family. The various ways we have learned to address ailments in the social realm sometimes have adverse results rather than correcting them. That is because data, techniques and empathy are placed on higher planes of value rather than maturity, endurance and personal responsibility and one’s ability to take risks.
One of the issues Friedman deals with in Chapter two is ‘chronic anxiety’ and its major effect on leadership. I am giving a great deal of thought to this particular aspect of my leadership in the light of several things that have transpired in my personal life, family and ministry. It is one of those times in life when all of these seems to converge simultaneously and those times are not quite rare for leaders. Or are they? How will I face the reality of the present and emerge as a successful leader with a ‘well differentiated” self as defined by Friedman (FRIEDMAN 2007, 231). Or will I allow the present stressful circumstances to drive me to regression.
Drawing from the family therapy theories of Dr. Murray Bowen the author sites the following characteristics of chronic anxiety:
- Reactivity : ”Leaders become less imaginative, are eventually worn down, and resign or ‘go trough the motions’”
- Herding: “Leaders become indecisive because, tyrannized by sensibilities, they function to soothe rather than challenge and to seek peace rather than progress.”
- Blame displacement: “The least mature are selected while those with the greatest integrity, precisely those who have the best capacity to pull a society out of a regression, do not even seek office.”
- Quick –Fix mentality: “Leaders are not challenged to grow” (FRIEDMAN 2007, 91,92)
The great temptation at this time is to seek the easy way out and dive blindly into traditional quick fixes. What will help me identify the above characteristics and choose the right personal responses? Learning and growing is never easy as Friedman himself points out:
“Leadership through self-differentiation is not easy; learning techniques and imbibing data are far easier. Nor is striving or achieving success as a leader without pain: there is the pain of isolation, the pain of loneliness, the pain of personal attacks, and the pain of losing friends. That’s what leadership is all about. (FRIEDMAN 2007, 233)”.
Do I have the courage now to heed the call of my Master and tread the difficult road: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. Lk9:23 (NIV). ” Is that the best way to overcome “a failure of nerve”?
FRIEDMAN, Edwin H. A Failure Of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. New York, New York: Church Publishing Inc.„ 2007.