Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve is just the text needed for further invigorating – rather than truncating – conversation encouraging a robust engagement between a universally interconnected moral coding (however, nuanced) and civic participation. Of course, reading anything related to “universal” puts a lot of peoples’ radar on high alert with warning sirens flashing and resounding in the background of their minds and hearts. Based on much historical precedent, this is as it should be. However, as with many things, too often the pendulum swings too far and we have been tending to miss valuable insights over concern that such suggested connectivity might just diminish the viability of variation. Of course, there is that infuriating conundrum (he wrote wryly) known as “humanity” as “being human” that tends to throw a wrench into the process of too radical a separation. In Friedman’s text on leadership, I read him as walking this line well. He argues for necessary self-differentiation in order to best establish and maintain healthy social functionality.
Friedman passed on in 1997 and this text comes to us by way of a 2007 publishing that took an unfinished manuscript and offered us words from a long-standing public/professional figure who had participated in management, psychology/counseling, religion (a rabbi), and more. Friedman’s work was significantly conducted in and around Washington, D.C. providing him with a wide variety of cultural examples from around the globe. However, Friedman argues that while there of course are cultural variations, these variations at times tend to mask a much deeper, interconnected emotional core of human interactivity.
One of the aspects that Friedman focuses on is our inordinate use of quantitative data that he suggests keeps us from focusing on the more salient aspects of the emotive undercurrents that drive the creation of such data that is being mined. Essentially, he writes that we miss the forest for the trees. Friedman is much more interested in producing sustainable, healthy change than he is in recording data that becomes obsolete with the shifting of a few parameters – which can then be reevaluated/remeasured ad infinitum.
Another aspect that Friedman considers is imaginatively gridlocked systems. To look at this, Friedman considers Europe at the end of the 15th century (essentially the beginning of the 1500’s) and notes that it was not primarily a cognitive shift in orientation that brought about newfound cultural vitality, but the emotional release of imagination that occurred through Europeans discovering (for themselves for the first time) the “New World.” Friedman notes that for stultification to become reinvigorated, one of the key components will be the need to move an organization to valuing adventure over certainty and to see that in the midst of such a grandiose journey mistakes become largely unimportant in comparison with the possibility of serendipitous new understanding. I greatly appreciate this quote and this alone is something for all leaders and organizations to consider for some time to come,
The great lesson here for all imaginatively gridlocked systems is that the acceptance and even cherishing of uncertainty is critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience. The willingness to encounter serendipity is the best antidote we have for the arrogance of thinking we know. Exposing oneself to chance is often the only way to provide the kind of mind-jarring experience of novelty that can make us realize that what we thought was reality was only a mirror of our minds. Related here is the necessity of preserving ambiguity in artistic expression since, if the viewer’s imagination is to flower, it is important not to solve the problem in advance.
In reading Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve (I first encountered Friedman years ago when reading his Friedman’s Fables) I simply resonated again and again with his descriptions and explanations. Over the years both in my own life and in hearing about dynamics occurring in the lives of friends and colleagues – whether it was working on boards, as part of churches, in various leadership roles in organizations, etc. – Friedman’s concern about “herding,” what he notes to be a regressive evolutionary technique that keeps people and organizations from thriving because those with the most anxious personalities, the least mature orientations coerce others to have to spend much of their time placating their concerns rather than facilitating the system into further thriving. This is where Friedman notes that what normally might be community actually becomes cult-like. Instead of healthy togetherness, Friedman relays that this becomes more like “stuck-togetherness.” For there to be healthy community there must also be healthy individuation. Thus Friedman notes that for organizations of any kind (corporations, synagogues, families, etc.) that people must be able to separate so they do not have to “separate” (as in the sense of divorce, disbanding, etc.).
I’m all for community, but not for the claustrophobizing effects that make community disturbingly cultic (that is, not in the academically anthropological sense, but in the “it was just Halloween” sense). This is a reason, for example, that I like Quaker fellowship. As an example, during every meeting/service there is a time of silence (there are differences as to how this looks in ‘programmed’ and ‘unprogrammed’ meetings, but those are characteristics which don’t change the point here) during which it is understood to be incumbent upon a person to stand and speak if they believe they are being led to do so by the Spirit with a word for the entire congregation. Then it is also expected that such a person who has spoken release themselves emotionally from the statement and let the rest of the people gathered at the meeting decide whether it was a helpful/healthy statement for the gathering or not. For me, this offers one reasonable representation of Friedman’s emphasis on both the importance of self-individuation and of community as shown to healthily manifest in an organizational setting.
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 Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 29.
 Ibid., 46.
 Ibid., 66-67.
 Ibid., 68.