O wow! Reading Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve was like drinking from a fire hydrant — there’s just so much to assimilate. I found myself highlighting many parts, frequently re-reading sections, trying to comprehend his ideas about leadership. Then there were the familiar concepts we’re told not to emulate, such as empathy and togetherness1. There was a welcomed subversive theme in his writing, doing away with the old, ineffective ways of dealing with organizational issues that looked to external regressive forces2. But instead he asserted that the way forward is to look into our “self” and become what he calls a “self-differentiated” leader.
There were also what I call the nuanced juxtapositions of commonly amicable words that made me think harder about them. Side by side words such as peace over progress, flexible or wishy washy, rigid or principled, selfish vs. self-‘ish,’ genius or madness, etc. Not only were they clever, but I found the literary approach helpful to discern more carefully my own attitudes and behavior in situations that trigger my actions. Choosing one over the other makes a big difference in how we become mature.
There are too many good lessons that I’m afraid I can only put to practice some of them. The following are the ones that resonate with me in my present leadership context.
Anxiety. There’s the garden variety kind of anxiety that many of us are familiar with and experience with some regularity. Some triggers may be due to unmet goals, missed deadlines, etc. Then there’s the unacknowledged anxiety. This is much harder to deal with because it lies beneath the subconscious. If not dealt with properly, it leads to empathy3, which then leads to a spiraling regressive triangle4 relationship. Fortunately we have a third member of the triangle who can break in at any point and redeem the broken relationship. That person of course is Jesus. He invites us to come to him, to trade our burdens for his because they are light and he will give us rest5.
Self-Differentiation. Friedman makes it very clear that a good leader is one who is self-differentiated. He describes that person as:
“I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing.”6
Friedman says we never get there but rather it’s a life long process that we must persevere through. I see this person as fully mature, well-balanced and secure. So the key to a successful family or organization is having a leader who is self-differentiated. I’m reminded of the apostle Paul’s admonition to “not think of yourself more highly than you ought…”7 There is the implication that there is a desirable and expected state of who we are as individuals. A mature person does not think lower or higher than he or she actually is. In the same passages Paul exhorts us to fulfill our calling by exercising our gifts. This parallels Friedman’s idea of “specialization” in which members contribute to the good of the larger society8.
Like I mentioned earlier, there are so many helpful concepts on what it means to be a good leader. These two takeaways are what stuck with me.
1 To be fair, Friedman mentioned that “togetherness” had different dimensions to it. Togetherness resulting from a self-differentiated individual is good. “Togetherness” without self-differentiation (like a tumor) is bad.
2 Edwin H. Friedman, Margaret M. Treadwell, and Edward W. Beal, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Church Publishing, 2017). Loc. 420, Kindle.
3 Ibid., Loc. 507, Kindle.
4 Ibid., Loc. 3695, Kindle.
5 Matthew 11: 28-30
6 Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Loc. 331, Kindle.
7 Romans 12:3
8 Friedman, Loc. 2496, Kindle