Water is an amazing thing. It can dissolve more substances than any solvent – including very caustic acids. It cannot be compressed making it usable as a both a weapon and a tool, it is able to sooth burns, can absorb an outrageous amount of energy before changing states and is the most important ingredient for life to exist. The presence of water is the sign most indicative of the presence of life. Most of us take water for granted because it is so plentiful where we live, so we have lost our sense of awe for what an amazing thing it is. If we remove water from our lives we would lose our lives as well. Water is a miraculous thing.1
As a rabbi, a therapist, and a leadership consultant Edwin Friedman spent the majority of his life watching people lead within both the family and professional context. He determined that the primary characteristic of a great leader is the ability to keep ones nerve in the midst of people’s emotional anxiety. In his book A Failure of Nerve he argues that every organization has an emotional environment and great leaders are able to traverse the emotional climate of their organizations without being mired down in it. It is the leader’s stabilizing presence that helps the organization to move forward. He describes a great leader as “well-differentiated” by which he means the leader has 5 characteristics:
- Strong sense of self.
- Takes responsibility, does not blame others for his mistakes.
- Does not have a quick-fix mentality. Understands lasting change takes time and is difficult.
- Takes decisive stands at the risk of displeasing others.
For Friedman a leader’s job is to be the strongest part of the system. A leader’s well defined presence will transform the emotional anxiety of an organization.
One of the more amazing things about water is how much energy it can consume without changing states. It takes approximately the same amount of energy to walk a mile as it does to boil a gallon of water. Additionally water is able to hold that energy for a relatively long time. It is these characteristics that have allowed humans (who are 75% water) to exist in the most extreme of environments. In this way a great leader, in Friedman’s view, is like water. A leader is able to take in a great amount of emotional energy and not have it change her state. She is able to absorb the energy and still exist as a stable leader, but also keep and use that energy where necessary.
As emotional beings it is impossible to be completely stoic in the midst of an emotional environment, but rather than seeing a leader as non-emotional I would rather think of that leader as one who is able to take in and transform the emotional energy into positive action. I think this is what Friedman is getting at in his book. Things happen and we will have an emotional response, making the question is what will you do with that response. Being like water makes sense to me in this instance. The ability to absorb that energy and use it later is a necessary skill for a leader. It is that skill that will allow a leader to keep their nerve in the mist of stressful events and then be able to recover after the event. We should all strive to be more water like in our leadership positions.
1 Gunderman, Richard. “The Universe’s Most Miraculous Molecule.” The Conversation, June 25, 2019. https://theconversation.com/the-universes-most-miraculous-molecule-48075.