Edwin H. Friedman’s book: A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, is a challenging read on the subject of contemporary leadership based on timeless truths. Friedman takes his book’s title from Five Stages of Greek Religion by Gilbert Murray, wherein a chapter entitled “A Failure of Nerve,” he states: “the mind that has not rained itself to the hare disciple in of reasonableness and honesty, will, as soon as its devils are cast out, proceed to fill itself with their relations.” (Friedman, 1) Friedman compels us as leaders to be “clear, decisive, and well-defined” and not given to anxiety driven empathy, data dumps, and easy techniques. He insists that true leadership is about the strength of the individual, self-differentiating, adventurous leader and not a one size fits all approach that pacifies the masses. The essence of Friedman’s leader described is one that operates with incarnational presence.
Friedman’s writing really resonated with me. I have shared it with several leading influences in my life this week and will share it next with with denominational leaders at a private meeting. I really believe Friedman is correct and that we are blinded due to the very weakness and lack of strength that he communicates. This blog will be very “editorial” and opinionated because I really “feel” emotional resonance with the contents of this book.
What stands out to me is the “tension” (Friedman, 246) or resistance that is “part and parcel” of Friedman’s process of leadership. He walks out the various tensions of: strength and weakness; individual and the whole; emotional and cognitive. I found this read very timely in American history and politics with the upcoming Presidential election. I agree with Friedman’s described “American rut”, I do not know anyone who could reasonably argue otherwise. I agree that the “way out, requires a shifting of our orientation.” (Friedman, 3)
We, as America, are at a crossroads that is not about morality or even spirituality, that is only one of many symptoms, but about a vacuum of leadership. We know longer value: the “individual” but the “heard”; the need for everybody’s opinion have equal value has diluted all opinions and ideas; we are in a constant state of paralysis due to “data junkyards and data junkies”; and we are in a state of leadership regression and gridlock while technologically and digitally we are seemingly flourishing. Our abundance and knowledge have blinded us to an impeding doom if we do not evaluate.
Friedman gives five statements and characteristics of a leader who will bring about real change:
“A capacity to get outside the emotional climate of the day; a willingness to be exposed and vulnerable; persistence in the face of resistance and rejection; stamina in the face of sabotage; being “headstrong” and “ruthless” in the eyes of others.” (Friedman, 188-189) I believe the absence of the above has produced a platform for third party politicians (Bernie Sanders), extreme political views (tea party), biased media (CNN, Fox News, etc), and polarizing and undesirable candidates (Trump and Clinton). I believe that “all the above” is answered by implementing leadership that Friedman prescribes. We as well as our government are “gridlocked” due to the lack of present mentality (treadmill of trying harder; answers rather that questions, either/or thinking). We must at least challenge the emotional sets that values data over decision, feeling over action, group over self. This is not a play it safe book, but neither is leadership.