DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Restoration of Nerve: Knowing Where One Ends and Another Begins!

Written by: on October 31, 2014

The assigned task of reading Edwin H. Friedman’s book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in an Age of Quick Fix, was for a moment a daunting task. I began as usual by perusing the table of contents and scanning through the chapter headings and sub-headings. Nothing different here although a few words jumped out creating a sense of foreboding: imagination, regression, emotional triangles, and the presence of the past, to name a few. Was Friedman writing in a high academia genre often typical in textbooks of this nature? What does “nerve” have to do with leadership especially in the context of “regression” and “emotion?” Do you know the dictionary definition of regression?

[A] trend or shift toward a lower or less perfect state: as (1): gradual loss of differentiation and function by a body part especially as a physiological change accompanying aging (2): gradual loss of memories and acquired skills (3): reversion to an earlier mental or behavioral level …[1]

I love a book with a good index; in fact, all books without an index should be outright rejected by the publisher. In previewing a book to read (purchase), I always read the consumer reviews and the index. Since this was a required course read, the reviews were unimportant; the index, however, was significant. I found very little encouragement here: chronic anxiety, acute, symptomatic, systemic, mental health, emotional processes and emotional triangles, empathy, pathology and the frightening phrase “the social science construction of reality.” Before reading a single paragraph I could give my own definition for “acute anxiety!”

I can exclaim with some conviction and excitement, “It was not to be!” Of course, I always read the preface and introduction specifically to see how much of the book I can skip or at least discover the parts of the book that are germane to writing this review. The “Editor’s Preface” was intriguing as it gave me an introduction to who Edwin H. Friedman was and some background for the writing of A Failure of Nerve. In the very first paragraph the editor tries to give something of “Ed’s sense of paradox, humor … storytelling … and teaching style.” [2]Among several comments, the editor made one that caught my attention:

“The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them.”[3]

This concept immediately rang true in my mind, emotion and internal spirit even before I could begin to understand its fullness and depth of meaning or to consider the implications of “staying connected” while changing oneself. I went on to read A Failure of Nerve from cover to cover which I can only report of a few textbooks assigned in our course of study. I hasten to note, this by no means indicates I have grasped all that Friedman is revealing in this and his other writings.

I do believe the statement by the editor quoted above encapsulates Friedman’s work more than any other single sentence in the book. Friedman alludes to the failure and assumption of insight (meaning knowledge) as fundamental to effective leadership when he quotes Gilbert Murray, “The great thing to remember is that the mind of man cannot be enlightened permanently by merely teaching him to reject some particular set of superstitions. There is an infinite supply of other superstitions always at hand …”[4] Friedman notes that “even the most learned ideas can begin to function as superstitions.”[5] From this premise he develops his leadership theory that is based on the emotional process of self-differentiation rather than developing and refining leadership mechanics or improving the leadership practices in the hope of becoming better leaders. He notes that to become effective leaders “requires shifting our orientation to the way we think about relationships, from one that focuses on techniques that motivate others to one that focuses on the leader’s own presence and being.”[6]

I ought to note that Friedman’s ideas and concepts seem to be specifically important in the context of understanding cultural influence and ministering in a multi-cultural environment, which is the subject for my research concentration and also for several others in the cohort. This applies in particular to his definition of “cultural camouflage” and how it masks attempts by leaders to lead. Understanding the particulars of a person or an organization’s makeup, background, culture or environment are not the key to leadership; rather, “leadership is essentially an emotional process …” This is radical! Most of what I read on multicultural ministry suggests that we must understand (knowledge) culture and diversity while providing leadership that opts for peaceful, conciliatory co-existence. I will admit, I am only at the threshold of understanding the implications of a leader’s emotional processes as a “peace-monger” and the result of ineffective leadership.

In terms of the content in A Failure of Nerve, Friedman’s writing is progressive, illuminating and academic; very easy to read. It breaks easily into two parts: the first, after an excellent introduction, details in chapters three through five what he calls the “equators” that lead to ineffective leadership. The equators are the “myths, emotional barriers, and learned superstitions … limiting our horizons and range”[7] thus creating leadership allusions restricting the ability to lead. These allusions are knowledge, empathy, and self-integrity. The second part, chapters six through eight, forms the crux of Friedman’s theory: differentiating self as a means of experiencing reality. This emphasizes the significance of people (family or organizations) of being together while retaining individuality and accepting individual responsibility.[8]  It is important to understand that Friedman is casting leadership as a relationship system. This is the key to the kingdom, the ability of an organization to “modify surrounding relationships through its presence rather than its forcefulness.”[9] In other words, effective leadership is not knowledge, position, or power, but rather it is differentiated presence. Friedman defines this as being:

… a non-anxious presence, a challenging presence, a well-defined presence, and a paradoxical presence. Differentiation is not about being coercive, manipulative, reactive, pursuing or invasive, but being rooted in the leader’s own sense of self rather than focused on that of his or her followers.

Friedman approaches leadership from the perspective that focuses on an organization’s strengths rather than weaknesses. A systems approach to leadership that encourages individual responsibility does not focus on weaknesses but rather on strengths. This, ultimately, is the key to the kingdom.

One other note is the stimulation to reading and research that was associated with reading A Failure of Nerve. Inspiration came from the very first paragraph of the preface where Gilbert Murray in Five Stages of Greek Religion[10] was quoted to other references (there are neither citations nor a bibliography) throughout the book.[11] In addition to acquiring Murray’s book, I reviewed Friedman’s book, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue,[12] and I am interested if others in the cohort who have read Generation to Generation[13] who would share their insight on its usefulness. Although I have no aspirations toward counseling or engaging in family therapy, it would seem advantageous to understand Murray Bowen’s research and theory as it is significantly referenced by Friedman in chapter two and seems to be foundational to his work.

[1] Encyclopedia Britannica, “Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary and Thesaurus” (accessed October 30, 2014)

[2] Friedman, 60-62.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 102.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid,. 152.

[7] Ibid., 1820.

[8] Ibid., 3584.

[9] Ibid., 4220.

[10] I was able to find Murray’s book in the Kindle edition for free (accessed October 30, 2014)

[11] See for an example: Bowen, 1066; Wilson, 1170; McLean, 2200; Kerr, 2250; Sheldrake, 4520; and others.

[12] See:

[13] Friedman, 259.

About the Author



6 responses to “The Restoration of Nerve: Knowing Where One Ends and Another Begins!”

  1. Telile Fikru Badecha says:

    Hi Ron, Thank you for sharing your well-written summary of the book. I like how you tied Friedman’s concept of leadership as a relationship system with the kingdom approach.I too appreciate Friedman theory of differentiated presence. As human beings we are emotional and attached, and it is a hard balance especially for us as ministry leaders to stay connected while still maintaining well-defined presence. Thanks again.

    • mm rhbaker275 says:

      Yes – I love his defining a well-differentiated leader. So often we fail to lead in situations where there is diversity of opinion simply because we fail to understand who we are and we can provide leadership with out threatening the organization’s unity – in other words, diversity in leadership does not require division. I think this is radical thinking … we can call it many things, servant leadership, group leadership, or simply the ability to bring consensus without sacrificing risk-taking and adventurous leadership. Although there are many aspects to self-differentiating oneself, I think one of the most important that Freidman emphasizes is the self-differentiated person is not data drive.

  2. Ron,

    What a great summary of our text for the week! I would submit this as a book review to Amazon! Excellent work.

    I was also struck by the concept that “leadership is essentially an emotional process …” This really got me thinking as well. I often have associated leadership with negativity since I have experienced so many dysfunctional leaders in my day. But what about having a healthy, functional, emotionally intelligent leader, one who does not get caught up in the fray of the organizational squabbles? What a concept. And, yes, in most cultures, emotions and relationships are primary values, so having a good leader who is both connected and boundary-conscious are incredibly important qualities for leaders to have. I cannot wait to see what your research discovers about all of this. I look forward to seeing that and to continually gleaning from your wisdom and insights. Thanks again for your helpful post.

  3. mm Ashley Goad says:

    Ron, I love your transparency and honesty! What a beautiful synopsis of the book. Reading through the table of contents was quite daunting, and I felt a bit exposed, as if the book was about me in some way! So much emotion, so much anxiety. Did you feel as Friedman was looking into your soul and bringing up all of the mistakes you ever made? Oh, maybe that was just me! 🙂

    Our cohort mate, John, has read Generation to Generation, and highly recommended it. So, like you, it will make in on my never-ending-list of books. Thanks, Ron!

  4. Richard Volzke says:

    Good outline of Friedman’s concepts. I agree with you that the lack insight may be the biggest failure within a leader. Leaders need to be able to see things from a 30,000-foot viewpoint, but also have the ability to zoom in on issues and problems that need to be addressed. One of my weaknesses is going to far into the “weeds” and doing the work myself. Good leadership is being able to strike a balance in knowing when to step back and guide an individual from a distance, or when to get in and get your hands dirty.

  5. mm Clint Baldwin says:

    I think one of the key concepts of the book is that it is all less about particular beliefs and more about belief in oneself. Now, this has to be understood for Friedman as individuation that remains in contact with community — not some willy-nilly freedom with no responsibilities attached. But, still, this is a key concept that allows for much strength and grace for leaders to actually lead; but without succumbing to unnecessarily totalitarian orientations due to the fact that others are also meant to be healthily self-individuating too. I appreciated the fact that this is meant to bring people more healthily together through giving a bit of space.
    Thanks for your post that like Friedman seeks to move us beyond constraining myths and superstitions.

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