A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix was written ten years after Edwin Friedman’s death by permission of his family trust along with the editorial work of Margaret W. Treadwell and Edward W. Beal. At its core, the book is an attempt to apply the societal regression theory of Murray Bowen to the practice of leadership in any current setting. And this is what makes the book interesting to me as I work with leaders in multiple social contexts.
Failure of Nerve is essentially family therapy on steroids; a new way of thinking about modern leadership in conflicted times. As a result, there are some brilliant sociological and therapeutic insights not seen in other leadership books: namely the explicit emphasis on how leadership often propagates community dysfunction and immaturity in the same way it occurs in families. The root of that failure, claims Friedman, is the inclination of leaders (in troubled times) to accommodate immaturity within the herd, which is simply “a failure of nerve.” Yet this is a modern experience only. Friedman contrasts social accommodation with the quantum leap that occurred around the year 1500. At that time, a complete reorientation to reality resulted from the nerve of the great navigators who led the way for Western civilisation out of the imaginative gridlock of the medieval period. I found the three aspects of gridlock remarkably similar to current leadership approaches: amateur and professional.
- An unending treadmill of trying harder.
- Looking for answers rather than reframing questions.
- Either/or thinking that creates false dichotomies.
Friedman points to leaders such as Columbus, Michelangelo, DaVinci, Drake, Shakespeare, and Cervantes as antithetical examples of gridlock thinking that changed the world; people he claims shared five characteristics:
- 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 downright rejection
- Stamina in the face of sabotage along the way
- A perception (by others) as being “headstrong” and “ruthless.”
By comparison, Friedman suggests the atmosphere of modern America has become so chronically anxious that they are in an emotional regression that is toxic to well-defined leadership. This kind of over sensitive gridlock can only be diffused by leaders with the aptitude and capacity to perform well when the world about them is both disoriented and transfixed by a particular way of thinking. In the introduction, Friedman presents his leadership thesis: the need for clarity and decisiveness in a civilisation that inhibits the development of leaders with clarity and determination. The rest of the book unpacks the need for leaders who question the widespread “triumphing of data over maturity, technique over stamina, and empathy over personal responsibility”. He argues for an emphasis on strength, not pathology; on the challenge, not comfort; on self-differentiation, not herding for togetherness. Such leadership is not for those who prefer peace to progress. It is not for those who confuse a well-defined stand for unadulterated coercion. It is not for those who fail to see how, in any family or institution, a constant concern for consensus leverages power to the extremists. Moreover, it is not for those who lack the nerve to venture out of the calm eye of good feelings and togetherness and weather the storm of protest that inevitably surrounds a leader’s self-definition.
Friedman uses the label of the “well-differentiated leader”. By this, he means someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals and is, therefore, less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. A well-differentiated leader can separate while remaining connected, maintaining a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. All this reminded me of Brene Brown’s work, Dare to Lead and Vulnerability because they encourage the leader toward a form vulnerability that can only be fully established in a strong sense of self among the herd.
The first five chapters of the book are well developed, but the remaining chapters are not so clear. I imagine that is because Friedman died, and the work was completed by others. However, despite this, some insights connect well with the early parts of the book that I suspect are Friedman’s notes from his application of Bowen’s theories.
What draws me to this work is the apparent challenge to popular notions of leadership drawn from pragmatism, personality theories and excesses of the social sciences. Concepts of Social Regression have given me pause for thought alongside the ideas of togetherness, separateness and differentiation. Of course, the greatest challenge is dealing with the concept of Self as it relates to leadership in emotional systems.
Because the book was never finished, there are some glaring holes. There are several places where the author references other works and examples which are unsubstantiated. Actually, there are no references at all in my version. In the 2007 publication, there are even references to other possible chapters that never came to be.
However, this is possibly one of the best books I have read on leadership. Not because I agree with everything it says, I don’t. Instead, it is impressive because it gets to the root of leaderships most significant problems: a leaders self-perceptions and differentiation alongside their people groups and those group capacities to ward dysfunction through blame displacement and herd accommodation of immaturity for comfort. An ageing friend of mine (he’s much older, so perhaps mentor is more appropriate) said, “in his experience, churches are always at their happiest in slow, dysfunctional decline.” I wonder if he met Friedman?
 Edwin H Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, ed. Margaret M Treadwell and Edward W Beal, 10th Anniversary Kindle ed. (New York: Church Publishing, 2017).
 Michael E Kerr, “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory,” The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family, 2000, https://thebowencenter.org/theory/.
 Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. 1167
 Ibid. 792
 Ibid. 749
 Ibid. 3692
 Ibid. 1150
 Ibid. 173-191
 Ibid. 1712ff
 Ibid. 1150
 Ibid. 3243
 Ibid. 2659
 Ibid. 1458ff
 Ibid. 191-220
 Ibid. 4491ff
 Brené Brown, Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts., Kindle ed. (London: Vermillion, 2018).
 Brené Brown, “Vulnerability,” TED Talks, 2010, Accessed April 2019, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.
Brown, Brené. “Vulnerability.” Last modified 2010, Accessed April 2019, https://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.
———. Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts. Kindle ed. London: Vermillion, 2018.
Friedman, Edwin H. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. 10th Anniversary Kindle ed. ed. Margaret M Treadwell, and Edward W Beal. New York: Church Publishing, 2017.
Kerr, Michael E. “One Family’s Story: A Primer on Bowen Theory.” Last modified https://thebowencenter.org/theory/.