Book Notes – A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

Posted: January 29, 2014 by Todd in Books, Ministry
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Failure of Nerve


A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

Edwin H. Friedman

Brilliant book for developing the emotional fortitude necessary for leadership.  A little crotchety for my tastes at times, but some of that may come with the territory.  Finished April, 2012.
Editor’s Preface
Ed Friedman died prematurely while working on Failure of Nerve, which many expected to be the crowning achievement of his work in Family Systems Theory.  This book was assembled from his notes and drafts by two of his colleagues, Ted Beal and Peggy Treadwell with the blessing of Friedman’s widow, Carlyn Friedman.  Even though the book doesn’t represent Friedman’s ultimate vision for it, the editors believe “‘the big picture’ does emerge.”
The title of the book, Failure of Nerve, is taken from a chapter title in Gilbert Murray’s Five Stages of Greek Religion, which makes the point that after Socrates, Greek culture was on the verge of a renaissance, but rather than accepting the death of the superstitions that Socrates put to bed, Grecians found many related superstitions to steer them away from the emphases on reasonableness and honesty that were the hallmark of Socrates’ leadership.  In short, anxiety took over after Socrates’ leadership was removed from Greece. [more…]
America, Friedman says, is a deeply anxious place without many leaders who have the “nerve” to lead through the anxiety with clarity and resolve.  This “failure of nerve” has become who we are at every level – a highly reactive people, without the fortitude to resist the emotional pulls that arise between people in organizations, government, and families.  This reality bends us towards self-destruction.  America has both conceptual and emotional vulnerabilities that reinforce one another.  Friedman sees the conceptual problem rooted in the “social science construction of reality,” which focuses on labels describing identity in a particular social group or personality type, rather than their place in the emotional system in which they are surrounded.  The emotional problem is too strong of an attachment to others and how they can be motivated, changed, placated, etc., and not enough attention on how one can change one’s self in the midst of an emotional system and let that system adapt to that change.
The first part of the book will focus on describing the denial of emotional systems at work in leader’s contexts that leads to the erosion of individuation in leadership and perverts our very understanding of leadership.  The second part of the book describes positive new ways to understand and enact leadership that avoid the “failure of nerve.”  The book is intended for anyone who must lead within anxiety-driven, reactive cultures.
Friedman’s realizations about leadership and the culture’s “failure of nerve” developed slowly throughout a 40 year career with experience in congregations, businesses, and government.  Although different types of organizations use different language, the culture of reaction and anxiety and leadership’s failure of nerve seems to be universal.  Furthermore, many “solutions” are just problems in remission, usually surfacing again later, because they were never adequately dealt with to begin with.  Another aspect of Friedman’s growing enlightenment to the “failure of nerve” was social science’s total inability to aid in the prediction of the success of people, institutions, and relationships – particularly psychology.  On the contrary, these tools seemed to be a “force for denial.”  While social science emphasized differences in cultural backgrounds, Friedman found through experience that there were commonalities across cultures that seemed to be much more useful in promoting positive change.  Culture and understanding of cultures tend to act as camouflage to emotional processes.
Universal principles about families include:
  • Healing doesn’t happen until estranged people are reconnected
  • Mature children have parents who don’t “use” them for “their own salvation”
  • Children rarely rise above the emotional maturity of their parents
  • Change in children’s behavior can’t happen until parents are fed up with it

These same principles are at work in institutions as well.  Institutions tend to become infected when:

  • There is no sense that someone is “in charge”
  • Leader is hamstrung by their own vulnerability
  • Unreasonable faith in “being reasonable”

Leadership as Emotional Process

Formal authority has little to nothing to do with one’s willingness to stand up to problematic people.  Sabotage is always part of the leader’s landscape and not native to contextual particularities.

Four universal problems with the American orientation towards leadership:

  1. The most regressive, weakest members of any organization tend to set the agenda
  2. A de-emphasis on individuation and decisiveness
  3. An obsession with data and technique
  4. Belief that destructive behaviors can be changed through “reasonable” measures

Leadership is predominately an emotional process, rather than cognitive and this book will help leaders combat the orientations listed above.  When motivated, creative people in an organization are frustrated, ultimately one will find a “peace-monger” as a leader.  Well-differentiated leaders, on the other hand, can persist with their own goals in the face of sabotage, swirling emotions, and toxic environments, challenging such destructive forces.  No one does this easily and everyone can increase their capacity to do so.

The Systemic Power of Leadership
Human institutions and systems are like any natural organism.  The “head” doesn’t necessarily need to be connected directly to any “part” in order to spread influence.  Rather the head is part of the body and influences all of it.
A Revolution in Leadership Training
Friedman suggests that too much leadership training focuses on manipulating those who are being led.  The focus should be on the leader.  In family therapy, Friedman eventually sought out the best candidate for being the leader within the family and concentrated his work just on that person, sending the rest of the family home.  Friedman did the same thing with organizations.  Friedman worked on having those leaders become aware of their own emotional carry-overs from their families of origin, operating in the new system.  These leaders must ignore the negative minutia and concentrate on giving their “I Have a Dream” speech.
The Purpose, Summary, and Contents of this Book
*This is the best internal summary of the book – start at the 4th paragraph; chapter by chapter summaries follow.  Failure of Nerve is not a repetition of Generation to Generation or Friedman’s Fables, but an extension of those ideas.
Chapter 1 – A metaphor showing how the outdated maps of Old World Europe fueled the stuckness of an entire civilization.  A renaissance was needed then and now to make the sort of changes necessary to usher in a new world.  Emotional resistances can act as “equators” blocking a sense of adventure that leads to progress.
Chapter 2 – Modern America is as stuck as Old Europe despite technological and industrial advances in its state of emotional reactivity and anxiety.  Five aspects of chronic anxiety are: reactivity, herding, blaming, quick-fix mentality, and lack of leadership.  Each of these undermines the evolutionary process of adaptation to strength.
Chapter 3 to 5 – Describe the limiting “equators” that are symptomatic of social regression.  They are: 1) favoring data over decisiveness; believing the illusion that knowledge creates clarity, 2) an orientation towards empathy over responsibility – focusing on weakness rather than strength, and 3) a confusion with self and selfishness.
The second half of the book is dedicated to exploring “leadership through self-differentiation.”
Chapter 6  – Called the “keystone chapter” of the book by Friedman, it shows how the only real thing a leader needs to work on developing is his or her self-differentiation.
Chapter 7  – Explores the basic unit of emotional relationality – the triangle and how understanding emotional triangles can assist with self-differentiation. Crises are a major part of a leader’s life – coming from the outside and sometimes, strategically initiated.
Chapter 8 – Deals with the crises that are not of the leader’s own making through the power of presence.
Friedman ends the introduction with a warning that the ideas of this book are subversive and he expects criticism.  He insists that there is no political agenda, but acknowledges that his ideas will threaten certain political, religious, therapeutic and other perspectives.
Introduction – Quotes
“Whenever a “family” is driven by anxiety, what will also always be present is a failure of nerve among its leaders.”
“In any family or institution a perpetual concern for consensus leverages power to the extremists.”
“The way out, rather, 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.”
“The universal problem for all partnerships, marital or otherwise, was not getting closer; it was preserving self in a close relationship, something that no one made of flesh and blood seems to do well.”
“I eventually came to define my marriage counseling, no matter what the cultural mix, as trying to help people separate so that they would not have to ‘separate.'”
“Sabotage is not merely something to be avoided or wished away; instead, it comes with the territory of leading, whether the ‘territory’ is a family or an organization. And a leader’s capacity to recognize sabotage for what it is—that is, a systemic phenomenon connected to the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system and not to the institution’s specific issues, makeup, or goals—is the key to the kingdom.”
“In any type of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true one hundred percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the very top of that institution is a peace-monger.”

“Emotional processes are always more powerful than ideas.”
“I will be quite content if all I have succeeded in accomplishing is to supply this century’s best candidate for a book-burning.”
Important Terms & Phrases
Emotional – “The word emotional as used throughout this work is not to be equated with feelings, which are a later evolutionary development. While it includes feelings, the word refers primarily to the instinctual side of our species that we share in common with all other forms of life.”
Individuation – The process of letting responsibility remain where it legitimately resides rather than taking it upon one’s self.
Sabotage – The destructive emotional forces in a system that work against progress and leadership.  It isn’t dependent on particular situations, but part of the landscape of leadership and organizations.
Social Science Construction of Reality – “A worldview that focuses on classifications such as the psychological diagnosis of individuals or their ‘personality profiles’ and sociological or anthropological niche (categorized according to culture, gender, class, race, age, and so on) rather than on what will be emphasized in this work: the emotional processes that transcend those categories and that all forms of ‘colonized protoplasm’ share in common, irrespective of those differences.”
Well-Differentiated Leader – “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; someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence.”

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