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A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (1999/2007)

By Edwin H. Friedman

ISBN: 13:978-1-59627-042-8 pbk

ISBN: 13: 978-1-59627-167-8 ebook

–Review by Douglas Balzer

Let’s be honest; we live in an anxiety-ridden age. All we must do is look around us to see how pervasively anxious the global community is at present. It is affecting every level of society; no one is exempt from it. Anxiety is rising due to a plethora of issue from ongoing terrorist threats and attacks, school shootings and the world’s political struggles. For these reasons a book like Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the Quick Fix is a must read or reread in some of our cases.

There are books that I make a practice of reading every year, and one of them is A Failure of Nerve. I have found it to be a book that helps me work through an assessment of my leadership in the midst of whatever the present situation I find myself within. I was introduced to A Failure of Nerve by MaryKate Morse, now a friend and colleague, but at the time my professor and mentor at Portland Seminary.

Whenever I read this book, it seems as if Friedman was prophetic concerning the issues that we are facing in our world. His ability to read the semiotics (signs) of our culture and project the future paradigm from his observations were intuitively correct. He captures the prevailing culture as being rampant with sabotaging leaders. Especially, any leader that tries to stand up tall within the “raging anxiety-storms of our time.” One of the keys issues he firmly puts his finger on is the angst of a highly reactive environment that has become pervasive in all the institutions of our society. It culminates in a climate that is toxic to leadership and threatens growth, perhaps even the survival of families, churches, groups, and institutions, maybe even American civilization. Now, this message captures my attention and concerns me for our future.

Friedman observed four major similarities in the thinking and functions in all areas of American society. They are as follows –

  1. An emphasis on weakness that results in the weakest, most dependent members of any organization, group, or family is setting the agenda.
  2. A devaluation of the process of individuation so that leaders tend to rely more on expertise rather than their own ability to make decisions.
  3. An obsession with data and techniques that has becomes a form of addiction and turns professionals into data-junkies.
  4. The development of widespread misunderstanding about the relational nature of destructive processes in families and institutions that leads leaders to assume that the problems can be solved through reasonableness, love, role-modeling, and striving for consensus.

Friedman in this book presents an approach to the issues that leaders are facing from a non-conventional approach. The book suggests, even encourages, leaders, to focus on their own integrity and the nature of their presence beyond the ideologies of techniques, programs, or manipulation in order to motivate others.

Friedman’s concept has its basis in leaders being healthy. This begins with the leader being a well-differentiated individual having clarity about their personal life goals. Therefore, they are less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes in motion about them. They have the ability to separate themselves while remaining connected. Friedman describes this ability, “in other words; leaders can stay involved in a non-anxious, influential way. Personal and internal management of their own reactions to what is going on in others is crucial. They are able to take stands at the risk of displeasing others, without being controlled by them.”

Our society today, due to the present focus on emotions and feeling good, has leaders stuck and gridlocked. Leaders are giving themselves to the present flow of the cultures angst, going with the flow rather than leading people out or the chaos we find ourselves in today. There is less and less willingness to use imaginative or risk-taking thoughts or actions.

Friedman’s thesis is that our society is in the midst of an “emotional regression.” America is “chronically anxious.” This creates a toxic atmosphere for well-defined leadership. We need to avoid the “leader trap” by pursuing a course of action that allows us to become healthy, well-differentiated leaders, the kind a chronically anxious world desperately needs.

There are four characteristics of chronic anxiety, and each one is “regressive” undercutting the basic ability to progress forward as a society.

First, a vicious cycle of intense reactivity. Second, the herding instinct. Third, is called blame displacement. Fourth, is a quick fix mentality. The drive is for an “expert” to have a magical, quick fix acting solution. It is a mythological pursuit of dragons and fairies that is detached from reality; it is post-modernity in full bloom.

What transpires is a focus on empathy rather than on responsibility. According to Friedman, the myth is that feeling deeply for others increases a person’s ability to mature and survive; he goes on to say, “its corollary that the effort to understand another should take precedence over the endeavor to make one’s own self-clear.” Friedman states, “it has rarely been my experience that being sensitive to others will enable those ‘others’ to be more self-aware, that being more ‘understanding’ of others causes them to mature, or that appreciating the plight of others will make them more responsible for themselves.”

Now, Friedman does challenge the prevailing social construct of contemporary western civilization, especially in American society. In his discussion, he does give us a path forward. One that I have left out of this review on purpose because, well, I want to encourage you to read the book. As I prepare to close, I will write this for you, Friedman informs us that the key issue is “the absolute importance of self-differentiation for leaders.” In his final analysis, there are five aspects that need to be present in the leaders of any social-cultural system or group if we are to bring about a paradigm shift creating a new renaissance. They are –

  1. A capacity to get outside the emotional climate of the day.
  2. A willingness to be exposed to and vulnerable.
  3. Persistence in the face of resistance and downright rejection.
  4. Stamina in the face of sabotage along the way.
  5. Being “headstrong” and “ruthless.” – at least in the eyes of others.

These attributes, universally are not connected to personality traits, social-cultural factors, or anything that is gender specific. They are qualities to do with the capacity to function when everything and everyone around you are disoriented and stuck in a certain way of thinking. These are the attributes we as leaders need to visit and revisit in order to function in our day and age.

Remember, we are living in an anxious time of history, and as leaders, we need to transcend the challenges of our day. If we are able to accomplish Freidman’s challenge of being a non-anxious presence, we may be able to bring a calming presence. Why, because we are not controlled by the world around us, but rather we are our own person – self-differentiated, emotionally healthy, and able to make a difference.

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