With the avalanche of books, blogs, and webinars on leadership, why read one more offering by a rabbi/family therapist who’s been dead for 14 years? Because even in its cobbled together state (the author died before finishing it!), Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix is wise and peculiar, hopeful and iconoclastic, and you can learn not only about leading but also about your personal life as an unanticipated benefit. If thinking about your psychic place in your family of origin and the impact of this on how you lead seems intriguing, and if contemplating your own inner balance versus the demands of the moment is appealing to you, if you think emotional maturity might help you get "imaginatively unstuck," then read on.
Friedman, the author of the much- and rightly-beloved Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, was a genius at applying family systems theory to the life of institutions. Late in life he decided to write about leadership “in a society so reactive that it cannot choose leaders who might calm its anxiety.” We are an anxious people in a stressed culture that demands quick fixes. But leaders miss their opportunities and true calling by “trying harder and harder without obtaining significantly new results.” Indeed, “there exists throughout America today a rampant sabotaging of leaders who try to stand tall amid the raging anxiety-storms of our time. It is a highly reactive atmosphere pervading all the institutions of our society – a regressive mood that contaminates the decision-making processes. It is my perception that this leadership-toxic climate runs the danger of squandering a natural resource far more vital to the continued evolution of our civilization than any part of the environment.”
What might this natural resource be? It is the leader herself, or himself: “The way out 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.” Friedman can talk about the “maturity” or personal wisdom of the leader as a person, not as a leader: “Children rarely succeed in rising above the maturity level of their parents and this principle applies to all mentoring, healing, or administrative relationships.”
The leader is the one who must recognize the emotional forces at play, not only in a given company, but in society at large: “Sabotage comes with the territory of leading, whether in a family or an organization.” The 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. Contemporary leadership dilemmas have less to do with the specificity of given problems, the nature of a particular technique, or the makeup of a given group than with the way everyone is framing the issues.”
The issues that make or break us are not technical or even corporate, but inner, and emotional. Like addictive families, we tend to be driven by problems and the dysfunctional. We are all familiar with the way “the most dependent members of any organization set the agendas… thus leveraging power to the recalcitrant, the passive-aggressive, and the most anxious members of an institution rather than toward the energetic, the visionary, the imaginative, and the motivated.” What we fail to attend to is the process of “individuation,” personal growth, especially in leaders, who typically “rely more on expertise than on their own capacity to be decisive.” Not surprisingly, we have an “obsession with data and technique that has become a form of addiction and turns professionals into data-junkies and their information into data junkyards,” and so we misconstrue the “relational nature of processes.”
Friedman seeks the “well-differentiated leader,” one who can “focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than through techniques for manipulating or motivating others. By well-differentiated leader I do not mean an autocrat…although any leader who defines himself or herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Rather, I mean 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. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others.”
Staying above this emotional swirl sounds a bit lonely, and it is: “A leader needs the capacity not only to accept the solitariness that comes with the territory, but also to come to love it.” But it isn’t real loneliness; in fact it is all about where you are connected emotionally, and how. Friedman, as a family therapist, understands that “to the extent leaders are successful in their differentiating efforts in their own family of origin, there is immediate carry-over to their functioning in the organizations (or families) which they lead.” I cannot recall reading anything in any leadership book or blog about self-differentiation in one’s family of origin! Indeed, Friedman noted that “it certainly has not been my experience in working with imaginatively stuck marriages, families, corporations, or other institutions that an increase in information will necessarily enable a system to get unstuck. And the risk-averse are rarely emboldened by data…Imagination and indeed even curiosity are at root emotional, not cognitive, phenomena. In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from surrounding emotional processes before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently.”
Leaders do not wish to be “imaginatively stuck”! Breaking out into new life isn’t about more information or better technique. Rather, hope is all about better questions, uncertainty – and long, hard labor. “The treadmill of trying harder is driven by the assumption that failure is due to the fact that one did not try hard enough, use the right technique, or get enough information. Perseverance can also perpetuate a fix. In the search for the solution to any problem, questions are always more important than answers because the way one frames the question, or the problem, already predetermines the range of answers one can conceive in response. The great lesson here for all imaginatively gridlocked systems is that the acceptance and even cherishing of uncertainty is critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience. When families get fixed on their symptoms – abuse, alcoholism, delinquency, marital conflict, or chronic physical illness – rather than on the emotional processes that keep those symptoms chronic, they will recycle their problems perpetually. The same is the case when an entire society stays focused on the acute symptoms of its chronic anxiety. For there is no way out of a chronic condition unless one is willing to go through an acute, temporarily more painful phase.”
Indeed, for leaders who are “led hither and yon from crisis to crisis” but wish to lead differently, “there is no quick fix for avoiding a quick fix.” To begin, the leader must forget about the prized virtue of “empathy.” “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 their being. Ultimately, societies, families, and organizations are able to evolve out of a state of regression not because their leaders ‘feel’ for or ‘understand’ their followers, but because their leaders are able, by their well-defined presence, to regulate the systemic anxiety in the relationship system they are leading.”
Friedman devotes space to the well-known problem of emotional triangles – and surprisingly, they are not all bad for the leader: “Emotional triangles thus have both negative and positive effects on leaders. Their negative aspect is that they perpetuate treadmills, reduce clarity, distort perceptions, inhibit decisiveness, and transmit stress. But their positive aspect is that when a leader can begin to think in terms of emotional triangles and map out in his or her mind (or even better, on paper) diagrams of the family or organization, such analysis can help explain alliances and the difficulties being encountered in motivation or learning. This in turn can help the leader get unstuck by changing emotional processes and becoming more objective about what is happening. Identifying triangles is also useful in evaluating the maturity of family members or coworkers.”
All such changes are hard, and require the calm, differentiated self of the leader: “As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished. Self-differentiation always triggers sabotage. The important thing to remember about the phenomenon of sabotage is that it is a systemic part of leadership. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful.”
The shift Friedman envisions is away from “old world superstitions” (such as ‘The key to successful leadership is understanding the needs of their followers,’ ‘Communication depends on one’s choice of words and how one articulates them,’ ‘Consensus is best achieved by striving for consensus,’ ‘Hierarchy is about power’) to a “new world orientation,” in which a leader’s major effect on his or her followers has to do with the way his or her presence (emotional being) affects the emotional processes in the relationship system; a leader’s major job is to understand his or her self; communication depends on emotional variable such as direction, distance, and anxiety; stress is due to becoming responsible for the relationships of others; hierarchy is a natural systems phenomenon rooted in the nature of protoplasm.”
So Friedman is all about a new kind of self in the leader, an inner strength that is hardly dependent on technique, information, or even the particular challenges of the company being led. Interestingly, in a Democracy, and certainly in religious institutions, there is a wariness of the strong personality. Jim Collins (Good to Great) suggests that corporate vitality does not hinge on the charisma and personal greatness of the leader; in fact, he and others suspect that the strong personality might prove to be counter-productive. Friedman could not disagree more. He certainly would eschew a sick personality that only appears to be ‘big’ on the outside. But the healthiest, strongest personality possible is the leader’s best gift to the organization. “The expression of self in a leader is what makes the evolution of a community possible.” Institutional problems “are not the result of an overly strong self in the leader, but of a weak or no self. Democratic institutions have far more to fear from lack of self in their leaders and the license this gives to factionalism (which is not the same as dissent) than from too much strength in the executive power.”
This is my summary of Friedman’s very wise, if disjointed, book – disjointed because others had to weave together notes and unedited pages into the final whole. But the unusual approach, and deep wisdom, of A Failure of Nerve is hopeful, I believe.