Summary of Edwin Friedman’s ‘A Failure of Nerve’: Part 1

Other Posts in Series: Part 2Part 3, Part 4Part 5, Part 6

I am presently reading Edwin H. Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, a provocative, stimulating, and eminently quotable book which challenges much popular wisdom along the way. I thought that I would share some of his insight with you all in a few posts, in which I articulate the core of his position, punctuating my summary with some of his pithy quotations.

Friedman’s book concerns itself with the crisis of leadership in America civilization, which he characterizes as a ‘failure of nerve’. This crisis of leadership is found throughout American civilization, in national, state, and local politics, in the legal system, in schools, businesses, and in families, which receive particularly close attention.

This crisis is exacerbated by many of the ways in which we seek to tackle our social problems. For instance, data is valued over maturity, technique over stamina, and empathy over personal responsibility. In Friedman’s understanding, the leadership crisis arises from a conceptual and emotional dimensions hindering progress and encouraging ‘regression’.

Where many focus on the ‘social science construction of reality’ in their understanding of such issues, focusing on the personalities and psychologies of individuals, or on their sociological and anthropological ‘niche’ (gender, race, ethnicity, income, class, etc.), Friedman sees this approach as tending to contribute to, rather than alleviate our problems. For Friedman the crucial issues are things that all groups and their members share in common, in particular the tension between the ‘forces for self and togetherness; the reciprocal, adaptive, compensatory functioning by the partners to any relationship; and the evolutionary consequences of self-differentiation for both that individual and other members of his or her community’ (4).

Friedman’s belief that universal emotional processes are the key to understanding leadership arises from his extensive experience with a broad range of different forms of leadership, communities, and relationships in different contexts, in families, religious and educational institutions, business, politics, etc.

Friedman attacks the manner in which organizations primarily adapt themselves to their most dependent, recalcitrant, and anxious members, rather than to ‘the energetic, the visionary, the imaginative, and the motivated’ (12). He argues that the devaluation of the important of self-differentiation as the key to leadership is the origin of many of our problems in the area, causing leaders to depend more upon their ‘expertise’ than on their capacity to be decisive. More technique and data won’t solve problems that arise from embedded emotional processes. A failure to understand the manner in which these processes operate causes us to believe that they can be resolved or regulated ‘through reasonableness, love, insight, role-modeling, inculcation of values, and striving for consensus.’

In Friedman’s extensive experience, the crucial factor that distinguished families that flourished through crisis and those who failed was the presence of a ‘well-differentiated leader’. Friedman seeks to show that strength lies in ‘presence’ rather than ‘method’, ‘to enable leaders to avoid trying to instill insight into the unmotivated’, show the unhelpfulness of leadership concepts such as ‘role-modeling’, ‘emulation’, and ‘identification’, and how self-differentiation ‘can make the dependency of the unimaginative and the recalcitrant work for instead of against them’ (26).

Imaginative Gridlock

The first chapter of A Failure of Nerve presents the case of Europe at the end of the 15th century as an example of a society that was emotional regressed and struck in imaginative gridlock. However, the next half century witnessed a complete transformation, and a virtually unprecedented degree of change and progress, not a mere continuation of existing processes, but a quantum leap, or ‘punctuated equilibrium’. While many attribute this cultural rebirth to a renewed interest in learning, Friedman questions this, arguing that it was primarily a shift in emotional rather than cognitive processes that gave rise to the transformation: ‘Imagination and indeed even curiosity are at root emotional, not cognitive, phenomena’ (31). Friedman believes that it was the discovery of the New World, rather than learning, that awakened Europe’s inventiveness and threw open its imaginative horizons.

Using this transformation of European culture as an allegory, Friedman aims to show that

Any renaissance, anywhere, whether in a marriage or a business, depends primarily not only on new data and techniques, but on the capacity of leaders to separate themselves from the surrounding emotional climate so that they can break through the barriers that are keeping everyone from “going the other way.” (33)

The imaginatively gridlocked system will be characterized by a continual treadmill of trying harder, ‘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’ (35). This overlooks the possibility that ‘thinking processes themselves are stuck and imagination gridlocked, not because of cognitive strictures in the minds of those trying to solve a problem, but because of emotional processes within the wider relationship system.’ This is illustrated by Europe’s fixation on finding routes to the East (to the extent that the large land mass of America was perceived by many to be ‘in the way’), and its failure to see the great possibilities that were open to it on account of this treadmill.

The imaginatively gridlocked system is also characterized by a ‘continual search for new answers to old questions rather than an effort to reframe the questions themselves’ (37). ‘Innovations are new answers to old questions; paradigm shifts reframe the question, change the information that is important, and generally eliminate previous dichotomies.’ The concern to find the right answer to an unquestioned question results from and contributes to a fixed orientation and keeps one on the treadmill. For pre-1500 Europe, this can be illustrated by the ‘locked-horns’ relationship with the Moors that prevented Europe from realizing ‘that by going in the opposite direction, it had found more than it was looking for’ (39).

The third key characteristic of the imaginatively gridlocked system is ‘either/or, black-or-white, all-or-nothing ways of thinking’. Friedman maintains that ‘such intense polarizations also are always symptomatic of underlying emotional processes rather than of the subject matter of the polarizing issue.’ The capacity of differences to polarize owes more to the emotional processes operative in a context than to the differences themselves. This ‘either/or’ way of thinking led to a European debate over whether it was 3000 or 10000 miles from Europe to Japan. The third possibility – that there was another piece of land in between – was missed by many, less on account of ignorance than on account of the emotional processes that sustain such polarized thinking (40).

Friedman draws attention to the manner in which explorers of this era of Europe’s history broke ‘emotional barriers’, barriers that had locked people into certain ways of imagining, thinking, and acting. The relationship between risk and reality is crucial to the reorientation process. He highlights ‘three facets of the discovery process’. First, when the quest is an ‘open-ended search’ for novelty and adventure, rather than certainty and ‘a driven pursuit of truth’, mistakes cease to be such a problem. Second, there is a valuing, rather than a fear of chance and serendipity. The uncertain and unexpected is to be welcomed. Finally, there is a will to overcome emotional and imaginative barriers – beliefs ‘born of mythology and kept in place by anxiety’, which exert a primarily dissuasive force. The equator was one such barrier for 15th century Europeans.

Friedman identifies three emotional barriers that prevent true leadership in our own day: 1. the belief that data is more important to leadership than the capacity to be decisive; 2. the belief that empathy for others will make them more responsible; 3. the belief ‘that selfishness is a greater danger to a community than the loss of integrity that comes from having no self’ (49).

The Goal of the Work

Friedman concludes by sketching the reorientation that he wishes to accomplish in our thinking through his book (50).

  • Imagination is emotional, rather than cerebral
  • Anxiety is between people, rather than in the mind
  • The capacity to be decisive is more important than being as informed as possible
  • We should foster ‘responsibility for one’s own being and destiny’ over feelings, sensitivity, and rights
  • Rather than being a selfishness that destroys community, a leader’s well-defined self is essential to the integrity of the community
  • Reality is about relationship, rather than the nature of things and we should focus on differentiating self, rather than motivating others
  • Stress results from one’s position in relational triangles, rather than hard work
  • Crisis and sabotage can be signs of success
  • The past resides in the present and isn’t merely a prelude to it

Friedman’s position is provocative and daring. It will ruffle the feathers of many, perhaps especially on the left of the political spectrum. It raises a number of questions, some of which Friedman addresses at later points in the book. Already one might be wondering, for instance, to what extent Friedman’s approach might commit him to a ‘Great Man theory’ of history, and might have questions about the history that underlies his extended allegory, and whether Friedman is in part projecting what he claims to find there. Several further questions will arise as we proceed. Nevertheless, I believe that the frequently profoundly insightful and challenging nature of Friedman’s approach makes it worthy of attention and interaction, perhaps even if we demur on a number of the key aspects of his thesis.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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11 Responses to Summary of Edwin Friedman’s ‘A Failure of Nerve’: Part 1

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  10. April Fiet says:

    This is fascinating!

  11. jacook89 says:

    So powerful. Some great thoughts to think about as a leader in my organization. One of my biggest problems I am now experiencing repercussions for is the constant empathy to the “followers” of my organization. Several don’t react responsibly to this, and many times, are negative in nature.

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