Summary of Edwin Friedman’s ‘A Failure of Nerve’: Part 3

Other Posts in Series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 4Part 5, Part 6

The Addiction to Data

For Friedman, one of the greatest problems with modern leadership is to be found in its over-reliance upon data. Leaders who rely too heavily upon data will always end up feeling perpetually inadequate, unable to catch up or keep up to date. This ‘social science construction of reality’ confuses information with expertise, know-how with wisdom, change with almost anything new, and complexity with profundity’ (96). Leaders can only overcome this as they appreciate that not all data is useful, and develop criteria for determining what is.

The focus on information is a product of social regression. In an age of adventure, curiosity, and discovery thinking processes aren’t driven by such a fixated quest for certainty, or by such a consistent focus upon pathology. The ability of leaders to overcome the lure of data largely depends upon their capacity to resist the anxiety of society. Friedman regards our obsession with data as a sort of substance abuse, involving all of the usual problems that come with addiction: ‘self-doubt, denial, temptation, relapse, and withdrawal’ (98). All forms of addiction are related to the key themes of his book: ‘anxiety, lack of nerve, and poorly differentiated self’ (114). Leaders are simultaneously ‘overwhelmed and seduced’ by data, and feel guilt that they have not used enough.

There are two facets to the myth of data and technique. The first is that, if we just knew more, we would be able to fix anything. The second is that, if we fail, it is because we didn’t use the right technique.

Central to Friedman’s case against data-driven leadership is the fact that emotional processes are crucial and inextricable from our thinking. He points to a few key areas where the character and effects of data and technique driven leadership can be observed.


Not only does a focus upon information and data dominate medical training, data also proliferates through intake forms and their questions and on insurance forms. This focus on refined data isn’t merely a reflection of the increased sophistication of scientific knowledge, but is a way of organizing one’s mind ‘solely in terms of data categories that omit the emotional variables that might influence a patient’s response’ (101). This blinds physicians to the healing power of their own presence.

Perhaps more importantly, it directly affects the ‘nerve’ of patients. The data obsession focuses on pathology, inviting people to anxiety. It focuses on the body, to the exclusion of the place of the mind and will. The focus upon data, information, statistics, and probability, also encourages the assumption that health conditions are just some ‘roulette game played by life’, failing to factor in the degree to which the patient’s own response is bound up with the course of many illnesses. This can encourage data to take a sort of ‘morbidly deterministic quality’ (102).

Friedman observes the absence of questions that would assess a patient’s capacity for recovery, and questions that would ‘challenge patients to be more responsible for their own condition.’

Once one begins to include emotional variables in the overall data, such as current emotional binds, past tendencies in crisis, the ability to differentiate self from the emotional reactivity of relatives, and the capacity to maintain resolve, then it becomes possible to realize that the same procedure is never the same procedure, even if it is technically identical. The focus on data to the exclusion of emotional variables leaves the patient to hope that he or she “falls” into the right category. (103)

The media overwhelms us with ‘scientific studies’ that are confusing, contradictory, and which leave us paranoid, or feeling as powerless victims of fate, uncertain of how to proceed. The data-driven approach focuses upon pathology, and doesn’t pay enough attention to the exceptions, wherein lies the ‘basis for a self-differentiating approach to the determinism of data’ (107). All of these things conspire to make it even harder for patients to be decisive and non-anxious about their health.

Shorn of emotional variables, the glut of data risks creates ‘data junkyards’ of valueless information, lacking any criteria of meaning.

Mental Health

Even in an area where people should be paying the most attention to relational and emotional variables, a data obsession that eliminates or ignores them is manifested. Limited attention is paid to the people who continue to function effectively in society with mental disorders. There is a ‘moving fashion show of symptoms and cures’ in therapy (109). The rapidly shifting focus merely reveals that most of the issues are just symptoms of something deeper, and only serve as temporary foci of social anxiety.

Friedman makes the controversial claim that ‘the notion that one has to be able to understand the background of people in order to help them is ad hominem thinking in reverse’ (110). He argues that this approach fails to highlight the fact that patients ‘cannot rise above the maturity (or anxiety) level of their counselor’ (also excusing the counsellor from focusing upon his or her own personal growth). Focusing on the cultural or other background of patients excuses them from taking responsibility for their own behaviour and responses.

Friedman is here referring to the sort of cultural stereotypes whose imposition we submit to, or which we impose upon ourselves (e.g. English people are reserved). ‘Even if we knew all the ethnic and other sociological factors in a given family’s background, we still could not predict the emotional health of that family or of any given member’ (111). Culture does not cause family processes, but rather ‘stains’ it and makes it visible (he remarks upon the way that cultural stereotypes serve as a sort of palette from which we select those that most fit us and which we employ in a fashion that prevents change). Whatever the culture, it is the position of persons within the ‘triangles of their family’s emotional processes’ that makes the real difference.


Friedman observes that there is no evidence that the most successful parents are the ones with the most knowledge of the latest ‘data’ and ‘techniques’ of child-rearing.

Parenting is no different from any other kind of “managing.” The crucial issues in raising children have far less to do with proper technique than with the nature of the parents’ presence and the type of emotional processes they engender. (113)

Friedman observes the manner in which these emotional processes are intergenerational. It is extremely rare that a mother with a good relationship with her own mother will have trouble with her daughter. Likewise, a ‘highly reactive or hypercritical father’ will almost invariably be distant from his own family of origin. In order to address or avoid problems with their children, parents need to address their own troubled relationships, as relational problems with children almost invariably arise in those areas of the parent’s own traumatization. It also requires counsellors to do the same thing.

Rethinking Thinking

Friedman wants us to rethink the way that we think about our thinking. The brain is not primarily about the intellect. ‘Emotions do not simply modify thinking, reasoning, or decision-making processes; they are part and parcel of the process of reasoning’ (117). Thinking ‘always involves the self of the entire organism’ (119). Emotional processes – not to be confused with ‘emotional intelligence’ – are crucial to the formation of sound judgments. He challenges those who would put a lot of weight on differences between right and left brain thinkers, or between men and women in this area. The ability to self-differentiate and have healthy emotional processes transcends these distinctions, and is far more fundamental.

Friedman tries to elaborate on his position using Paul McLean’s outdated theory about the ‘Triune Brain’, arguing that ‘when anxiety reaches certain thresholds the instinctual, reptilian systems can take over the other set of controls and override the steering of the cortex’, even though the cortex still believes that it is in control (121). He points to the example of certain highly intelligent yet dysfunctional families, whose brilliance actually seems to intensify and reinforce unhealthy ways of relating. ‘Madness has more to do with how people function in a relationship system than with products of their intellect.’

Pathological emotional processes can hijack our reasoning processes. Rather than merely focusing upon stated beliefs and values in order to assess the saneness of other parties, leaders should focus upon the way that they function in relational systems. Even seemingly rational positions can be revealed to be driven by an underlying madness. Friedman gives three key symptoms of this emotional regression (which he associates with the supposed ‘reptilian brain’): 1) interfering in other’s relationships; 2) unceasing attempts to convert people to their position; 3) an inability to relate to people who differ with them. This evidence of ‘madness’ is universal and is not limited to one particular cultural context.

Friedman takes the relationship between the head and the body as an analogy for the understanding of leadership. He points out that the communication between the brain and the body is far deeper than commonly conceived, the brain has a ‘widespread “presence” … in the body’ (125). He argues that the brain’s communication with the body is ‘more a systemic process than a mere matter of communication relays.’

Out of this analogy (and Friedman’s analogies are fairly strong, more akin to thick ‘typologies’ than they are to illustrative parallels) arises a few points. First, a ‘head’ must be present in the body that it leads, but that presence ‘does not have to be communicated by a chain of command’ (126). Secondly, this presence is felt chiefly through its ‘impact’, rather than through its ‘messages’. Leadership is not about conveying information, but about ‘energy’, the making of an impact. Thirdly, if the head/body relation is more organic than hierarchical, proximity or contiguity may not be as important as commonly presumed. He illustrates this with the example of historical leaders who conveyed their presence to hundreds of thousands of men simultaneously.

This understanding of the connection between the brain and the body shows that, through his or her own self-definition, self-regulation, non-reactivity, and capacity to remain connected, a leader can make a critical difference. He or she can transmit a presence that has every bit as much capacity to regulate the various “members” of the organism it is leading through the substances it is transmitting and through the way it responds to the substances it is receiving.

Fourth, this approach might also suggest ‘biofeedback’ approaches to leadership, ‘rather than a dispensing of cures’ (127).

The Brain and other Bodies

Our recognition of the intimate connection between the brain and the body needs to be followed up with a greater leap of imagination, which recognizes that all persons within a family or institution are ‘connected by the emotional processes between them, and the relationship system is understood to be a self-organizing unit.’ We need to focus more upon relationship processes, and less upon discrete personalities.

Friedman challenges the common belief that leadership is primarily about the communication of ideas. Rather, he maintains, communication is an ‘emotional phenomenon’ and the key variables are the interrelational variables of ‘direction, distance, and anxiety’ (128).

Others can only hear you when they are moving toward you, no matter how eloquently you phrase the message. In other words, as long as you are in the pursuing, rescuing, or coercive position, your message, no matter how eloquently broadcast, will never catch up. And as for anxiety, it is the static in any communication system and can distort or scramble any message. It cannot be eliminated simply by turning up the volume, since that invariably also turns up the static.

A further example of the effect of relational systems upon their members is seen in the manner in which the presence of secrets can produce paranoia in an individual, in a manner that is not dependent upon their personality.

In a society driven by chronic anxiety, even its approaches to and the content of its leader training will become infected. Detached from healthy emotional processes and in service of data and technique, even our most esteemed academic institutions can be acting under the influence of a sort of ‘madness’ and should not necessarily be looked to for solutions.

A new way of seeing things within a family or society need not originate from outside. Novel thoughts can arise within such a society, but in order for this to occur, someone must first ‘get “outside” of its emotional processes even while remaining physically inside’ (130). Without overcoming the reactivity of a society, or escaping the automatic regulation of our thinking and acting by the emotional processes of the system, nothing will change.

Some thoughts

In conclusion, here are a few areas where I thought that it would be interesting to think about the possible relevance or implications of Friedman’s thought as outlined in this post.

First, doesn’t contemporary evangelicalism, especially in America, exhibit precisely the sort of technique and data-driven character that Friedman describes? I think, for instance, of the role that the Barna Group has played in evangelical thinking, or of the obsession with marketing and business techniques in evangelism and ecclesiology.

Second, the de-differentiating and de-selfing character of statistics and data-driven mindsets can be seen in much of our society’s thinking on issues of marriage and sexual behaviour. For instance, we are repeatedly reminded of the large percentage of professing Christians who divorce, or of the percentage of young people who have pre-marital sex. These data can be treated as if they were basic facts of life, to which we must simply resign ourselves, and act to minimize their damage. A greater focus upon the differentiating factors and emotional variables that enable teens to be sexually abstinent, or married couples to restore their marriages is crucial in such a context, if we are to resist the passivity and fatalism that can creep in through the de-selfing focus upon statistics.

Third, Friedman’s list of symptoms of madness are important: 1) interfering in other’s relationships; 2) unceasing attempts to convert people to their position; 3) an inability to relate to people who differ with them. It seems to me that these precise characteristics frequently characterize churches. Evangelism, rather than being driven by love, concern, and a desire to share good news, comes to be driven by an invasive ‘madness’, that has a psychological need to impose our views upon others and cannot differentiate enough to abide proximity with people who believe differently.

Finally, it seems to me that the idea of the leader as one making an impact through self-regulation of emotional processes and maintaining a non-anxious presence is important for models of church leadership, which can often be overly hierarchical. Also challenging is the idea that leadership is not primarily about the conveying of information. If this is truly the case, then what are we to say about the role that preaching plays in our understanding of leadership? Are we relying upon preaching to accomplish many things that can only be achieved through the preacher’s ‘presence’, rather than his words alone?

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 3

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  7. Travis Beck says:

    I completely agree about the impact of contemporary evangelicalism, and would say that yes, we have become addicted to the marketing and business models of ministry. But beyond that, we have become obsessed with “numbers”–# of members, # of people attending worship, # of baptisms, # of funerals, etc. It’s not clear, though, that these numbers teach us anything, that this data leads to wisdom. Moreover, they tempt us into thinking that when the numbers don’t look the way we want them to, the latest “technique” will fix them.

    As for preaching vs. presence, I think the impact of one’s preaching is related to one’s presence and both relate to the congregation’s own emotional processes. The less reactive and anxious the congregation, the less polarizing one’s sermons are likely to be, and the less likely people are to respond anxiously. Also, the presence one has while preaching impacts the emotional process of the preaching and hearing. And the presence of any worship leader has an impact on the emotional processes of worship and how the congregation experiences that act of worship.

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  10. Jennifer Mugrage says:

    Good stuff. I have experienced these dynamics both in family and at workplaces, Christian and non.

    I have sometimes thought that it’s a mistake to encourage Christian teens to engage in “evangelism.” I, for one, was so immature as a teen that my efforts did more harm than good. But I was told that not to evangelize was tantamount to denying Christ.

    Is Friedman’s book even more abstract/academic than your summaries here?

    The idea that a person can do the most good in a situation simply by being a peaceful presence there is also found in John White’s excellent book, Parents In Pain. That mere idea has helped me greatly.

    • Thanks, Jennifer.

      I share some of your reservations about the way that we push teens in the direction of evangelism. I’ve seen it work out badly for all concerned on a number of occasions.

      Friedman’s book is a fairly accessible read. I summarized it in order to encourage some people who would not otherwise read it to consider its main ideas, and in order to apply them more specifically to certain issues in evangelical contexts. I’ve found his work immensely illuminating myself.

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