Summary of Edwin Friedman’s ‘A Failure of Nerve’: Part 5

Other Posts in Series: Part 1Part 2Part 3, Part 4, Part 6

The Importance of Self

There is a constant struggle in life between the forces that seek to play it safe and merely reproduce the status quo, and the forces of creativity and the preservation of individuality. Unfortunately, in contemporary society self has become associated with ‘autocracy and narcissism rather than with integrity and individuality’ (161). This association leads many people to characterize leaders with a well-differentiated self in negative terms, sabotaging their decisive leadership in the name of safety and togetherness. Friedman contrasts aggressive leadership (in the sense of leadership driven by a strong imaginative rather than hostile intent) with ‘aggressionistic’ leadership, which is by nature hostile and invasive.

The well-defined self of the leader, far from being a threat to the community, is that characteristic that is most likely to enable the preservation of the self of the members of the community. ‘The twin problems confronting leadership in our society today, the failure of nerve and the desire for a quick fix, are not the result of overly strong self but of weak or no self’ (163). While autocratic leadership is definitely unhealthy, ‘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).’

Friedman illustrates some of his principles using the structure of American government, and the manner in which it brings the ‘togetherness advantages’ of a larger organism, while maintaining the ‘integrity’ of the individual states. He argues that this illuminates an underlying principle: ‘For life to continue to evolve, all newly developed forms of togetherness ultimately must be in the service of a more enriched individuality, and not the other way around’ (169). He also relates his concept of self to the evolution of organisms in nature such as, for instance, the differentiated cell, which can preserve its own individuality and integrity through producing other cells with the same function, and through being able to mount a defence against ‘not-self’, other entities that would invade or parasitize it (168).

Understanding Self

The struggle between individuality and togetherness exists in every relationship system, and is a far more basic issue for compatibility in relationships than any other (social science) difference. (172)

One does not need to have authoritarian rulers to destroy the integrity of a populace: all that is required is a ramping up of the togetherness instinct to a degree that undermines all individuality and presents it as something to be regarded with suspicion. While team-building and togetherness have their place, they are not the most pressing needs in our society.

After the barrier of data and the barrier of empathy, the pathologizing of self is the third great emotional barrier that leaders need to overcome. Only as leaders value self can they begin to recognize how self-definition is more important than feeling for others, and ‘emphasize the response of the organism rather than the conditions of the environment’ (174). To focus on enabling others and teambuilding merely dodges the issue that someone still has to go first and take the lead. Leadership is about having and embodying a vision of where to go and, most crucially, taking the first step (179).

The concept of self is profoundly ambiguous and ambivalent, being associated with both positive (e.g. self-assured, self-possessed, self-control, self-determined) and negative values (e.g. self-centred, self-justifying, self-seeking, self-serving). One of the difficulties that we face is that the togetherness force is often simplistically equated with morality, despite the numerous problems that it causes in dysfunctional families and societies. While some sort of balance is desirable, the togetherness force seems to be blinder to the importance of individuality than the impetus towards individuality is to the value of the togetherness force.

Friedman believes that a newer understanding of the immune system, less as that which provides a series of defences against invaders, and more as the source of an organism’s integrity is crucial to our understanding of self. The immune system makes possible the idea of self by enabling the distinction between self and non-self. It is something that grows in response to challenge, is necessary for healthy proximity and love, and can be perverted to attack its host. In these respects it provides a powerful illustration of Friedman’s conception of the self.

The importance of self, understood as an immune system, for love should be recognized. A clearly defined self grants us protection against the relational problem of emotional fusing. A clearly defined self prevents us from invading the emotional space of others in a manner that would create a dysfunctional system, and cause the other person’s self to disintegrate.

‘Self is not merely analogous to immunity; it is immunity’ (181). The leader is the immune system of the institution or organization of which he or she is the head.


Differentiation is the lifelong process of striving to keep one’s being in balance through the reciprocal external and internal processes of self-definition and self-regulation. It is a concept that can sometimes be difficult to focus on objectively, for differentiation means the capacity to become oneself out of one’s self, with minimum reactivity to the positions or reactivity of others. (183)

Differentiation ‘is the capacity to take a stand in an intense emotional system.’ It enables us to resist polarizing forces and maintain a non-anxious presence in an anxious system, and not allow ourselves to become one the system’s ‘emotional dominoes’. It enables us to recognize where we end and others begin, and to have clearly defined personal values, boundaries, and goals. Differentiation is that which enables us to take the maximum amount of responsibility for our being and destiny.

Differentiation should not be confused with ‘similar-sounding ideas such as individuation, autonomy, or independence’ (184). Differentiation is about our emotional being, not primarily our behaviour. It does not involve cutting ourselves off from others, but maintaining a particular form of presence and connection. It is about preserving the integrity of our being. Differentiation is only meaningful when there is a capacity to connect.

The concept of differentiation gives us a variable that helps to explains the non-determinism of social and family systems. It points out that the crucial factor distinguishing factor between persons who are swept along with the system and those who escape or limit its influence is to be found, not in the regular categories of sociology or psychodynamics, but in the individual’s capacity to act in a differentiated manner. This means that a space is always preserved for the individual’s responsibility. It also means that social and family systems cannot be made to take all the responsibility for the actions of people within them.

Friedman argues that his model of leadership will show ‘that morality has more to do with space than with values, with dependency than with power’ (186). The presence of a well-differentiated leader will stir up an anxious response in others. The crucial task of the leader is that of remaining connected in a non-anxious manner.

A New Paradigm

At this point, Friedman reviews much of the ground that has been covered, and explores the significance of the conceptual shift that it involves. ‘In the final analysis, the relationship between risk and reality is about leadership’ (187). Overcoming the emotional anxiety of pre-1500 Europe required the nerve of individuals who were prepared to go first. The characteristics that marked these men out were their ability to ‘get outside the emotional climate of the day,’ their willingness to be exposed and to proceed without a safety net, their persistence in the face of resistance and rejection, their stamina in the face of sabotage, and their willingness to value their goals over consensus and teambuilding. These attributes are universal, not depending on personality, cultural, or gender traits, and are relevant in any family, society, or institution. They concern the ability to maintain one’s orientation and non-anxiety in a disoriented and anxious world.

Friedman contends that ‘the conventions through which we try to understand human relationships today may be as misoriented as was the medieval view of heaven and earth’ (193). He regards his approach as one which can overcome the barriers or superstitions of our imaginations that hold us captive. In fact, even if such a radically new position turns out to be wrong ‘it can lead to ways of functioning that serendipitously stumble on the unimaginable.’

For Friedman, the importance of the family systems model that he employs is to be seen in the way that it can ‘shift the unity of observation from a person to a network, and to focus on the network principles that [are] universal rather than specific to culture’ (195). The difference between families and other institutions or societies is more in degree or intensity than in kind.


‘The term emotional system refers to any group of people who have developed interdependencies to the point where the resulting system through which they are connected (administratively, physically, or emotionally) has evolved its own principles of organization’ (197). Within such a system the system exerts far more of an influence upon the functioning of its members than the members do upon the system.

The essential characteristic of systems thinking is that the functioning of any part of the network is due to its position in the network rather than to its own nature. Nature may determine the range of possible functioning and response, but not what specifically it will express.

While most thinking about institutions focuses on the personalities and psychodynamics of those within them, Friedman argues that within institutions ‘individuals function not out of their own personalities or past, but express that part of their nature that is regulated by the emotional processes in the present system’ (198). There are two key dimensions to these forces: the forces transmitted from generation to generation, and the forces resulting from people’s position in ‘relational triangles’ (which we shall look at more closely in the next, and final, post). These self-organizing and multigenerational forces cannot be reduced to the level of individual psychology. ‘Relationships are not simply the product of the personalities involved, but are constantly evolving structures that take shape from the adaptation of each member to the adaptations other make to them in response’ (199).

Within such a context, leadership ‘begins with freedom from a given institution’s emotional field; leaders neither react to it nor withdraw from it.’ In contrast to most conventional models, such a model recognizes ‘the past as a continuous process that goes well beyond the impact of the previous generation.’ Each generation will, to some extent or other, ‘continually format the shape’ of those that follow. ‘This continuous view of time enables one to see that the nature of relationships in the present has more to do with emotional processes that have been successively reinforced for many generations than with the logic of their contemporary connection.’ Institutions will tend to ‘institutionalize the pathology, or the genius, of the founding families.’ To change the shape of an institution requires a particular strength of leadership.

This approach reveals just how similar the principles of life’s processes and organization are on all levels of existence, from the smallest cell, to the largest nation. It shows that the principles of leadership ‘extend across the board to all forms of contemporary institutional life’ (200).


First, as Christians our concept of self (as the de-centred self in Christ) is not a conventional one. However, it still retains and is the source of much of the ambiguity and ambivalence of our cultural conceptions of the self. Likewise our concepts of leadership should be ones of service, rather than domination. In reading someone like Friedman, I believe that it is crucial that we relate what he is saying to and test what he is saying by our particular Christian understandings of self and leadership.

On this front, I believe that Friedman’s position, while not exhaustively congruent with Christian convictions, provides us with important insight. The ‘self’ of the Christian leader ought to be defined differently from the self of the non-Christian leader. However, in both cases a well-defined self is crucial to leadership. The integrity of the Church and the people of God arises from Christ as their head. Consequently, all leadership must be founded upon a well-defined sense of the identity of Christ, and the distinction between what is Christ-ian and what is of the world. The Church’s sense of self is orthodoxy. In maintaining this distinction through the establishment and inculcation of orthodoxy and the exercise of Church discipline, Christian leaders function as the immune system of the Church.

Second, the failure to differentiate from the world through a strong sense of identity and the Church’s selfhood renders the Church anxious and prone to polarizing forces. Lacking means of differentiation, the Church may constantly feel vulnerable to the loss of its identity and may become more invasive and interfering in its relationships with other groups in society. In such a context, rather than providing the Church with a truly differentiated identity, ‘orthodoxy’ functions reactively. While, as a self-defining immune system, orthodoxy should act to resist the non-Christian forces that seek to compromise or invade it, it should not fixate upon those forces.

True differentiation, rather than being defined by its reactive character, has the capacity to become itself out of its own self. For the Church, this means that we become the Church by focusing on Christ and his identity, not by merely reacting against the world. As Stanley Hauerwas and others have remarked, the primary political act of the Church is that of being the Church and our primary political context is that of the assembly gathered in worship and the celebration of the Eucharist. Christian identity won’t ultimately be secured by changing the toxic environment of our nations, but by creating a robust and differentiated Church that has an immune system that is capable of dealing with its environment. Without a true and secure immune system of orthodoxy, the Church either becomes reactive, polarized, invasive, and interfering, or gradually loses all distinction from the world around it.

Third, if the principles of organization and leadership of all relational systems from the cellular to the international level are really so similar, then we will be more inclined to recognize true leadership as a transferable skill from one context to another. In particular, I believe that this helps us to see the wisdom of the biblical principle whereby the leadership ability of an elder should be recognizable in the context of the family (1 Timothy 3:4-5), and those who lack such ability are disqualified for eldership. If someone is reactive and un-self-regulated in family leadership, why should we expect him to be any different in his leadership of the Church?

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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8 Responses to Summary of Edwin Friedman’s ‘A Failure of Nerve’: Part 5

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