A Failure of Nerve:
Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

Edwin H. Friedman
Seabury Books, 2007

The purpose of this review is to help Christian leaders engage with Edwin Friedman’s genuine insights into leadership in a society that has become increasingly anxious. I will offer up at points, in no great triumph of exegesis, some scriptural observations as to why we might not always wholeheartedly agree with him, yet in general affirm his conclusions on leadership. Edwin H. Friedman was an ordained rabbi who was for twenty years a leader in a synagogue. He was also a practicing family therapist and consultant to leadership in different spheres of life, from the family through to the American defence force. A Failure of Nerve was published sometime after his death and is at points an incomplete manuscript. This book is great, a summary of a secular sage’s life investment in leadership. 
Here is Friedman’s own confession of who the book is for and what it is about:


‘This book is for parents and presidents. It is also for CEOs and educators, prioresses and coaches, healers and generals, managers and clergy. It is about the leadership in the land of the quick fix, about leadership in a society so reactive that it cannot choose leaders who might calm its anxiety.’

Friedman makes his analysis based on American society, but this book is so compelling because of the universal nature of the behaviours of people in a chronically anxious system. Needless to say, if he is right, this book has a global appeal for leaders and goes at least part of the way in helping us understand why leadership today is in urgent need of people who are able to hold their nerve and stay the course in a highly anxious society.

Here is a quick taste of the contents: chronically anxious systems are stuck, unable to move forward. Anxious systems don’t have to be societies, of course. They can be families, business relationships, churches etc. We can all be trapped into thinking we cannot possibly do X or Y because we live with what Friedman calls ‘emotional equators’. Sometimes our fears and insecurities are the emotional equators and when we do not recognise these ‘equators’ for what they are, we become a regressive, rather than evolving, progressive society, workplace, family etc. Friedman explores what a chronically anxious environment looks like. Without spoiling the book, here are the essentials of a highly anxious community; highly reactive, herding, blame displacement, a quick fix mentality, and a failure of nerve in leadership.

The chapters following offer a critique of a data driven world, and a negative analysis of empathy—which is food for thought. Other chapters include a robust argument for the importance of ‘self’ and how the concept of self is being eradicated and renamed ‘selfish’; an analysis of relationships as emotional triangles and the importance of understanding these relational dynamics if we are to lead change through the path of least resistance; and a chapter on ‘crisis and sabotage’ with some of the soundest advice of the book.

These three things I liked about Friedman’s book: first, it attempts to free leaders to make decisions and follow through on them, to use their imagination, to risk, to refuse to be driven by data alone, and to realise that all good leadership will be subject to sabotage. Second, the book has an amazing set of metaphors or allegories and stories that excite and motivate leaders to be decisive, even in an anxious climate, affirming a clear, calm, connected approach that encourages leaders to be patient and hold their nerve. Third, its appreciation of the fact that when people make decisions, they are rarely driven by rational processes alone. Decisions are almost always driven in part if not in whole by emotional processes.

However, I did not like everything. The references to the evolutionary processes of how we came to be who we are felt a little forced. Though the allegory of evolutionary development is novel and fruitful in helping the reader understand concepts about chronically anxious systems, togetherness forces and forces of differentiation, one could equally arrive at the same conclusions via a biblical understanding of what it means to be a creature in the image of God.

Also, from a Christian perspective Friedman’s definition of good leaders reads a little like Nietzsche’s superman. His read on good leaders is, they will be called narcissistic, cold, and calculating just because they refuse to be reactionary, just because they remain well differentiated. Though we can affirm that sometimes this is the case, sometimes good leaders will lead poorly and will at times be cold and calculating narcissists who need to repent of their sin.

Further, Friedman doesn’t believe in empathy, only sympathy and compassion. He believes empathy has been hijacked and becomes a tool for sabotage. This may be true, but the bible has many examples of what we might consider empathetic gestures. The apostle Paul puts it like this; ‘and our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort’. (2 Cor 1:7). If empathy is about being able to put yourself in the position of another, this passage is a good example.

Finally, Friedman provides plenty of pragmatic initiatives to help leaders remain differentiated, unaffected by the emotional processes of others whilst remaining connected. However Christian leaders need a more realistic assessment of human frailty than Friedman is willing to offer. Ironically, it is our doctrine of weakness that makes us strong and able. It is our doctrine of childlike faith, a faith that expresses itself in total dependence upon God that will help us stay the course.

If you’re a leader in a church, read this book. If you’re a leader in a dying church, definitely read this book. If you’re a Christian leader about to encourage a new path for your church, a necessary but unpopular path, read this book. The privilege of this book is the many years of experience that drives the conclusions that liberate leaders to take risks and enjoy a treacherous journey.

Tim Ravenhall, Newcastle Presbyterian, Civic Park, NSW.