Friedman and the Failure of Nerve

Some of the best books we read are re-reads – going back to a book and reading it again through another set of lenses.   I recently re-read the brilliant book by Edwin H. Friedman:  A Failure of Nerve:   Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Originally published in 1999. 

A key theme:  the well-differentiated leader [p. 14], by which he means someone who has clarity about his/her own life goals and is “less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes” that are inevitable in any organization.   He speaks of being connected but separate.  It is not that they are emotionally disconnected or, of course, autocratic.   They can be a challenging presence but also able to manage their own reactions to the anxiety around them.   I appreciated his point that no one does this easily.   But his key point:   effective leaders improve on their capacity to do this.

Then also, he writes [p. 53] :  “My thesis is that the climate of contemporary America has become so chronically anxious that our society has gone into an emotional regression that is toxic to well-defined leadership.”

The net result:  people want comfort rather than the true leadership that challenges  . . . “comfort is valued over the rewards of facing challenge”.

He goes on to speak of “sabotage.”   He notes:  True leadership – well-differentiated – will trigger a reaction.   “it is simply not possible to succeed at an effort of leadership through self-differentiation without triggering reactivity.”(246).  Thus, he writes:   “. . . the capacity of a leader to be prepared for, to be aware of, and to learn how to skillfully deal with this type of crisis [sabotage) may be the most important aspect of leadership.   It is literally the key to the kingdom. [p. 246-7).”

And of course – me, here, but me reading Friedman – we can only deal with sabotage if we are a non-anxious presence:  yes, emotionally connected, but not caught up in the swirl of the anxiety that may actually be caused by our leadership.

Institutional Intelligence is the capacity to work effectively within organizations.