Book Review: A Failure of Nerve

Edwin Friedman was a rabbi and family therapist whose writings on leadership, including the book Generation to Generation (written for congregational leaders), were shaped by family systems theory. A Failure of Nerve was intended to be his magnum opus on leadership, but he died in 1996 before he could complete it.

In the book, Friedman argues that leadership in America is “stuck in the rut of trying harder and harder without obtaining significantly new results” (3). This, Friedman argues, is because our society is chronically anxious, and oriented toward safety rather than adventure. Friedman’s call throughout the book is for well-differentiated leaders, who he defines as “someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing” (14). There are several changes Friedman would like to make in our society’s understanding of leadership:

· Friedman calls for decisiveness over data: He sees the accumulation of more and more data as debilitating, and urges that a decision needs to be made in situations where the same question asked to various experts stops bringing in new information.
· Friedman calls for presence over technique: A lot of advice on leadership focuses on “how to”: move forward with a project, deal with problem situations/people, etc. Friedman thinks the presence of a well-differentiated, non-anxious leader with integrity solves these kinds of problems better than a focus on technique.
· Friedman calls for responsibility over empathy: He thinks above all, leaders need to take responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Rather than focusing on empathy, he argues that increasing one’s pain threshold for others helps them mature. This doesn’t mean completely ignoring other people; Friedman urges leaders to remain separate while being connected (in other words, in contact with others but not controlled by their emotions).

I can at times be a bit of a contrarian myself, and so I enjoyed the contrarian nature of this book. There are some really good insights here that I’m still chewing on, like his idea that it isn’t the decision that matters so much as what you do after you make it (following through). Unfortunately, the book was completed after Friedman’s death, and at times it reads like it. There are five-star passages and two-star passages. There is more that I think could have been said: In particular, Friedman warns leaders about the danger of sabotage, but never really fleshes out what it looks like or why it happens. All in all, though, it is a worthwhile book on leadership that gives a lot of food for thought.


2 thoughts on “Book Review: A Failure of Nerve

  1. It sounds as if he was especially influenced by Maury Bowen`s approach. That focuses particularly on anxiety as a problem in families and on the need for differentiation. I don’t particularly like what he says about empathy, though I see how it follows from his theory.

    1. I don’t think he mentions Bowen in the book, but I think he was certainly an influence. And yes, Friedman’s opposition to empathy does seem stark. Maybe he would have clarified or toned down more if he had been able to see the book through to publication, or maybe not. What I take away from it is that leaders shouldn’t spend their energy trying to make everyone happy, or back down from decisions that they know need to be made because they make other people anxious. I wouldn’t go as far as Friedman does in his criticism of empathy; it seems like an overcorrection of an unhealthy use of empathy to me.

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