During that blissful period of summer last year when the Bucks were World Champions and the Delta variant hadn’t yet scared everyone back into lockdown, SRH hosted a little soiree on our office balcony — just like we did often in The Before Times.
I was talking about leadership styles and culture building with John Knapp, the recently minted Executive Director of Marquette University’s Innovation Alley (and my colleague Julie’s fiancée). John schooled me on a book that has profoundly impacted my perspective on leadership: “A Failure of Nerve – Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix” by Edwin H. Friedman.
John sold the book like this: “This guy Friedman is a rabbi, a therapist and a management consultant.”
—Wait, what? Really? Holy schnikes.
“His theory is that the world is in crisis today because most leaders lack the nerve — the bravery — to stand strong when other people are freaking out emotionally. Leaders need to focus less on improving their systems and data and more on fortifying their own emotional presence.”
I was sold because this book promised an alternate perspective to servant leadership and pretty much everything else I’ve read on the topic recently.
I want to share some of Friedman’s key points, borrowing heavily from an online summary because somebody else took much better notes than me.
As you read this, know that in some facet of your life, you too are a leader..
More About Edwin Friedman
Edwin Friedman, born 1932 and died 1996, served for 20 years as a pulpit rabbi and for 25 years as an organizational consultant & family therapist in the Washington DC area. He also served in the Lyndon Johnson administration. His unique experience allowed him to observe leadership — and its problems — in the family, the church, and the political sphere.
Presence > Technique
According to Friedman, the real problem of leadership is a failure of nerve. Leaders fail not because they lack information, skill, or technique, but because they lack the nerve and presence to stand firm in the midst of other people’s emotional anxiety and reactivity.
Good leadership is all about presence: a leader’s ability to discern and navigate the emotional and relational climate of a family or organization. Rather than focusing on technique or know-how, leaders should focus on their own presence: becoming and staying a “well-differentiated leader.” Here’s what he means by that:
Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by reactivity. A well-differentiated leader doesn’t react to other people’s reactions; he or she is a calm, steady presence.
Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by a herding instinct. A well-differentiated leader has a strong sense of self and can effectively separate while remaining connected.
Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by blame displacement. A well-differentiated leader takes responsibility for himself and leads others to do the same.
Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by a quick-fix mentality; relief from pain is more important than lasting change. A well-differentiated leader realizes that true long-term change requires discomfort, and he or she is willing to lead others through discomfort toward change.
Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by poorly defined leadership. A well-differentiated leader takes decisive stands at the risk of displeasing others.
These characteristics of unhealthy emotional systems are easily seen in families; but Friedman suggests that this sort of chronic anxiety is a defining characteristic of our whole culture. “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… This kind of emotional climate can only be dissipated by clear, decisive, well-defined leadership.”
Friedman asserts that a leader’s job is to be “the strength in the system.” Families, groups, and institutions have “emotional fields” (like magnetic fields or gravitational fields). The leader’s self-differentiation, or lack thereof, has an effect on the emotional field. Leaders will either take on the chronic anxiety of the system, or they will transform that anxiety through their calm, steady, well-defined presence.
“Anxiety or Adventure?” Which am I encouraging?
Anxious leaders promote reactivity, herding, finger-pointing, short-sightedness and cowardice, which ultimately lead their people (families, relationships, companies) to gridlock and regression.
On the contrary, well-differentiated leaders inspire a sense of adventure and lead their people to overcome long-standing obstacles and discovering new heights and worlds.
In my favorite chapter, Friedman describes how well-differentiated leaders led Europe out of The Dark Ages and into The Renaissance — an unprecedented half-century of advancements in every aspect of civilization that began with The Nerve to rethink Earth’s shape and orientation to the sun.
I often think about this distinction — “Anxiety or adventure?” — as I prepare to react to high-stress situations at SRH: “How can I control my emotions and project calmness and confidence to inspire adventure vs. spread anxiety?”
My success always starts with the same three steps:
Inhale deeply and slowly through my nose.
Think “It’s only marketing.”