I’ve spent the last two weeks unpacking some of the work of Edwin Friedman, whose book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, has significantly challenged my thinking about leadership. Below is a brief outline of Friedman’s approach to leadership, as I understand it.
(I’ve added several links at the end of this post, one to my summary notes and another to a paper by Brian Virtue. If you’d like more info, you might want to read these extended discussions.)
As you read thru the following points, have in mind some movement leaders in the past (Jesus, Paul the Apostle, William Wilberforce, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., Bill Bright, others?). Do they practice what Friedman calls “well-differentiated leadership?”
How then do leaders of movements avoid a failure of nerve? They
1. Think “systematically” (or embrace a systems approach.)
To understand our role as leaders, Friedman argues that the leader must think systemically, embracing the interconnectedness of the whole network of relationships in an organization (institution/movement/church, etc.) In other words, the functioning of any member, including the leader, plays a significant role in the functioning of the other members of the organization.
Thus, when viewed through a systems lens, leadership is a functioning position that is present in all relational systems. From this perspective, how that position is filled – – how the “leader” is present in the system – – is the crucial issue. A system will either benefit or suffer from the way the leader is present because the functioning of the leader (or leaders) affects the emotional processes inherent in all relational systems .
2. Acknowledge the Role of Emotional Processes within the System
Because an organization is a living, interrelated system, leaders and followers are intimately connected through their emotional processes or the interaction of their thoughts, feelings, emotions, fantasies, and associations, their past connections individually and together – with positive or negative effects on the health of the organization.
Freidman’s theory of leadership thus relies heavily on the cumulative effect of these emotional processes–how emotionally mature people are, their emotional reaction to anxiety and one another, and how individuals/groups manage or self-regulated their emotions.
3. Realize that Emotional Processes Tend Toward Imaginative Gridlock
Friedman argues that emotional systems often become “imaginatively gridlock”–conceptually stuck. To Friedman, imaginatively gridlocked systems will not change on their own by getting new or more learning. “There must be a shift in the emotional processes of that institution. Imagination and indeed even curiosity are at root emotional, not cognitive, phenomena. In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from surrounding emotional processes before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently.”
Unfortunately, most organizational systems tend toward “homeostasis”–desiring stability and balance rather than adventurous exploration.
4. Realize that Emotional Processes Tend Toward Chronic Anxiety
Friedman argues that relationship systems can tend toward chronic, systemic anxiety—in families, institutions, and society— and that anxiety not only hinders the development of the system but also operates at the same time to derail leadership. The presence of chronic anxiety affects all systemic relationships, and all of life itself. Chronic anxiety is not what we think of as being overtly “anxious” about something. It is the “emotional and physical reactivity of all life” generated by individual and group reactions to disturbances in the balance of a relationship system.
As I mentioned in my previous post on the Audacity of Leadership, Friedman describes five elements of chronic anxiety as: reactivity, herding, blame displacement, a quick-fix mentality, and lacking in well-differentiated leaders. One can recognize “chronic anxiety” by the absence of playfulness, which reflects both intimacy and the ability to maintain distance. Without it, organizations lose perspective, everything becomes dire, the repertoire of responses to problems are thin.
5. Lead through Self-differentiation
The solution to imaginative gridlock and chronic anxiety in the organization, according to Friedman, is the presence of well-differentiation in the leader(s) In other words, leadership through self-differentiation.
“Self-differentiation is a term used to describe one whose emotional process is no longer ultimately dependent on anything other than themselves. They are able to live and function on their own without undue anxiety or over-dependence on others. They are self-sufficient. Their sense of worth is not dependent on external relationships, circumstances or occurrences.”
How do leaders become well-differentiated?
They take Time to Self-Define
To define self is to give expression to the thoughts, values and goals one holds dear. It includes taking stands. To use biblical language, it is self-revelation. It has both an internal and external dimension. You work on what you believe and you let others know where you stand. My responsibility as a leader is to get clear about what I think and believe and communicate those thoughts and beliefs in words and actions – – not to get others straight about what they should think and believe. The well-differentiated leader is always working on self.
They practice Self-Regulation
Basic to the process of self-differentiation is the task of consciously working at regulating one’s anxiety. This includes acknowledging the anxiety and intentionally regulating one’s reactivity to it. It is hard, daily work. But the leader engaged in self-differentiation accepts the challenge. She/he knows that change in the emotional process is facilitated by focusing upon the modification of one’s own behavior rather than the functioning of others.
Leaders have to work at disconnecting their “hot buttons.” A non-reactive presence in a system has a calming influence on the emotional processes in the system. In one of Friedman’s favorite metaphors, he argues that such leaders can break, like an electrical transformer, the transmission of anxiety throughout the system.
They Stay Connected
Self-differentiating leaders work at self-regulation and self-definition while maintaining connection to their relational systems. They realize that they cannot affect an emotional system of which they are not a part. The key is being well-differentiated AND in touch with your followers. The central dilemma for leaders is how do we get close and maintain self?
They Expect Resistance
Friedman referred to a leader’s ability to maintain a posture of non-reactive persistence – – staying on course in the face of resistance – – as “the key to the kingdom.” Although leaders may seem surprised and disappointed by the reactivity of others to what they consider their creative self-differentiated leadership efforts, resistance is actually systemic in nature. It comes with the territory. Leaders must be prepared for resistance and be ready to keep plugging away.
Self-differentiated leadership disturbs the homeostasis, the “balance”, of an emotional system. The resistance is the “kickback” of the systemic forces themselves to this “loss of balance” – – even if the original condition was one of “stuckness.” In contrast to the “rearrangement of symptoms” that often passes for change, systemic change includes resistance to the unfamiliar and therefore uncomfortable readjustment that is necessary to move to a new state of balance.
They Avoid Peace-Mongering
Friedman coined the phrase “peace-monger” to describe the destruction caused by some leaders in their communities. The leader’s failure of nerve reflects the epidemic in today’s culture that favors false harmony and good feelings over progress and integrity. His words about peace-mongering are biting:
“In any type of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true one hundred percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the very top of that institution is a peace-monger. By that I mean a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consensus, a “middler,” someone who is so incapable of taking well-defined stands that his “disability” seems to be genetic, someone who functions as if she had been filleted of her backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas–one whiff, on goes the emotional gas mask, and he flits. Such leaders are often “nice,” if not charming.”
Sources: this article was compiled from several sources other than Friedman’s book–without citing them. I can’t now recall all the sources I used but I’m now confident one resource that further triggered an interest was Lawrence Matthew’s article, Leadership thru Family Systems Lens, which I’ve attached below. Check out the work and research of the Leadership in Ministry Workshops which Lawrence Matthew founded here.
Jay’s Notes on Friedman’s Theory of Leadership: Friedman Summary.pdf