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.

Leadership thru Family System’s Lens

Additional Articles:

Brian Virtue’s Article: How Leader Self-differentiation Impacts the Level of Empowerment in Missional Teams and Communities

Jay’s Notes on Friedman’s Theory of Leadership: Friedman Summary.pdf

Tagged with →  
Share →

6 Responses to Movement Leadership: Avoiding the Failure of Nerve

  1. Brian Virtue says:

    Hi Jay! Thanks for linking to the article and great job on the summary. What a great resource for introducing others to Friedman’s thought.

    I slightly updated the article/paper a while back so the following link is a better one to use. I forgot to delete the google doc.

    A link to the newer version (pdf) is:
    http://brianvirtue.org/Documents/Differentiation and Team Ldrship.pdf

    Great post.

  2. Brian Virtue says:

    my bad – I think I just threw you a bad link. http://brianvirtue.org/Documents/Differentiation%20and%20Team%20Ldrship.pdf should work

    Brian’s review of article with additional help on Friedman’s thinking (added from an email)


    Thanks for sending that. It was fun to read. If I have a hobby, and I’m not sure it counts, but this general arena would be it. I’m no expert, but I’ve tried to read as much as possible in this area over the past four years just because I find it so fascinating. I love reading and thinking through systems theory and how it relates to leadership and it’s really shaped or had an influence on most of my ministry the past few years.

    I thought the summary was great. It depends on what you’re using it for so that would influence any feedback I would have. As a summary I thought it really captured A Failure of Nerve Well. It was a good review for me for sure as I hadn’t thought about a couple of those concepts in awhile.

    One thing that jumped out to me was when you introduce the concept of the leader’s “presence” on page 1. Something I’ve experienced when I’ve had opportunities to try to explain Freidman or Bowen and the concept of “presence” is that most require a fair amount of explanation just to understand how the word is being used. More often than not, the leader being “present” still equates to a leader’s physical attendance rather than an emotional presence in the context of a larger system. It might take more elaboration on how you’re using the terms “present” or “presence” for someone without any familiarity to understand what that means and it’s significance in light of the overall theory. This is something I’ve struggled to figure out how to do well – explain differentiated presence in a brief and coherent way without having to get into all the nuances of Friedman. I’m not sure I’ve been super successful at that, but you may be able to find a helpful way of illustrating that.

    During the first 6 or 7 pages, before coming to the section titled “Stay Connected” I had started to feel that some of the portrayal of differentiation was coming across with a heavy “self-definition” bent to it, but that section helped. I think it’s a challenge to illuminate both sides of the staying separate/staying connected spectrum and also show how they need to coexist together. By the end I thought you brought both together well, but in the earlier pages I had a sense that differentiation was being more portrayed on the self-definition side of things.

    I noticed the triangles addendum too. John mentioned he was struggling with that and I agree that it’s the hardest concept to get a handle on. I think some of Friedman’s stuff on triangles is a little abstract or even arbitrary at times so that doesn’t help. It also doesn’t help that large sections of that book are pieced together from his notes because of his untimely death. Two other authors, Steinke and Gilbert have helped me a lot in this area of triangles. I attached a brief doc that I had that was emailed to me a awhile back from Steinke that is taken from that book I recommended in my comment to your blog post. It doesn’t have much on a triangles, but it’s a sample of his stuff.

    I’m not sure I can articulate it well yet, but I think the triangle concept is pretty key for providing concrete contexts and test cases that illuminate our own capacity for differentiation. This motivates me to go back to some of this stuff and see if there’s a way to coherently make that link.

    On a different note, it’s exciting that you and John are reading this. I think the theory and concepts have a lot of potential as we think about a lot of areas, leadership develop being one of them. But one of the huge areas that this affects is the cross-cultural arena. One of the things that drew me to this, besides it’s obvious relevance for leadership, is that it is a paradigm of leadership that is not overly “western” and incorporates a fair amount of eastern values as well. There’s not many paradigms available for leadership or leadership development that offer that. As we explore contextualizing leadership development (at least in Epic), this has been a key resource for us.

    You seem like a reading machine so I’ll include a link to amazon bookstore where I set up a page a while ago with books that I found really helpful in the family/congregational systems genre. The 3 books by Steinke I would recommend. The first (How Your Church Family Works) is his intro to congregational systems book, the second (Healthy Congregations) is more illustrative and driven from the body metaphor that Friedman also uses. The third (Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times) is His version of A Failure of Nerve, but it’s much shorter, much simpler, and geared towards a ministry context. Steinke was a student of Friedman’s. The link is : http://astore.amazon.com/brivirsboo-20

    It would be a dream some day to do a training on this stuff for team leaders or really anyone in ministry. We’ve been experimenting with distance education courses as part of our contextualized training effort in Epic and I’ve thought about down the road setting up a course or training that would be focused on Epic MTL’s development from this vantage point, but that might be for later on. We’ve tossed around the idea of an Epic Leadership Track in a couple years too where we integrate a lot of these concepts as well, but not sure if that’s got enough steam right now.

    Anyway, thanks for sending me that summary and inviting feedback and input on it. Anytime. I’m continually looking for more sharpening in my thinking as it relates to Freidman and systems theory so I’m always game to engage this stuff. There’s not been typically enough people around who have been interested enough in it to satisfy my desire to engage it more 🙂

    Thanks Jay, enjoy reading your thoughts. Hopefully this is helpful in some way,


  3. Jay Lorenzen says:

    Fixed. Thanks. Did you get my invite to the Gettysburg Conference on Twitter? Love to have you. for info: ifproperlyled.org

  4. Sam Osterloh says:

    Jay…This book is the most engaging book I’ve read in a long time! John Waidley and I have been discussing it.

  5. Vincent Randy says:

    Hi guys,
    I found this post while browsing for “homeostasis” and “Ed Friedman”.
    It is always nice to find people with a real interest with Bowen Family Systems Theory.

    I have been learning about it for some years, mostly through reading as well as through a distance learning program and a coach in the US (I work and live near Paris, France).

    I have found BFST to be very helpful in various areas of my life; it can be at times counterintuitive and so rich that one has to go back to the theory again and again and one will often understand something new. Yet it is one thing to read about it and something else to actually put it into practice.

    Thanks for your contributions.


  6. I very much enjoyed your summary of BFST and Ed’s leadship applications of it. I wondered if you would grant me permission to use your article (perhaps edited) as a feature in an upcoming issue of our LIM newsletter? Of course, full attribution would be given. I think it would be another opportunity for folks to better understand the theory and its implications for congregational leadership. Please let me know at your earliest convience. Thanks in advance.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *