A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman

151881For the most part, this book is amazing. It’s full of the kinds of ideas that make my brain feel like it’s been picked up and turned in a different direction. I feel refreshingly disoriented, as though the world holds more possibilities than I realized.

The pages of the library copy I read are porcupined with neon-colored paper flags as I tried to mark all of the passages I wanted to quote, especially from the first five chapters, which apply family systems theory to explain why there are problems within all sorts of systems—families, corporations, governments—that are resistant to fixing by myriad leadership techniques and logical plans of action. These sections helped me understand better what has been going on in the United States during my lifetime (and perhaps for a long time before I was born) and reading them helped decrease my surprise at the outcome of this year’s presidential election. Seeing what’s going on around me as part of a natural, necessary progression also helped to decrease my anxiety. Of course, things are bound to get worse before they get better and there’s no guarantee they’ll be better in my lifetime, but the fact that there’s hope is, well, hopeful.

Friedman wasn’t able to finish the book before his death in 1996, so it’s not surprising that the later chapters are the ones that leave me wanting. The only significant example of differentiated leadership that he provides is of his own experience managing various emotional triangles during a health crisis. I did not expect a step-by-step guide to self-differentiation, but having more examples would have been very helpful. I get that the differentiated leader acts as an electrical transformer within a system (Friedman’s analogy in chapter 8, on p 232 of the edition I read), taking in anxiety at 11,000 volts and ramping it down to a manageable 110 volts on the other side, and that the differentiated leader does this largely through self-awareness, self-regulation, and an awareness of the interlocking relationships within any system. This knowledge helps me to see my relationships with my family of origin, with the family I’ve built, and with my religious community in a different light, but I could really use more examples of what self-differentiated leadership looks like so I could know if I’m doing it right.

But when I think about it, this desire for certainty is itself a symptom of the data addiction inherent in the anxious system. In response to my anxiety and my learned reactions to it, I yearn to collect data and to see my actions as black or white, right or wrong. So, although those last chapters are incomplete and feel that way, maybe there’s enough for me to work from anyway.

I recommend this book for anyone who’s feeling confused or anxious about the current national culture in the United States and likely in other countries, too, as these concepts have the feeling of universality. Although I find some of his biological analogies slightly dubious, I agree with Friedman’s hypothesis that the secret to moving forward, innovating, and reaching a new paradigm is going to be individuals who are adventurous rather than anxious and connected without being emotionally enmeshed.

There’s so much to quote from this book, but it doesn’t lend itself to soundbites, so I’ll refrain from quoting and just encourage you to read the book yourself. And if you do, I’d love to hear your take on it (whoever you are).

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