Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Failure of Nerve

I just finished one of the best books I've read in a long time. It's called, "A Failure of Nerve", by Edwin Friedman. He was an expert in family and systems theory. Might seem like boring stuff...but far from it. After a slow start, this turned into a very fascinating book.

Three main themes are presented as core issues of an unbalanced and emotionally immature leader: anxiety, lack of nerve, and a poorly differentiated self. Weaknesses in any area, he demonstrates, will derail the effectiveness of a leader. Friedman argues that with all the leadership training/conferences/courses out there, they miss the point that the most important aspect of leadership, whether in a family or the president of a country, is the leader's own presence and being.

Instead of focusing on the emotional processes and wider relationship system of a family or organization, we often just "try harder", find the "right" technique, or gather more information. This simply puts us on a treadmill that cycles a leader or group into deadlock...typically leading to eventual disintegration.

He goes into detail about the condition of the States and how we are a "society in regression", unable to move ahead as bold leadership and imaginative thinking are both paralyzed. Our tendency for safety (disabling the adventurous and risk-taking spirit) and certainty (always needed a clear and accurate answer) have 'regressed' our nation to a downward spiral of being anxious and unregulated.

Chronically anxious families (or even cultures) show five trademark characteristics of emotional regression:
  1. Reactivity: the vicious cycle of intense reactions of each member to events and to one another.
  2. Herding: a process through which the forces for togetherness triumph over the forces for individuality and move everyone to adapt to the least mature members.
  3. Blame displacement: an emotional state in which family members focus on forces that have victimized them rather than taking responsibility for their own being and destiny.
  4. A quick-fix mentality: a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change.
  5. Lack of well-differentiated leadership: a failure of nerve that both stems from and contributes to the first four.
Being able to control or "self-regulate" yourself in each area is a challenging, but also a motivating concept. We've all been in poor leadership situations, and could probably identify at least a few of these characteristics being exhibited (maybe even showing them ourselves!). What is motivating for me is the potential to remain non-anxious and self-regulated in the midst of relational/organizational tension. For me, that produces hope and vision for my own future and those I'm working with or leading.

Two chapters also stuck out to me. One is called "Data Junkyards and Data Junkies" and the other "Emotional Triangles". For the sake of keeping this short, I won't describe them, but he presents ideas and info that I found eye-opening.

This brief summary doesn't even touch on the depth of content and quality that Friedman produces. Not only is his writing compelling and fascinating, his skill in using history and science to illustrate his points is refreshing. It's really a goldmine of a book and is one I'm sure I'll find myself returning to it in the future. I highly recommend it.

After reading the book, I can't help but be curious if Obama will prove to bring hope and change, or get stuck in anxiety, lack of nerve, and poor differentiation. Despite my differences with much of his liberal thinking, I think in these areas, he's a better choice for the job. We'll see...


Beav said...

way to go rock, way better summary than mine. Was skimming through it again today. so good. way to throw down a good summary and way to keep pluggin' along with the blog.

Rock said...

Thanks Beav. Maybe this round of blogging will be a fresh start. Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

great summary Rock. I'm definitely going to get this book. I'm hoping to go through at least 5 books between semesters.