A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

Edwin Friedman, Seabury, 2007, reviewed by Vern Ratzlaff

        Friedman’s contributions in the areas of leadership spanned religious, political and cultural areas. His Generation to Generation (1985) provided a new way of thinking about emotional process both at home and at work. A Failure of Nerve is his attempt to challenge the seldom questioned assumption that human beings function primarily according to the position they occupy within the emotional processes of the relationship system, whether family, church or business.

        Leadership is stuck in the rut of trying harder and harder without obtaining significant results (p 3). The tension of leadership failure is the inadequacy of the social science construction of reality that becomes the norm for social analysis and which fails to account for emotional processes. He sees correlation between medical and institutional issues and paradigms (p233 – 247). ‘The batting average in the war against cancer and the batting average in the struggle to heal chronically troubled institutions is remarkably similar’ (p 3). ‘The same values that motivated people to do good work in society often did not seem to operate in their closest personal relationships’ (p 6).

        His work with families suggested that individuals cut off from their families generally do not heal until they have been reconnected (p 8) (cf Jesus’ healings that wellness comes only after reintegration into the community!) This reinforced Friedman’s conviction that leadership is essentially an emotional process rather than a cognitive phenomenon (p 13).

        He develops ‘lists’, handy reference points of identification. Eg five aspects of selected historical figures (p 188), difference in leadership articulation from ‘old World’ to ‘new World’ (eg emotional variables), hierarchy is rooted biologically, in the net of protoplasm (p 194), triangulation (p 207-228), listing of leadership (emotional) components ( p271).

Vern Ratzlaff is a pastor and professor of historical theology at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada.