Tuesday, April 6, 2010

"Failure of Nerve", Take One

My pastor friend, Steve Wright, turned me on to "Failure of Nerve - Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix" by Edwin Friedman and I must say that it has been a long time since I have come across reading that seemed this essential. Mind you, I am not terribly far into the thing, but already it is opening up a powerful new set of insights into leadership, relationships, imagination and, yes, "nerve". I knew I was on to something when I had been reading and underlining things for at least an hour only to realize I was still in the Introduction!

Here is a quote from the book that will give you a bit of a window into the late author's thinking when he defines an ideal leader as:

"someone who has clarity about his or her life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing."

If this sounds like our current President (someone who can "take stands at the risk of displeasing"), don't get the wrong idea. Friedman's leader does not lead people boldly into dependency and dis-empowerment(like our current President seems to be bent on doing), but into imaginative new ways of seeing challenges, solving problems and grappling with reality.

One novel way Friedman illustrates his point-of-view is by recounting the explorations of the spate of European explorers and map makers including Columbus, Drake, Vespucci, Cabot, Magellan and others. I must say that I never could have imagined there was so much to be learned about the human condition by placing these various journeys and personalities into the context of their times, but when you do so -- wow, so much to be learned!

Friedman wants us to see that the obstacles and limitations of their day were not only physical and geographical, but psychological and emotional. After all, the widely accepted notion that the world ended at the Equator could not be challenged by satellite photos or Google Earth. The various and sundry attempts to properly describe what REALLY lay "out there" required raw courage and conviction that often required the explorers to disregard prevailing views of reality.

The roles of anxiety, resistance and even sabotage (hint: Friedman says sabotage is a normative factor that the best leaders learn how to recognize and factor into their decision-making) are also explored by the author. There is so much in "Failure of Nerve" that I know I will be re-reading it many times over.

As a follower of Christ and a leader of others, Friedman's work causes me to appreciate the life of Jesus and His profound wisdom, influence and steady focus all the more. The brave, bold, centered and unyielding commitment of the Son of God pop out against the background of Friedman's points about leaders and leadership (he was, by the way, a Rabbi - among other things). I can't recommend this book enough and will be sharing more as I go.

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