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

4.26  ·  Rating Details ·  692 Ratings  ·  105 Reviews
Ten years after his death, Edwin Friedman's insights into leadership are more urgently needed than ever. He was the first to tell us that all organizations have personalities, like families, and to apply the insights of family therapy to churches and synagogues, rectors and rabbis, politicians and teachers.

Failure of Nerve is essential reading for all leaders, be they pa
Paperback, 260 pages
Published February 1st 2007 by Seabury Books
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Douglas Wilson
Nov 24, 2011 Douglas Wilson rated it it was amazing
This was a fantastic book on leadership. You have to wade through some evolutionary hooey, but if you make the necessary adjustments, the central points are simply strengthened. This is a truly contrarian view of leadership that is wise -- as opposed to simply being mule-headed.
Jenny Karraker
Jun 13, 2012 Jenny Karraker is currently reading it

This was a hard book to read bc it included a lot of technical jargon and hair-splitting of terms and ideas that was difficult to follow. But the main point seems to be that in order to be a strong leader, you don't need to know every program, be able to motivate others, or use whatever the latest technique is--but instead you need to become a healthy person emotionally. This means that you are differentiated from others-- you are able to maintain your own boundaries and be your own person whil
Sean Higgins
Feb 20, 2012 Sean Higgins rated it it was amazing
Shelves: leadership
One of the most compelling and clarifying books I've read in a long time. Though I wouldn't use the Friedman's vocabulary, agree with his evolutionary presumptions, or have anywhere near his positivity apart from the gospel, I'd still say the Rabbi asks great questions that every leader (husband, father, pastor, boss, president, etc.) should consider.


Read again and discussed with the TEC elders through 2013. Fantastic material for a leadership team, as long as that team already has a stro
Nov 08, 2012 Jules rated it it was amazing
Shelves: spirit
This is my go-to book for growing a backbone and beating back anxiety. I use it weekly as a touchstone for my own health and integrity.
Mar 21, 2016 James rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Great book with lots of wisdom to be learned. You must wade through some evolution hooey to get it, though.
Elf M.
Mar 22, 2012 Elf M. rated it liked it
Edwin Friedman's last book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, is a highly frustrating read. He has a very good idea, wrapped in an unfortunate analogy that has metastasized into its own Idea. Friedman's core idea, the very good idea, is this:
When I fail to distinguish "who I am" from the organizations to which I belong, then I begin to identify more with the organization than I do with my own principles and goals. As a consequence, I lose the capacity to challenge the w
Aaron Ventura
Feb 16, 2017 Aaron Ventura rated it really liked it
Friedman's insights are gold if you can integrate them into a Biblical framework. He attempts to root his anthropological findings in evolution and ends up with a weak substructure for WHY relationships and conflict are the way they are. If you are a pastor or leader of any kind, you need to read this along with Rene Girard's mimetic/conflict/envy paradigm.
Oct 02, 2013 Nathan rated it it was amazing
Everything you think you know about leadership is wrong. A leader is not one who knows how to develop vision. A leader is not someone who can team-build. A leader is not the guy with expertise. A leader is not the guy with the best personality.

Friedman teaches that a good leader can lack all of those things. All of them. Friedman teaches that a truly good leader is a person who can self-differantiate and maintain a non-anxious, non-reactive presence. The book unpacks what those principles are al
April Yamasaki
Mar 21, 2013 April Yamasaki rated it really liked it
I had read Friedman's Generation to Generation sometime ago and was interested in this follow up book that applies his systems thinking to leadership, anxiety, and stress. Does his systems approach really apply across different cultures, different kinds of organizations, to different times of history, across gender lines, and other distinctions as he insists? I'm still thinking about that, but I do appreciate his view of leadership as non-anxious presence, the importance of attending to the emot ...more
Adam Walker Cleaveland
I had heard from many that I needed to read this book. I really enjoyed the beginning and the end. Friedman kind of lost me in the middle with the analogy that he used throughout the book.

But I think that anyone who has worked in a place with some conflict (especially the church world) will find it very helpful.
Feb 03, 2013 Shelly rated it really liked it
This is my go to book on leadership and should be on every leaders shelf.
Oct 27, 2016 Linda rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
It took me awhile to get through this book, not because it was tedious or boring, but because I found myself reading a section or a chapter and then pondering it for a time before moving on. Friedman's work is brilliant, getting at how systems--both biological and relational--are created to work and how leaders can work within those systems. This is a valuable book for leaders from "parents to presidents". I wish this book had been required reading in my seminary coursework. It's going straight ...more
John Curtis
Mar 14, 2015 John Curtis rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
At the advice of a friend, I just finished reading Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve - Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix . It’s not an easy read, but one very worth the investment, particularly if you are in leadership in any capacity.

The premise of the book is the very observable phenomenon of the anxiety of the most dysfunctional members of any family or organization being allowed not just to influence but to rule. This has grown into a world-view and Friedman attacks it – as the prevaili
Todd Wilhelm
Aug 03, 2016 Todd Wilhelm rated it really liked it
This was a good read. It challenged my preconceived notions of leadership and made me think outside of the box. I wonder at his tracing human interaction back to cellular interaction, but OK, he is the expert.

In this book on leadership, I will describe a similar “failure of nerve” affecting American civilization today. But, I will add, when anxiety reaches certain thresholds, “reasonableness and honesty” no longer defend against illusion, and then even the most learned ideas can begin to functio
Nov 22, 2016 Charity rated it really liked it
For 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 problem
Tom Roesler
Feb 26, 2017 Tom Roesler rated it it was amazing
"...As with any chronically anxious family, there is in American society today an intense quickness to interfere in another's self-expression, to overreact to any perceived hurt, to take all disagreement too seriously, and to brand the opposition with ad hominem personal epithets (chauvinist, ethnocentric, homophobic, and so on). As in personal families, this hardens hearts and leaves little room for forgiveness or balanced accommodation." - p 64-65
Steve Hemmeke
Nov 09, 2014 Steve Hemmeke rated it really liked it
Insightful about leadership.

This is not a Christian book. It is heavily evolutionary and psychological, but still abounds in wisdom.

Thesis: “The thinking processes that produce a failure of nerve and a quick-fix mentality in contemporary America are the result of a decline in maturity in an anxiously regressed society.”

Leadership is as much emotional as cognitive. It’s keeping your head when others are losing theirs, in Kipling’s phrase. Anxious people naturally sabotage and attack mature leader
Garland Vance
This is one of the best books on personal leadership that I have ever read. Edwin Friedman does not write as a pastor or even as a business leader. Before his death, he was an academician, and this book was uncompleted when he died. His family and friends, however, believed it to be vital to publish the unfinished work, and I, personally, am so glad that they did.

Friedman argues that the influx of information and the perceived need for empathy can actually cripple leaders and prevent them from m
Feb 01, 2013 Giedra rated it liked it
The basic premise of this book is that the most important thing for a leader to do is to know themselves and have boundaries. No amount of information or rightness of technique can make someone lead a family or an organization better if they don't really know who they are.

When thinking about this book in terms of individuals, I didn't find much that I hadn't already read elsewhere (the Cloud/Townsend Boundaries books, or in Harriet Lerner's books about relationships)..but I found it quite eye-op
Feb 17, 2017 Stephen rated it really liked it
Shelves: being-human
A fascinating read during the opening weeks of the Trump administration with themes of self-differentiation, reactivity, triangulation and anxiety. The relationship between the reactivity of the leader and the underlying anxiety level in the organisation is well illustrated by the current political situation in the USA.
An insightful read for any leader at any time.
Tim McIntosh
Mar 25, 2014 Tim McIntosh rated it it was amazing
I work at a great-books college in Oregon and, thus, must read a lot of books. Failure of Nerve (along with Norms & Nobility by David Hicks) are among the best books I've read in the last ten years.

Edwin Friedman's work as a psychologist took him everywhere — board rooms of businesses, armed forces, monasteries, families, and synagogues. He said that as a younger man, he tried to bring resolution to dysfunctional families through improved communication and mutual understanding. While these a
Peter N.
Mar 18, 2015 Peter N. rated it really liked it
An excellent book on leadership and the forces that try to sabotage it. I would have given it five stars except his terms are unnecessarily odd and hard to wade through. He could have been clearer. Also he uses too much evolutionary theory to back up his thesis. But if you can translate his ideas into the language of Scripture then it will work. For example, he uses the term "self-regulate." For Christians this is the Biblical idea of "self-control."

As you read this book your eyes will open to
Aug 10, 2011 Melanie rated it it was amazing
Outstanding. The ideas in this book are so groundbreaking they make other books on the subject of leadership seem like pages of dryer lint. While the writing is information-dense and occasionally difficult to follow due to style, the sparkling “aha!” moments are worth following the author through every chapter. Friedman's book neatly outlines the anatomy of leadership from the inside out. I think it's absolutely essential for anyone in a leadership position.

As I compare my personal leadership ex
Jun 12, 2009 KC rated it really liked it
I've just started this little gem...and it's already making a huge difference in my life. Should be required reading of every leader - political, business, religious, social org. And perhaps if it had been well read when it was published in 1999 - after the author's sudden death in 1996 - we might not have had 8 years of George Bush.

I've finished it now. Had to take a break as the book was so transforming for me. I look at leadership in a completely different way now. I question the need for "m
Nov 07, 2008 Haj rated it it was amazing
If you want to understand why it is so hard to accomplish positive things these days, read this book now, and I mean RIGHT NOW. Hands down, this is the best book written about leadership and the problems leadership will continue to face in modern societies. Not only does it explain in detail the atmosphere we work and live in now, but brilliantly explains how to break the destructive societal patterns we face. And let me be clear: it is not easy to read because you will recognize your own part i ...more
Eileen Carter
Sep 16, 2014 Eileen Carter rated it really liked it
This book was recommended by my minister to read. At first I'll admit I was taken back by it. What? I don't have nerve? I am anxious was my thought. But as I read the book I was shocked that in fact I was living or am living a life of a chronically anxious family. This book breaks it down into 4 characteristics: reactivity, herding, blame displacement and quick fix mentality. You well be able to see where you are in the characteristics of chronic anxiety. You well also read about the thinking of ...more
Feb 08, 2013 Drew rated it it was amazing
Shelves: leadership
Quite simply, this is one of my favorite all-time books in any discipline. Very useful for pastors, but also a necessary read for anyone in leadership. This marks the final and culminating work in Edwin Friedman's career. Here he takes his astounding insights into family systems (seen in Generation to Generation and Friedman's Fables) and applies it to leadership. Quite simply, he rewrites the book on leadership, especially in the caregiving professions where, all too often, empathy wins out ove ...more
Immensely valuable insight presented with leaps and jumps that were hard to follow and clunky, even as they were fascinating and had a aura of newly seen truths. Conclusions are presented at times with presuppositions and evidence not in evidence. This made it feel sometimes like the starting point was the justification of the type of leadership demonstrated by political leaders from one side of the spectrum, which was distasteful. To my worldview the latter part of the book would have worked be ...more
Tim Kimberley
Dec 18, 2014 Tim Kimberley rated it really liked it
An eye opening leadership book. It takes a look at leadership in ways I've never considered. The author connects a lot of leadership with the biological world. I've never considered many of his thoughts. It's worth your time to read just to let him stretch your head. So much of the book shows how our culture is filled with anxiety and how a good leader needs to slice through much of this anxiety. I gave the book 4 stars because it's a pretty tough read and hard to figure out exactly what to do w ...more
Mar 02, 2009 Ron rated it really liked it
Shelves: read-2009
Friedman applies Family Systems Theory to leadership, focusing particular on the adventurous spirit that characterized the great adventurers of Age of Discovery (Columbus, Magellan, etc). He makes the case that well defined leaders (those who have "self-differentiated," can remain calm in the midst of anxiety, and remain in relationship with others despite conflict) are the key to change and transformation of systems, organizations, and families.

This is a posthumous work of Dr. Edwin Friedman. I
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