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

4.25  ·  Rating details ·  1,091 ratings  ·  164 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 pare
Paperback, 260 pages
Published February 1st 2007 by Seabury Books
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Douglas Wilson
Nov 24, 2011 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.
Elf M.
Mar 22, 2012 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
Jenny Karraker
Jun 13, 2012 rated it it was ok
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 while ...more
Tim McIntosh
Mar 25, 2014 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 are c
Sean Higgins
Feb 20, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: print, leadership, kindle
May 2019 5/5 stars. With all the qualifications from my previous reviews in mind, this book is just a great challenge.

“To be a leader, one must both have and embody a vision of where one wants to go. It is not a matter of knowing or believing one is right; it is a matter of taking the first step.”


December 2013: Read again and discussed with the TEC elders through 2013. Fantastic material for a leadership team, as long as that team already has a strong theological basis.

Mar 21, 2016 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.
Lisa Lewton
Oct 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is a book I’m constantly going back to. For more than a decade I’ve listened to the lecture that served as some of the manuscript for this book before Friedman died suddenly. This has been one of the most important books I’ve read to guide me as a pastor and parent. I consider his wisdom sage like, timeless. We often go about in the world unaware of our lack of boundaries, or complicit about others’ lack of boundaries and responsibility. Leadership at home and work requires truth telling an ...more
Jonathan Penn
Jan 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
I am going to liberally estimate that I only understood 70% of this book. It describes a countercultural view of leadership to my millennial twenty-something norms/views. Although a Friedman is a Jew, the leader he described seemed a lot like Jesus.

Self-differentiated leadership - that’s the direction I want to head in.

I’d have to read the book a second time to tell you anymore about it.
Nov 08, 2012 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.
Michael Dunn
Aug 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book found me at just the right time.
Timothy Koller
Nov 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Powerfully bringing together family systems theory and the role of emotion in leadership, this book is an essential read for anyone who desires to influence others.
Dec 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Wonderful resource for leadership: in the home, in work, in school, etc. Lots of good practical advice that is contrary to our culture. His insights into our current culture mess is wonderful. Most of our leaders have a failure of nerve. Caveat Lector: there is lots of silly evolution stuff to ignore as well as self help lingo but if you can see the parallel principles in the Bible then it works well.
Aaron Ventura
Feb 16, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: reread-list
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.
Thomas Reeves
Jan 27, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Second Read. I have often referred back to this book over my ministry.

The first time I read this book (over 15 years ago) I found it extremely helpful in clarifying for me how all-encompassing the "emotional systems" of human groups truly are in any kind of human "family system" (and encouraging for me regarding the patterns I was seeing among leaders and voices in the American Protestant Church).

From Individual families to any organized institution of any-kind - it takes we, humans, no courage
Oct 02, 2013 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 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 rated it really liked it
This is my go to book on leadership and should be on every leaders shelf.
Joel Wentz
Sep 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
A flawed, but incredibly important, book on a well-worn topic.

The core ideas that Friedman brings to the discussion of healthy leadership are vital, and urgently important in our culture. Concepts like "self-differentiation," "non-anxious presence," "leadership sabotage," and "emotional barriers," are so clarifying, and the way he unpacks the terms, constantly relating them to real-life examples, is worth the price of the book alone. I found myself deeply stirred, convicted, and inspired through
Sep 19, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: leadership
I was first introduced to the thinking of Edwin Friedman over 20 years ago while reading Generation to Generation, a work that applied Bowen's Family Systems Theory to the life of churches and synagogues. I had found his insights to be helpful in all organizations, religious or not. So I was happy to find this unfinished work by Rabbi Friedman which takes his same theories and applied them to organizational leadership. Essentially, Friedman sees organizational life through the lenses of emotiona ...more
Abitofathinker Lewis
Dec 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Key ideas: Responsibility is more important than empathy
One of the greatest challenges is maintaining a differentiated self while in close relationship to others.

Friedman does an excellent job of going against the grain of the popular culture, correctly diagnosing what he calls the 'reactivity' of modern society and many unhealthy relationships as a a result of the failure of individuals (especially leaders) to adequately differentiate themselves. Very thought-provoking and inspiring.

Minor poin
Trevor Atwood
First of all- this book was a paradigm shift in leadership for me.

Or maybe not so much a shift, but it gathered many parts that I couldn’t put a name on and showed me how they all worked together in a healthy system.

I’m not sure how this book would come off as a cold read- it’s not exactly a “beach read”. It was set up for me by John Mark Comer and Mark Sayers who reference it in their works.

The phrases “non-anxious presence”, self-differentiation”, and “reactivity” have become a regular part
Jun 05, 2017 rated it really liked it
This was a good book about the need for a paradigm shift in leadership. It uses a lot of technical jargon, but basically is saying leadership isn't about being able to motivate people or stop criticism. To the author, criticism is a sign that leadership is being done correctly and it should be expected. It is about being emotionally healthy, so the leader can be present and a part of those she or he is leading and yet able to be distinct from them and make decisions based on his or her own emoti ...more
Brian Sturtz
This is an excellent book on leadership. The author suggests that the core issue in any kind of leadership context is that of the leader managing their own anxieties. The key to being an "effective leader" will not be found in "team building", being more empathetic, offering more well reasoned reason, gaining more data nor new techniques. The key to leadership is to be found in the leader's own self-differentiation. Self-Differentiation is not coercive, reactive, being invasive or selfish. This ...more
Jun 30, 2017 rated it really liked it
A successor to Generation to Generation, A Failure of Nerve applies principles of systems theory to leadership in families, organizations, and nations. A Failure of Nerve is unique among books on leadership. Instead of methods and technique, Friedman focuses on where the leader stands in the emotional system and the critical nature of self-definition (differentiation), which requires "nerve," or a non-anxious presence. Particularly interesting is Friedman's take on the emotional regression of th ...more
Jacob Rush
Jun 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Really helpful paradigms for thinking about leadership and the self, especially as society gravitates towards the "collective" and anxious group-think. Obviously, the evolutionary foundation is faulty, and downright goofy sometimes. But the biological analogies he gives about cells, viruses, and organisms is helpful. I want there to be a thoughtful Christian appropriation of this that lays out a thoroughgoing biblical self-differentiation, that also explores how "it is more blessed to give than ...more
Sam Shapiro
Jul 27, 2019 rated it it was amazing
One of the most important books for those leading non-profits. Trained in family systems theory, and having run a synagogue, Friedman's insights into the pitfalls of leading non-profit cultures (for me, it's schools) are brilliant, as are his overarching suggestions for approaches. Note, this is anything but a typical leadership book. It's dense, and at time theoretical, but the main message, that without a commitment to a vision for the organization and a commitment to rise above dramatic, conf ...more
Rob Nicholls
May 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I recommend this as compulsory reading for those who are committed to leading well. That, I think, is everyone as we all lead someone by the example we set. I struggle with the vigour of Friedman's advocacy and feel some greater degree of gentleness and grace would help but I can't argue with the truth of his contentions. We do need courageous and non-anxious leadership in this time and clarity that avoids some of the confusion about what is means to be kind in supporting and encouraging young l ...more
Oct 27, 2016 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
Mar 15, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is an outstanding book. As much as I was influenced by Friedman's "Generation to Generation" which introduced me to family systems, this later book is even more helpful. Friedman reintroduces the concepts of emotional triangles, a non anxious presence, and the differentiated self. But here he adds what the leader will come upon when he/she takes responsibility. A differentiated leader will bring about sabotage--it will happen. Be ready for it. There will be those for whom taking responsibil ...more
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