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

4.27  ·  Rating details ·  921 ratings  ·  136 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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4.27  · 
Rating details
 ·  921 ratings  ·  136 reviews

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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.
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
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
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 a
Sean Higgins
Feb 20, 2012 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
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.
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.
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
Michael Dunn
Aug 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book found me at just the right time.
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.
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.
Aaron Ventura
Feb 16, 2017 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 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.
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
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 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
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
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
James Tucker
Dec 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
As the title would suggest, this book runs against the mould of leadership books that tell you what to do. The principal concept of self-differentiation is illustrated applied developed in a range of ways but you still have to make the decisions yourself about how to apply it.

A great analysis of an anxious society, insecure people and how to lead in this context.
Zach Wilke
Jun 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I've read large portions of Friedman before, but his principles have come up in enough conversations lately that I decided I needed to finally finish it. This book is simply a must-read. Of course, his evolutionary biology is goofy and must be qualified, but the principles are sound and are only enhanced with Biblical support.
Ashley Houser
Sep 01, 2018 rated it it was ok
While this book makes a lot of good philosophical points, they were belabored. The book was entirely too wordy and dense. Definitely not a quick read, and the content was all over the place. Frankly, it was torture having to read it for my Master's courses.
Evan Gaertner
Feb 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Good summary of Friedman

I enjoyed the pace and purpose of this book. I have read previous books by him 15 years ago in grad school. This book laid out the fundamentals and provide me moments to consider my own experience. I wish there were more case studies.
Pastor Ben
Oct 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Very helpful book for people with jobs... or families... or who live in a country. For my part, this book was very interesting as it pertains to politics in the Age of Trump and to my experience as the father of 4 kids, ages 3-8. How can you make your effort count?
Bonnie Krueger
Feb 08, 2019 rated it liked it
I’m conflicted. I read it as a book reviewer for a church. I think he had some good points but they were lost in academia. Perhaps if read not by a layman like me but a very studied person it would be more appropriate and interesting.
Hope Eifert
Feb 14, 2018 rated it liked it
Read for a book club. Don't know if I would've made it through otherwise. While reading this book, I vacillated between speed reading due to being bored out of my mind, and thinking what I was reading was incredible. Lots of helpful nuggets, but his writing was too technical for me.
Oct 15, 2017 rated it it was amazing
A great book focused on carrying what you should and letting go of what you should not.
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