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A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin H. Friedman
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“It has been my impression that at any gathering, whether it be public or private, those who are quickest to inject words like sensitivity, empathy, consensus, trust, confidentiality, and togetherness into their arguments have perverted these humanitarian words into power tools to get others to adapt to them.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“Anyone who wishes to advance our species or an institution must possess those qualities which those who have little sense of self will perceive as narcissistic. All this besides the fact that “arrogant,” “headstrong,” “narcissistic,” and “cold” will be the terms used against any person who tries to be more himself or herself.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“Those five characteristics are:    1. Reactivity: the vicious cycle of intense reactions of each member to events and to one another.    2. Herding: a process through which the forces for togetherness triumph over the forces for individuality and move everyone to adapt to the least mature members.    3. Blame displacement: an emotional state in which family members focus on forces that have victimized them rather than taking responsibility for their own being and destiny.    4. A quick-fix mentality: a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change.    5. Lack of well-differentiated leadership: a failure of nerve that both stems from and contributes to the first four. To reorient oneself away from a focus on technology toward a focus on emotional process requires that, like Columbus, we think in ways that not only are different from traditional routes but that also sometimes go in the opposite direction. This chapter will thus also serve as prelude to the three that follow, which describe the “equators” we have to cross in our time: the “learned” fallacies or emotional barriers that keep an Old World orientation in place and cause both family and institutional leaders to regress rather than venture in new directions.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“it may be said unequivocally that whenever anyone is in extremis (whether it is a marital crisis, an economic crisis, a political crisis, or a health crisis), their chances of survival are far greater when their horizons are formed of projected images from their own imagination rather than being limited by what they can actually see.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“A major criterion for judging the anxiety level of any society is the loss of its capacity to be playful.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“One of the most extraordinary examples of adaptation to immaturity in contemporary American society today is how the word abusive has replaced the words nasty and objectionable.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“The great lesson here for all imaginatively gridlocked systems is that the acceptance and even cherishing of uncertainty is critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“The focus on “need fulfillment” that so often accompanies an emphasis on empathy leaves out the possibility that what another may really “need” (in order to become more responsible) is not to have their needs fulfilled. Indeed, it is not even clear that feeling for others is a more caring stance (or even a more ethical stance) than challenging them to take responsibility for themselves. As mentioned earlier, increasing one’s threshold for another’s pain (which is necessary before one can challenge them) is often the only way the other will become motivated to increase their own threshold, thus becoming better equipped to face the challenges of life. Ultimately,”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“But what is clear about pain universally is this: To the extent that we are motivated to get on with life, we seem to be able to tolerate more pain; in other words, our threshold seems to increase. Conversely, to the extent that we are unmotivated to get out of our chair, our threshold seems to go down.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“In this chapter I will describe the effects of the data deluge on all members of society generally and how it erodes the confidence, judgment, and decisiveness of leaders in particular. Then I will show the paradoxical side of the data deluge. Despite its anxiety-provoking effects, the proliferation of data also has an addictive quality. Leaders, healers, and parents “imbibe” data as a way of dealing with their own chronic anxiety. The pursuit of data, in almost any field, has come to resemble a form of substance abuse, accompanied by all the usual problems of addiction: self-doubt, denial, temptation, relapse, and withdrawal. Leadership training programs thus wind up in the codependent position of enablers, with publishers often in the role of “suppliers.” What does it take to get parents, healers, and managers, when they hear of the latest quick-fix fad that has just been published, to “just say no”?”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“With families, I stopped creating encyclopedias of data about all their issues and began to search instead for the member with the greatest capacity to be a leader as I have defined it. That person generally turned out to be the one who could express himself or herself with the least amount of blaming and the one who had the greatest capacity to take responsibility for his or her own emotional being and destiny. I began to coach the “leader” alone, letting the rest of the family drop out and stay home. I stopped trying to get people to “communicate” or find better ways of managing their issues. Instead, I began to concentrate on helping the leader to become better defined and to learn how to deal adroitly with the sabotage that almost invariably followed any success in this endeavor. Soon I found that the rest of the family was “in therapy” whether or not they came into my office.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“The emphasis here will be on strength, not pathology; on challenge, not comfort; on self-differentiation, not herding for togetherness. This is a difficult perspective to maintain in a “seatbelt society” more oriented toward safety than adventure. This book is not, therefore, for those who prefer peace to progress. It is not for those who mistake another’s well-defined stand for coercion. It is not for those who fail to see how in any family or institution a perpetual concern for consensus leverages power to the extremists. And it is not for those who lack the nerve to venture out of the calm eye of good feelings and togetherness and weather the storm of protest that inevitably surrounds a leader’s self-definition. For, whether we are considering a family, a work system, or an entire nation, the resistance that sabotages a leader’s initiative usually has less to do with the “issue” that ensues than with the fact that the leader took initiative.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“Chronic anxiety is systemic; it is deeper and more embracing than community nervousness. Rather than something that resides within the psyche of each one, it is something that can envelope, if not actually connect, people. It is a regressive emotional process that is quite different from the more familiar, acute anxiety we experience over specific concerns. Its expression is not dependent on time or events, even though specific happenings could seem to trigger it, and it has a way of reinforcing its own momentum. Chronic anxiety might be compared to the volatile atmosphere of a room filled with gas fumes, where any sparking incident could set off a conflagration, and where people would then blame the person who struck the match rather trying to disperse the fumes. The issues over which chronically anxious systems become concerned, therefore, are more likely to be the focus of their anxiety rather than its cause. This is why, for example, counselors, educators, and consultants who offer technical solutions for how to manage whatever brought the family in—conflict, money, parents, children, aging, sex—will rarely succeed in changing that family in any fundamental way. The anxiety that drives the problem simply switches to another focus. Assuming that what a family is worried about is what is “causing” its anxiety is tantamount to blaming a blown-away tree or house for attracting the tornado that uprooted it. As”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“It may be in the ubiquitous phenomenon of terrorism that one can most easily see how universal emotional processes transcend the conventional categories of the social science construction of reality. According to the latter, families are different from nations, profit-making corporations are different from nonprofit corporations, medical institutions are different from school systems, one nation’s infrastructure is different from another’s, and so on. Yet whether we are considering any family, any institution, or any nation, for terrorism to hold sway the same three emotional prerequisites must always persist in that relationship system.    There must be a sense that no one is in charge—in other words, the overall emotional atmosphere must convey that there is no leader with “nerve.”    The system must be vulnerable to a hostage situation. That is, its leaders must be hamstrung by a vulnerability of their own, a vulnerability to which the terrorist—whether a bomber, a client, an employee, or a child—is always exquisitely sensitive.    There must be among both the leaders and those they lead an unreasonable faith in “being reasonable.” From an emotional process view of leadership, whether we are talking about families or the family of nations, these three emotional characteristics of a system are the differences that count.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“In 1970, an experiment was conducted in a French laboratory in which two organisms from the same species that had not developed immune systems were moved closer and closer toward one another. At a certain threshold of proximity, the smaller one began to disintegrate, and within twenty-four hours it had lost all the principles of its organization. The researchers tried to ascertain what the larger one had done to the smaller one, but in the end found that it had done nothing at all except exist; it had not secreted some substance, nor destroyed it in any hostile way. The smaller one simply began to disintegrate in response to the loss of distance; its disintegration was brought about through internal mechanisms triggered by the closeness of the other. The researchers concluded with the simple statement that they had induced auto-destruction in one member of a species by bringing it into proximity with a larger member of the same species. They suggested (with eye-popping consequences for chronic illness in a family) that this could be viewed as an adaptation to their relationship. It”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“Leadership through self-differentiation is not easy; learning techniques and imbibing data are far easier. Nor is striving or achieving success as a leader without pain: there is the pain of isolation, the pain of loneliness, the pain of personal attacks, the pain of losing friends. That’s what leadership is all about.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“(I eventually came to define my marriage counseling, no matter what the cultural mix, as trying to help people separate so that they would not have to “separate.”)”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“Sabotage is not merely something to be avoided or wished away; instead, it comes with the territory of leading, whether the “territory” is a family or an organization. And a leader’s capacity to recognize sabotage for what it is—that is, a systemic phenomenon connected to the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system and not to the institution’s specific issues, makeup, or goals—is the key to the kingdom.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“In any type of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true one hundred percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the very top of that institution is a peace-monger.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“The degree of pain we are experiencing at any time almost always includes two variables: the stimulus “causing” the discomfort, and the threshold for tolerance—that is, the capacity to overcome or perhaps reduce the sensation itself.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“One of the most extraordinary examples of adaptation to immaturity in contemporary American society today is how the word abusive has replaced the words nasty and objectionable. The latter two words suggest that a person has done something distasteful, always a matter of judgment. But the use of the word abusive suggests, instead, that the person who heard or read the objectionable, nasty, or even offensive remark was somehow victimized by dint of the word entering their mind. This confusion of being “hurt” with being damaged makes it seem as though the feelings of the listener or reader were not their own responsibility, or as though they had been helplessly violated by another person’s opinion. If our bodies responded that way to “insults,” we would not make it very far past birth. The use of abusive rather than objectionable has enabled those who do not want to take responsibility for their own efforts to tyrannize others, especially leaders, with their “sensitivity.” The desire to be “inoffensive” has resulted in more than one news medium producing long lists of words, few of which are really nasty, that reporters should avoid using for fear of “hurting” someone. Obviously there are some words that are downright impolite if not always hostile and disparaging, but making everyone sensitive to the sensitivities of others plays into the hands of those who feel powerless.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“Researchers who emphasize the tragic consequences of these events, however, see the effort to focus on the recovery as denial of the tragedy or its pain. The focus on pathology has become such a natural part of the thinking of social science researchers that the idea that such a focus is itself pathological is totally out of their ken. After the Kobe earthquake, twelve Japanese women tried to offer counseling help to the homeless housed in schools and other institutions, only to be rejected by most, who said in effect, “Get me some sake and sushi and I’ll feel fine.” A psychotherapist from the more sophisticated metropolis of Tokyo said, “You have to understand that talking about your feelings is not culturally accepted here.” But if that is true, then we have to accept the opposite as also being true, namely, that talking about our feelings is also a cultural phenomenon rather than the only path to recovery. The people of Kobe were unbelievably imaginative in the way they responded to the tragedy, such as finding a ship in Hong Kong that had cranes on the ship, since all dock cranes had been destroyed; working out three-sides-of-a-square railroad pathways to get around the destruction; and creating commuter routes that combined taking trains and walking. The notion that talking out one’s grief rather than working it out through creative behaviors is denial with long-lasting consequences is exactly the kind of learned superstition that infects the thinking processes of the social science construction of reality.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“Members of highly reactive families, therefore, wind up constantly focused on the latest, most immediate crisis, and they remain almost totally incapable of gaining the distance that would enable them to see the emotional processes in which they are engulfed. The emotionally regressed family will stay fixed on its symptoms, and family thinking processes will become stuck on the content of specific issues rather than on the emotional processes that are driving those matters to become “issues.” The systemic anxiety thus locks everyone into a pessimistic focus on the pathology within the family, and it becomes almost impossible for such systems to reorient themselves to a focus on their inherent strengths. What also contributes to this loss of perspective is the disappearance of playfulness, an attribute that originally evolved with mammals and which is an ingredient in both intimacy and the ability to maintain distance. You can, after all, play with your pet cat, horse, or dog, but it is absolutely impossible to develop a playful relationship with a reptile, whether it is your pet salamander, no matter how cute, or your pet turtle, snake, or alligator. They are deadly serious (that is, purposive) creatures. Chronically anxious families (including institutions and whole societies) tend to mimic the reptilian response: Lacking the capacity to be playful, their perspective is narrow. Lacking perspective, their repertoire of responses is thin. Neither apology nor forgiveness is within their ken. When they try to work things out, their meetings wind up as brain-stem storming sessions. Indeed, in any family or organization, seriousness is so commonly an attribute of the most anxious (read “difficult”) members that they can quite appropriately be considered to be functioning out of a reptilian regression. Broadening the perspective, the relationship between anxiety and seriousness is so predictable that the absence of playfulness in any institution is almost always a clue to the degree of its emotional regression. In”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“It was then, after my presentations to thirty-two generals, that I first began to see how similar the approach to leadership problems was throughout our civilization. After two days of presentations, a three-star general, the commander of an entire Army corps—two panzer divisions—stood up and said to me, “You know, one of our problems is that the sergeant-majors coddle the new recruits, and we keep telling them that such helpfulness will not make them very good soldiers in the field.” And then he turned to his fellow officers and said, “But from what Ed has been saying here the past two days, we’re not going to have any more luck changing the sergeant-majors than they are having trying to change the new recruits.” Now this man had three stars on his shoulder; how much more authority would you want? He commanded more weapons of destruction than exploded in all of World War II; how much more power do you need? Yet neither his authority nor his power were enough to ensure a “command presence.” And I began to think about similar frustrations reported to me by imaginative psychiatrists who were frustrated by head nurses, creative clergy who were stymied by church treasurers, aggressive CEOs who were hindered by division chiefs, mothers who wished to take more responsible stands with their children but who were blindsided by their chronically passive husbands, not to mention my experience of watching nine eager Presidents sabotaged by a chronically recalcitrant Congress. Eventually I came to see that this “resistance,” as it is usually called, is more than a reaction to novelty; it is part and parcel of the systemic process of leadership. Sabotage is not merely something to be avoided or wished away; instead, it comes with the territory of leading, whether the “territory” is a family or an organization. And a leader’s capacity to recognize sabotage for what it is—that is, a systemic phenomenon connected to the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system and not to the institution’s specific issues, makeup, or goals—is the key to the kingdom. My”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“The more my perspective broadened, the more confirmed I became in my view that contemporary leadership dilemmas have less to do with the specificity of given problems, the nature of a particular technique, or the makeup of a given group than with the way everyone is framing the issues. In addition, I began to realize that this similarity in thinking processes had to do with regressive (in the sense of counter-evolutionary) emotional processes that could be found everywhere. Nor did gender, race, or ethnicity seem to make a difference in the strength or the effects of these processes.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“In the pages that follow I will show that America’s leadership rut has both a conceptual and an emotional dimension that reinforce one another. The conceptual dimension is the inadequacy of what I shall refer to as the social science construction of reality. This construction fails to explain these emotional processes, much less to offer leaders a way of gaining some separation from their regressive influence. The emotional dimension is the chronic anxiety that currently ricochets from sea to shining sea. However, the word emotional as used throughout this work is not to be equated with feelings, which are a later evolutionary development. While it includes feelings, the word refers primarily to the instinctual side of our species that we share in common with all other forms of life. By”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“I want to stress that by well-differentiated leader I do not mean an autocrat who tells others what to do or orders them around, although any leader who defines himself or herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Rather, I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own 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.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“I have been struck by how families, corporations, and other kinds of institutions are constantly trying to cure their own chronic ills through amputations, “strong medicine,” transfusions, and other forms of surgery, only to find that, even when successful for the moment, the excised tumor returns several years later in “cells” that never knew the “cells” that left.”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix
“I have lived and worked in the Washington, D. C., metropolitan area for almost four decades. During this period I have watched families and institutions recycle their problems for several generations, despite enormous efforts to be innovative. The opportunity to observe this firsthand was provided by my involvement in the major institutions designed by our civilization to foster change: religion, education, psychotherapy, and politics (I have been here since Eisenhower). That experience included twenty years as a pulpit rabbi, an overlapping twenty-five years as an organizational consultant and family therapist with a broadly ecumenical practice, and several years of service as a community relations specialist for the Johnson White House helping metropolitan areas throughout the United States to voluntarily desegregate housing, before Congress passed appropriate civil rights legislation. Eventually, the accumulation of this experience began to show me how similar all of our “systems of salvation” are in their structure, the way they formulate problems, the range of their approaches, and their rationalizations for their failures. It was, indeed, the basic similarity in their thinking processes, despite their different sociological classifications, that first led me to consider the possibility that our constant failure to change families and institutions fundamentally has less to do with finding the right methods than with misleading emotional and conceptual factors that reside within society itself. For”
Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

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