I prepared this for a leadership call I did with some close friends in the Ecclesia Network. Many of us have found Edwin Friedman’s book, The Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Soft Cover / Kindle)  exceptionally helpful.  I’d say its one of the most influential books I’ve ever read on […]

Failure-of-NerveI prepared this for a leadership call I did with some close friends in the Ecclesia Network. Many of us have found Edwin Friedman’s book, The Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Soft Cover / Kindle exceptionally helpful.  I’d say its one of the most influential books I’ve ever read on leadership. As I read it, I was confronted over and over again with habits and patterns for self-preservation that I’ve created for myself over good leadership.

Here is my short, executive summary of the book:

The Reality:

  • We live in chronically anxious society.
  • This society is oriented towards safety rather than adventure.
  • In this anxious society, resistance to leadership often has less to do with the “issue” that ensues than with the fact that the leader took initiative.

This anxiety can be dissipated by clear, decisive, well-defined leadership. 

The Problem:

  • We often leverage power to the extremists.
  • We often obsess about data over making a decision
  • Technique over stamina
  • Giving Empathy over calling for personal responsibility

The Results:

  • The most dependent members of our churches set the agendas and drive the institution rather than the most energetic, visionary imaginative and motivated.
    After all, our job is to make everyone happy, right? (sarcasm)
  • As leaders we tend to rely more on expertise of “experts” and better technique rather than our own ability to be decisive and leadership instincts.
    If we could just read one more missional leadership book and go to one more conference, we’d finally be successful!
  • Obsession with data and technique that allows us to spend all our time researching and never making decisions.
    FYI, no one should spend 6 weeks and three leadership meetings researching and making a decision about a water cooler. 
  • Leaders assume that we can convince our most toxic members through reasonableness, love, insight, role-modeling, striving for consensus.
    I’m so pastorally gifted that I can reason and love the most anxious and unhealthy people to perfect harmony. Right?

The Way Forward,

We Need Leaders Who:

  • Focus on their own integrity in the midst of crazies.
    Are you sure you’ve walked with integrity? 
  • Maintain a healthy, steady, non-anxious presence in the midst of the storms.
    We need more Tim Tebows!
  • Give more voice to the the healthy, creative, energetic, motivated voices.
    This isn’t a call to ignore the fringe!
  • Grow into becoming a well-differentiated leader
    No one does this easily, most leaders can improve their capacity.
  • Who can remain separate while still remaining connected.
    We aren’t emotionless and unattached. 
  • Able to manage own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others and take stands at the risk of displeasing.
    How do you respond when you piss people off  even when you make the right decision?
  • This is a great summary of a great book. Thanks for sharing.

  • Thanks Todd. It’s a tough book to summarize, but you’ve pointed us in the right direction. My only concern about summaries of this book are that in the wrong hands people often read them as ways to be a stronger dictator upon a quick glance, which is the opposite of what Friedman is suggesting. We read this book in the cohort I lead along side Eugene Peterson (they go very well together) and Peter Block. Which if you have read Block’s “Community: The Structure of Belonging” I’d highly recommend it.

    thanks again for raising awareness on a great book.

  • Mark, that is a great point. The easiest way to misread this is to think its okay to be an jerk dictator leader. Totally.

    And yeah Block is an amazing complement to this. Community is a book that has shaped a lot of the way I’ve been leading at The Well and I’ve just started with Stewardship by him too – which is pretty amazing so far.

    I love the idea of reading alongside Peterson. hadn’t thought of that before. Which book are you reading of his along with this?

  • For the cohort we read “The Pastor” but “Under the Unpredictable Plant”, “Working the Angles”, “5 smooth stones” or “The Contemplative Pastor” all work.

  • This book is a very important one, even more relevant now than when Friedman wrote it over 15 years ago. Loved your commentary on the major ideas! Thank you. I do think most pastors need more backbone. The trick is, you can end up rigid and authoritarian when you are anxious. At the same time, when you calmly and clearly take a stand, sometimes almost any stand, the least mature will accuse you of being rigid and authoritarian. Takes a lot of self-awareness and self-regulation to be clear and appropriately flexible without caving.

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  • Gregory Davidson

    Thank you, Todd, for capturing the essence of Friedman’s rich thought on leadership!

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  • Kevin Rains

    This is a great summary that I return to often but am just now getting around to commenting =) Thanks for this Todd. As others have already said, hard book to summarize but you have done a great job of capturing the essence in as few words as possible. Have you seen this video summary of the concept of “triangles” that Friedman talks about?


    • ToddHiestand

      Thanks Kevin! gonna check out the video later for sure.