Book Review: A Failure of Nerve


Friedman’s Failure of Nerve is a book that is incomplete as the author passed away unexpectedly in the middle of his completion of this volume.  What has been completed is excellent.  The resource for leadership is not another of these “How To” manuals where you get step by step instructions and focuses on the dynamic qualities of leadership in this era and the major forces that make leadership in this era.

Friedman identifies four similarities of families and institutions in the way leadership functions today

  • A Regressive, counter-evolutionary trend in which leveraging power is made towards the most passive aggressive and anxious members away from the most visionary.
  • A devaluation of the process of individuation… the rule of consultants and group think
  • An obsession with data and technique that takes away from the emotive side of leadership.
  • A widespread misunderstanding about the relational nature of destructive processes in families and institutions.   (We assume that toxic, parasitic forces can be regulated through reasonableness, love, insight, role modeling and consensus.

He claims leadership makes mistakes by “just trying harder”, looking for answers rather than reframing questions, using either or methodology that creates false dichotomies.

He names 5 reasons we have regressed emotionally and have become chronically anxious.

  1. Reactivity: Vicious cycle of anxious reactions
  2. Herding: Together, and adapting to the least mature member at all costs.
  3. Blame displacement: its always someone or something elses fault, we have no control and we are all victims
  4. Quick fix mentality: we fix symptoms.  We want pain killers, who cares if its cancer that needs to be fixed, as long as we have no pain, their’s no problem.
  5. Lack of well-differentiated leadership: a failure of nerve that stems from and contributes to the first four.

Coming from Bowen’s family systems theory he describes how emotional triangles, parasitic entities, malignant cells, pathogenic organisms and institutions all are a detriment to the self, and Self-differentiation is how the leader needs to react in order to not get sucked into the vicious cycles that the four correct.  Also that these detriments need to be eliminated rather than cajoled.  Engaging these is often a measure of futility that feeds into the 5 regressive states above.
I highly recommend this book for anyone in leadership.  It has very valid principles that will help you get through the pathogens in your organization and help realize that having nerve is the antidote to many of these organizational ills.


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