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Jesu, Juva

A Failure of Nerve

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For several years now I’ve appreciated and benefited from Edwin Friedman’s book on leadership, A Failure of Nerve. I enjoy thinking about big ideas that help to make sense of God’s world. For example, it is helpful to think of all sin as being a form of idolatry, or a form of pride, or arising from a kind of covetousness. We look for a structure of conflict and climax in most of our stories. René Girard teaches us to look for imitation and scapegoating in all of the crises of story and history, and points us to the one scapegoat who alone can cover mankind’s sin.

Edwin Friedman’s organizing big idea revolves around anxiety. He was a student of organizational behavior, ranging from families and churches to businesses and nations. He suggests that all of the ways that an organization can break down involve a kind of anxiety on the part of the group or the leader or both. And from this he draws a program of non-anxious leadership.

Friedman sees anxiety behind how a group or organization becomes stagnant, resistant or even hostile to change and growth; and also behind leaders’ addictions to either quick fixes or to data rather then decisive action. He suggests that a non-anxious approach to leadership is crucial, that the “calm presence” of a leader matters more to calming an organization’s anxiety than almost anything else the leader says or does. He develops this into an idea of what he calls “differentiation,” which is the leader’s own focus on his integrity and stability. Out of this non-anxious differentiation, he charges leaders to allow their organizations to experience a healthy dose of their own learning experience and even pain so that they can mature; what you might call a sort of non-anxious “tough love” that is appropriately sympathetic but does not devolve into the kind of empathy that is powerless to help others grow. In Friedman’s model, the leader functions both as a kind of anxiety absorber and also an immune system.

Although Friedman was not a Christian, many of his ideas have Christian parallels. Jesus charges us not to be anxious, and the fact that Jesus himself is not anxious is perhaps the greatest boost to our own faith. It is faith, after all, that is the true antidote to fear and anxiety, and Jesus invites us to bring our cares to him. Perhaps a way of expressing Friedman’s differentiated self is to say that it is a faith-filled, wise, mature, patient, and Spirit-governed self. This integrity of a leader includes the careful watching of his life and doctrine, and the taking of logs out of our own eyes before we address the specks in others’ eyes.

There is a superficial way of reading Friedman that suggests that leaders should be aloof and uncaring. I don’t think this is what he is saying, but in any case we want to be careful not to swing the pendulum that far. And while anxious leadership may be the problem of our time, we should also be on guard for a sinful complacency.

Additional reading:

Written by Scott Moonen

November 17, 2019 at 5:54 pm

Posted in Books, Parenting, Vocation

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