A Failure of Nerve, Revised Edition

A Failure of Nerve, Revised Edition


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Ten years after his death, Edwin Friedman’s best-selling A Failure of Nerve continues to offer insights into leadership that are more urgently needed than ever, and this revised, anniversary edition is essential reading for all leaders, be they parents or presidents, corporate executives or educators, religious superiors or coaches, healers or generals, managers or clergy.

Friedman 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, and politicians and teachers. His understandings about our regressed, “seatbelt society,” oriented toward safety rather than adventure, help explain the sabotage that leaders constantly face today. Suspicious of the “quick fixes” and instant solutions that sweep through our culture only to give way to the next fad, he argued for strength and selfdifferentiation as the marks of true leadership. His formula for success is more maturity, not more data; stamina, not technique; and personal responsibility, not empathy.

A Failure of Nerve was unfinished at the time of Friedman’s death and originally published in a limited edition. This new edition cleans up some oversights in the original and brings his life-changing insights and challenges to a new generation of readers.

“Reading this book is like discovering an unpublished Beethoven sonata or a missing play of Shakespeare. Ed Friedman was one of our most brilliant, original, and provocative thinkers across the fields of therapy, ministry, and organizational leadership.”
—Professor William J. Doherty, Director, Marriage and Family Therapy Program, University of Minnesota

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781596272798
Publisher: Church Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 05/14/2017
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 99,855
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Edwin H. Friedman was an ordained rabbi and practicing family therapist. His ground-breaking volume Generation to Generation, which exposed the connections between emotional processes at home and at work in religious, educational, therapeutic, and business systems, has become a modern classic. In great demand as a consultant and public speaker throughout the country, he lived in Washington DC. He died in 1996.

Read an Excerpt

A Failure of Nerve

Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

By EDWIN H. FRIEDMAN, Margaret M. Treadwell, Edward W. Beal

Church Publishing Incorporated

Copyright © 2017 The Edwin Friedman Trust
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59627-279-8



The Nuremberg Chronicle of 1493 describes Europe as depressed. Published in one of medieval Germany's most important centers of learning and innovation, the Chronicle epitomizes its era. On the one hand, pioneering with the new, innovative hardware of movable type, it faithfully reproduced engraved portraits of the major cities of Europe and the Holy Land. On the other hand, it described a civilization with little vision or hope. Referring to what they called "the calamity of our time," the publishers actually left several pages blank so that readers could record "the rest of the events until the end of the world."

Contributing to the general malaise was a combination of political, social, economic, and theological "downers." Late fifteenth-century Europe, despite its glorious cathedrals, emerging artists, and developing network of universities, was a society living in the wake of the plagues, the breakdown of the feudal order, and the increasing inability of an often hypocritical and corrupt church's capacity to ring true. In addition, the Moorish encirclement had proved invulnerable to centuries of crusades and now severely limited Europe's access to the riches and delights of the Far East. There had not been a major scientific discovery for a thousand years.

Then, as if suddenly, Europe is all agog. The depression lifts like a morning mist, novelty begins to shine everywhere, and the seeds of the Renaissance that had been germinating here and there for two hundred years sprout vigorously. The imaginative gridlock that had largely beclouded Europe's inventiveness for more than a millennium dissolves forever. Over the next half-century, more radical change occurred in every field of human endeavor than had ever happened before, or, with the possible exception of the first half of the twentieth century, since.

While there have been other half-centuries of extraordinary progress, few have involved such fundamental change of direction all across the board. A person born in 1492 could have witnessed in their lifetime

* an extraordinary flowering of artistic imagination concerning form and perspective in painting, sculpture, literature, architecture;

* the Reformation, led by Luther and Calvin, ramifying out into almost every subculture and presaging the way religious differences would be formulated for centuries thereafter;

* the invention of the watch, enabling an unheralded fine-tuning in the measurement and coordination of daily time periods;

* observations of space and experimentation with lenses that would lead to the creation of the telescope; and

* the publication of the first newspaper, initiating the effects of widespread information-sharing within a community.

Underlying all of this artistic, philosophical, and scientific upheaval was an even more basic, all-embracing change: the two worldviews by which European civilization had oriented itself for almost fifteen hundred years (based largely on the scholarship of the second-century Greek thinker and mapmaker, Ptolemy) were turned on their heads. One misperception was the view that the land mass on our planet was situated entirely above the equator, extending contiguously from western Europe to eastern Asia, with the Indian Ocean a landlocked lake. The other was the notion that our planet's relationship to the rest of the planets and other heavenly bodies was "geocentric" — that is, the other planets and stars revolved around the Earth, which according to this orientation was situated at the center of the universe.

It is appropriate that this "rebirth" of the human spirit has been referred to as the "Renaissance." But the tendency to attribute the Renaissance to a renewed interest in learning may, despite its origins, be the same kind of academic bias that focuses leadership-training programs on data and technique rather than on emotional process. It certainly has not been my experience in working with imaginatively stuck marriages, families, corporations, or other institutions that an increase in information will necessarily enable a system to get unstuck. And the risk-averse are rarely emboldened by data.

Anyone who has ever been part of an imaginatively gridlocked relationship system knows that more learning will not, on its own, automatically change the way people see things or think. There must first be a shift in the emotional processes of that institution. Imagination and indeed even curiosity are at root emotional, not cognitive, phenomena. In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from the emotional processes that surround them before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently. Without this understanding, it becomes impossible to realize how our learning can prevent us from learning more. After all, when Galileo, a century later, tried to reorient the cosmic perspective of his world, he offered in rebuttal to those who were unwilling to learn what he had learned a look for themselves through his telescope. And there were people who not only disagreed with his views but, when offered the opportunity, even refused to peek.

While it can be said that Columbus's voyage would not have been possible without some of the accumulated learning that preceded him, European history after 1492 (the period usually designated as the High Renaissance) does not logically follow from all the knowledge or creative imagination that had been gathering in the previous three centuries. The slow pace of advancement from Dante, Aquinas, and Petrarch, from artists like Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, and Della Robbia, and from architects such as Brunelleschi and Giotto could have continued at that same slow rate of progress for another three or even five hundred years. Indeed, the luster of Florence had already dulled. The quantum leap, or, if you prefer, the "punctuated equilibrium" that occurred around 1500 was a direct result of a complete reorientation to reality initiated by Columbus's discoveries and the subsequent exploration of geography.

Similarly, though some have said that the Age of Discovery was merely symptomatic of the cultural and economic advances occurring at that time, I believe that the catalyst for those other imaginative breakthroughs was the "nerve" of the great navigators who led the way. Europe's imaginative capacity was unleashed not by the discovery of learning, as those with a vested interest in learning would have it, but by the discovery of the New World, while the enormous awakening of European civilization's inventiveness was a direct result of the effect those new horizons had on an Old World. Even as Columbus is returning from his fourth voyage (1504), Michelangelo is sculpting his David and Leonardo has completed the Mona Lisa. Half a century later, by the time Drake has reached San Francisco (1579), Rabelais and El Greco have emerged, Cervantes is beginning to write, and Shakespeare is approaching manhood. Opera has its beginnings. Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Galileo, and Harvey have all been born and will set the stage for the next hundred years, which Alfred North Whitehead called the century of genius. All after a thousand years of almost complete darkness, illuminated almost solely by the great cathedrals.

Columbus's voyage was a hinge of time. It swung open a door barely ajar, and for the next hundred years after 1492, no significant cathedral, unless previously planned, was begun. The effect of America's discovery on the European imagination was as though God had been hiding a piece of land bigger than the known world since the dawn of creation. The great lesson of this turnaround is that when any relationship system is imaginatively gridlocked, it cannot get free simply through more thinking about the problem. Conceptually stuck systems cannot become unstuck simply by trying harder. For a fundamental reorientation to occur, a spirit of adventure that optimizes serendipity and enables new perceptions beyond the control of our thinking processes must happen first. This is equally true regarding families, institutions, whole nations, and entire civilizations.

But for that type of change to occur, the system in turn must produce leaders who can both take the first step and maintain the stamina to follow through in the face of predictable resistance and sabotage. Any renaissance, anywhere, whether in a marriage or a business, depends primarily not only on new data and techniques, but on the capacity of leaders to separate themselves from the surrounding emotional climate so that they can break through the barriers that are keeping everyone from "going the other way."

This chapter will be an extended metaphor. Using the European discovery of the New World as an allegory of the human experience of getting unstuck, it will do the following:

* It will show the characteristics of imaginatively gridlocked relationship systems and how it is quite possible not only for families and other institutions but even for an entire civilization, including its most learned members, to be stuck in an orientation that confuses its own models with reality.

* It will illustrate the process and the difficulties involved in trying to remap reality under those conditions.

* It will describe the kind of leadership that must arise before any relationship system (marriage, corporation, or entire nation) can undergo a fundamental reorientation.

In succeeding chapters I will draw more specific parallels to today. I will describe how the chronic anxiety that characterizes the emotional processes of contemporary American civilization influences our thoughts and our leaders toward safety and certainty rather than toward boldness and adventure. I will show how the factors that kept European civilization imaginatively stuck during its dark period are similar to the factors that keep contemporary American civilization gridlocked. For we too have our "equators." These imagination-inhibitors or emotional barriers that prevent new thinking about institutions in our time have the very same effect on limiting leaders' (and researchers') horizons today that the equator and a geocentric view of the universe had for the millennium before the Renaissance. The qualities of adventurous leadership that enabled Europe to escape its doldrums are exactly the leadership qualities necessary for breaking the imaginative gridlock of our civilization today. In fact, they are the same qualities of leadership necessary for dissolving imaginative gridlock in any relationship system anywhere, of any size or purpose, in any culture or at any time.

It is important to keep in mind, therefore, when comparing the sophisticated-appearing understandings of our day with the naïve-appearing conceptions of the medieval world, that just because an idea is sophisticated does not prevent it from functioning as a superstition when encompassing emotional processes put it to their regressive service. For example, information can function as superstition when encompassing emotional processes assert a regressive pull. Some of our most "common sense" assumptions concerning the nature of human relationships upon which leadership training for both managers and parents is based today may be as off-course as the rarely questioned Ptolemaic views of heaven and Earth were, even for many of the most educated medieval minds.


There are three major, interlocking characteristics common to any relationship system that has become imaginatively gridlocked:

* an unending treadmill of trying harder;

* looking for answers rather than reframing questions; and

* either/or thinking that creates false dichotomies.

These attributes are both symptom and cause of a locked-in perspective. All three characterized fifteenth-century European civilization. All three describe any similarly stuck relationship system at any time, be it a marriage, a family, an organization, or an entire nation. And all three attributes, while appearing to be cognitive, are symptomatic of surrounding emotional processes rather than matters of the mind.

Trying Harder

The treadmill effect can be likened to a fly perpetually bouncing off a window it can see right through, with the result that despite its thousand eyes its perseverance gets it nowhere. The condition is well known to marriage partners who keep trying harder to change their partners, parents who keep trying harder to change their children, therapists who keep trying harder to change their clients, teachers who keep trying harder to change their students, clergy who keep trying harder to change their congregations, managers who keep trying harder to change those they manage, CEOs who keep trying harder to change their managers, consultants who keep trying harder to change CEOs, and social scientists who keep trying harder to explain what is happening.

Society itself can be on a treadmill when it becomes caught up in accumulating unending masses of data, because its models are inadequate to explain its processes. The treadmill of trying harder is driven by the assumption that failure is due to the fact that one did not try hard enough, use the right technique, or get enough information. This assumption overlooks the possibility that thinking processes themselves are stuck and imagination gridlocked, not because of cognitive strictures in the minds of those trying to solve a problem, but because of emotional processes within the wider relationship system. The failure to recognize those emotional processes, if not the outright denial of their existence, is what often initiates and ultimately perpetuates the treadmill effect.

But if fixation can influence behavior, perseverance can also perpetuate a fix. Whether it be a family, an institution, or an entire civilization, the treadmill process itself can evolve into the axis around which an entire world revolves, eventually going far beyond the original goal. Europe's orientation toward the Far East was just such a "fix." Frantic efforts to find a route to the Orient through the Northwest Passage perpetuated it, while centuries of combat with encircling Islam in the Near East and the increasing desire for the silks and spices of the Far East only reinforced it long after the Western Hemisphere had been revealed. In fact, it took European civilization almost three centuries to grasp fully that what it had found — North America — might be more important than what it was looking for.

So deeply fixed was Europe's attitude toward the East that despite the succeeding exploration and colonization, the land mass of the Western Hemisphere was considered largely "in the way." The well-known quest for a safe sea route to the East through the Northwest Passage — which began in the fifteenth century with Cabot in the north and continued through the sixteenth century with Verrazano along the Atlantic coast, Vespucci and Magellan to the south, and Drake, Juan de Fuca, and Bering approaching it from the west — extended for three hundred years. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Thomas Jefferson dispatched Lewis and Clark to see if the wide Missouri, flowing eastward, and the powerful Columbia, flowing to the west, linked up at their source.

The depth of this "fix" is illustrated by maps of the period, which provided the most reliable data explorers had. Maps were drawn to suit the prevailing concepts, with the Hudson River emptying into the Pacific Ocean. Some early maps showed the Northwest Passage at the top of the world, while in others, it went right through Toronto. The same mapmakers saw California as an island, its northern part (perhaps mistaken for Vancouver Island) being just below where the Northwest Passage was supposed to enter the Pacific. With great confidence the mapmaker wrote across the top, "A New and Accurate Map of the World Drawn according to the truest Descriptions, latest Discoveries and best Observations that have been made by English or Strangers."

The error about California came about rather innocently, but somehow it became so embedded in the imagination of cartographers that, with some exceptions, it remained "reality" for 150 years. The illusion began with a rumor on the part of a cartographer, Henry Briggs. He even wrote on his map, published in 1625, a report that one ship had met another coming down the West Coast, and the latter informed the former that they had just found the western end of the Northwest Passage. On its own, Briggs's map might not have influenced others, but it was included as one of several foldouts in Samuel Purchase's His Pilgrims, a popular travelogue book of the day. And what had begun as a rumor was disseminated to the point at which it became a "virus" and entered everyone else's program.


Excerpted from A Failure of Nerve by EDWIN H. FRIEDMAN, Margaret M. Treadwell, Edward W. Beal. Copyright © 2017 The Edwin Friedman Trust. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword vii

Acknowledgments xi

Editors' Preface xiii

A Note About the 2017 Edition xvii

Introduction: The Problem with Leadership 1

1 Imaginative Gridlock and the Spirit of Adventure 33

2 A Society in Regression 57

3 Data Junkyards and Data Junkies: The Fallacy of Expertise 103

4 Survival in a Hostile Environment: The Fallacy of Empathy 141

5 Autocracy Versus Integrity: The Fallacies of Self 169

6 Take Five 199

7 Emotional Triangles 217

8 Crisis and Sabotage: The Keys to the Kingdom 243

Epilogue: The Presence of the Past 263

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A Failure of Nerve, Revised Edition 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I found the information fascinating and practical. The writing flowed in a scattered way that had trouble rounding to the point. I need to read it again so I don’t miss the point.