Selected Readings from The Failure of Nerve by Dr. Ed Friedman

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In Five Stages of Greek Religion, Gilbert Murray suggested that after Socrates had "dis-illusioned" his society, Greek civilization was around the corner from the Renaissance. But, he said, they seemed to panic at the prospect and, instead, bought new myths. In a chapter entitled "A Failure of Nerve," he wrote:

The great thing to remember is that the mind of man cannot be enlightened permanently by merely teaching him to reject some particular set of superstitions. There is an infinite supply of other superstitions always at hand; and the mind that desires such things, that is, the mind that has not trained itself to the had discipline of reasonableness and honesty, will, as soon as its devils are cast out, proceed to fill itself with their relations.

I will describe a similar "failure of nerve" affecting American civilization today. But, I will add, when anxiety reaches certain thresholds, "reasonableness and honesty" no longer defend against illusion, and then even the most learned ideas can begin to function as superstitions.

I believe there exists throughout America today a rampant sabotaging of leaders who try to stand tall amidst the raging anxiety-storms of storms of our time. It is a highly reactive atmosphere pervading all the institutions of our society-- a regressive mood that contaminates the decision-making processes of government and corporations at the highest level, and, on the local level, seeps down into the deliberations of neighborhood church, synagogue, hospital, library, and school boards. It is "something in the air" that affects the most ordinary family no matter what its ethnic background. And its frustrating effect on leaders is the same no matter what their gender, race or age.

It is my perception that this leadership-toxic climate runs the danger of squandering a natural resource far more vital to the continued evolution of our civilization than any part of the environment. We are polluting our own species. The more immediate threat to the regeneration, and perhaps even the survival of American Civilization is internal, not external. It is our tendency to adapt to its immaturity. To come full circle, this kind of emotional climate can only be dissipated by clear, decisive, well-defined leadership. For whenever a "family" is driven by demand-feeding, what will also always be present is a failure of never among its leaders.

This book is for parents and presidents. It is also for CEOs and educators, prioresses and coaches, healers and generals, managers and clergy. It is about leadership in the land of the quick fix, about leadership in a society so reactive that it cannot choose leaders who might calm its anxiety. It is about the need for clarity and decisiveness in a civilization that inhibits the development of leaders with clarity and decisiveness. It is for leaders who have questions the widespread triumphing of data over maturity, technique over stamina, and empathy over personal responsibility. And it is for anyone at all who has become suspicious of the illusions of change -- suspicious of the modern fashion wherein solutions, as well as symptoms, burst upon us in ever field of endeavor (management, healing, education, parenting) and then disappear as unexpectedly as they had first appeared, only to be supplanted by the fad of another "issue" or cure, sending everyone back to square one.

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.

It will be the thesis of the work that leadership in America is stuck in the rut of trying harder and harder without obtaining significantly new results. The rut runs deep, affecting all the institution of our society irrespective of size of purpose. It even affects those institutions that try to tackle the problem: universities, think-tanks, and consultants. For there exists a connection between the stuckness that leaders experience and the stuckness in the thinking processes of those who would get them unstuck.

In the pages that follow I will show that America's leadership rut has both a conceptual and an emotional dimension,1 which reinforce one another. The emotional dimension is the chronic anxiety that currently ricochets from sea to shining to sea. 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.

By the social science construction of reality I mean a world view that focuses on classifications such as the psychological diagnosis of individuals or their "personality profiles" and sociological or anthropological niche (categorized according to culture, gender, class, race, age, etc.) rather than on what will be emphasized in this work: the emotional processes that transcend those categories and that all forms of "colonized protoplasm" share in common, irrespective of those difference. This applies in particular to the tension between the forces for self and togetherness; the reciprocal, adaptive, compensatory functioning by the partners to any relationship; and the evolutionary consequences of self-differentiation for both the individual and other members of his or her community.

These two dimensions of America's leadership rut, the conceptual and the emotional, are inextricably linked. The emotional climate of a society affects not only the models it conceived and clings to; it also influences what information we consider important and which issues attract our attention.

In neither case, therefore, can the way out be obtained simply by developing some new method for "tinkering with the mechanics," or by redoubling our efforts to try harder. The way out, rather, requires shifting our orientation to the way we think about relationships, from one that focuses on techniques that motivate others to one that focuses on the leader's own presence and being.

In the first part of this book, I will describe the emotional processes in society that I see affecting the functioning of "parents and presidents." And I will show how our denial of those processes in both families and in society at large (1) erodes and devalues the individuation necessary for effective leadership, and (2) influences the very way we conceptualize leadership problems to begin with. Then, in the second part of this book, I will present new ways of understanding leadership that are applicable to all families and institutions, taking those emotional processes into account and emphasizing the importance of the leader's own self-differentiation.

Ultimately, however, the purpose of this book is less to enlighten than to embolden.

1The word emotional as used throughout this work is not to be equated with feelings, which are a later evolutionary development. While it includes feelings, emotional refers primarily to the instinctual side of our species that we share in common with all other forms of life.

© 1999 The Edwin Friedman Estate

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