What We Read: A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

Review of A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix  

by Edwin H. Friedman 

Review by Skyler Jay Keiter-Massefski 

A Failure of Nerve is Edwin Friedman’s seminal work, diagnosing problems of imaginative gridlock and chronic anxiety in American leadership at every level and proposing a different course for leadership founded upon self-differentiation and a spirit of adventurous discovery. This is a helpful book for pastors who feel their congregations are “stuck” in loops and need help breaking new ground. Grounded in Family Systems Theory, Friedman’s ideas on leadership come from four decades of experience as a pulpit rabbi and psychotherapist in the metro DC area and are expressed by a rich variety of stories and metaphors. Though significant critique of a privileged ethnocentrism can (and should) be levied at Friedman’s articulation of his leadership model, his astute dismantling of the ‘quick-fix’ urge is nonetheless an enduring lesson that ought not be disregarded. 

The text is divided into three primary sections, the first including the introduction and chapters 1-2, the second containing chapters 3-5, and the final section consisting of chapters 6-8 and a brief epilogue.  

Following an introduction to the problems of leadership and how he came to his study, Friedman launches into his diagnosis of imaginative gridlock that is plaguing American society. This analysis is offered alongside an extended historical metaphor, comparing the 14th century age of discovery to the precipice that he views American leadership as mimicking at the close of the 20th century. This theme is carried through in the second chapter where Friedman explains that the symptom of this imaginative gridlock is a society in regression where leaders are embroiled in the chronic anxiety of those they are leading, and decisions are made on the basis of safety rather than boldness. Here Friedman introduces a second key metaphoric trope, evolutionary processes, in order to advance his argument.  

In the second section, Friedman advances what has been developed in the previous chapters by applying it to three fundamental issues that he sees with leaders at all levels of American society – the fallacies of expertise, empathy, and self. Through these respective chapters, Friedman projects an image of the ideal leader as someone who doesn’t see the amount of knowledge or data as what coveys truth, is wary of empathy being used as a way to undermine progress, and is able to self-differentiate themselves from the chronic anxiety of those around them. 

The third section of the text is the least developed, due to the fact that Friedman died (aged 64) in the process of writing it. A Failure of Nerve was published posthumously after family members collaborated to combine Friedman’s outlines and notes into these final chapters. These chapters therefore are not as cohesive in their progression as the first two thirds of the work. Chapter 6 constitutes the beginnings of an overall sketch of Friedman’s leadership model as developed in the initial sections of the text. Chapter 7 is a deeper dive into family systems theory, particularly through an analysis of various forms of emotional triangles and their effect on leadership. Finally, Chapter 8 is an exploration on decision-making under situations of crisis, putting the leadership model into action in order to resist the quick-fix that often comes with great stress. 

While Friedman’s analysis of some of the problems holding back leaders is incredibly valuable, there are significant critiques to be made about its articulation. Friedman’s arguments are expressed through extended metaphors that build off of each other in such a way that it becomes easy to lose track of the line of reasoning through the stacking of two or even three allegorical layers at once. In addition, one of these metaphors privileges the spirit of discovery shown through the European explorers without any contextualization or critique of the impacts of colonialism and the violence perpetrated by those same explorers and the legacies they left behind. Throughout the text, issues of race and class are consistently erased and explicitly deemed unimportant and Friedman responds to direct accusation of ethnocentrism by belittling the questioner and turning the experience into a model for why leaders shouldn’t be empathetic.  

Therefore, while congregational leaders can certainly learn a lot from Friedman’s leadership model – the importance of separating the self from the anxieties of the community, taking risks instead of always making safe choices, and resisting the quick-fix – they should also be cautious in accepting the articulation of these ideas wholeheartedly. The successful leader is non-anxious and self-differentiated for sure, but is still a member of a familial, congregational, and global community and must not lose their compassion along the way to more fruitful leadership.