A Failure of Nerve (book) – Edwin Friedman

A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman is an amazing book on leadership and personal growth in a way I wasn’t aware of and now believe is core for most areas of life – and that’s saying a lot.

I recommend reading it to anyone – thoughtfully and slowly – who wants to be better. Just plain better.

Amazon link

Good summary video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RgdcljNV-Ew&feature=youtu.be

A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman


The introduction does just that – it introduces the ideas, concepts and inceptions of the author’s thoughts about why we (families, organization, corporations, churches, etc.) have a failure of nerve in leadership.

He introduces a lot of questions and discusses how he’ll question them throughout the book. He includes some amazing insights into parenting and leading in general. The parallels of what he’s witnessed and concluded among his years of helping others (families, corporations, etc.) are encouraging as to what can be done and discouraging as to what is actually happening.

He summarizes what he thinks are the four major similarities in families and institutions that are at the heart of the problem.

  • Regressive trend in which the most dependent members set the agenda
  • Devaluation of the process of individualization – decisions are outsourced
  • Data and technique drive decisions instead of leaders
  • Thinking that toxic forces can be changed through reason – no one takes a stand

He claims that leadership is a essentially an emotional process rather than a cognitive phenomenon. And that when creative, energetic contributors are consistently frustrated rather than encouraged and supported, one hundred percent of the time the leader is a highly anxious risk-avoider.

The leader at the top needs to take risks and lead and they don’t need to be in direct contact with those they lead. However, they need to not be separate from the rest and their presence to be consistent.

When there are problems, if the leader is in “therapy” the whole organization will be in therapy also by proxy. They need to face their own selves, be responsible and lead.

First aspects of chronic anxiety are reactivity, herding, blaming, a quick-fix mentality and lack of leadership.


Chapter 1: Imaginative Gridlock and the Spirit of Adventure

In this chapter Edwin discusses the idea of imaginative gridlock and the inability to breakthrough with conventional approaches.

He spends a lot of time discussing how Europe in the 15th century was set on breaking through the Moors to open a trade route to the east. So set that any alternative route’s discovery wasn’t considered. They had the goal in mind and the path to victory went unquestioned.

Eventually sea exploration proved otherwise, but it was despite the intentions of victory in a sense.

The intended lesson of the chapter is that when in gridlock, the system in question can not break free simply by thinking more about the problem, by trying harder.

Three common characteristics of imaginative gridlock:

  1. Unending cycle of trying harder
  2. Looking for answers instead of reframing the questions
  3. either/or thinking creating false dichotomies

Trying Harder

Europe was trying so hard to get a trade route to the Far East that discovery of a new land to the west (the Americas) was considered “in the way” as opposed to a possibly better solution.

More of the same doesn’t work.

“Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” ~ Albert Einstein

Answers Rather than Questions

Innovations are new answers to old questions. A paradigm shift reframes the question, changes the information and eliminates previous dichotomies.

If you’re petting the cat the wrong way, do you pet it differently or turn the cat around?

Either/Or Thinking

Differences will exist in a system but they don’t dictate the nature or intensity of them.

People will have differences but those differences may take on different importance in different situations. An argument over toothpaste will seem absurd when hearing tragic news.

Risk and Reality

Three Facts of the Discovery Process

  1. Mistakes aren’t ultimately unimportant when driven by adventure versus certainty
  2. Serendipity is important in freeing oneself from the thinking process
  3. The will to overcome imaginative barriers

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” ~ Thomas A. Edison


You can’t fear failure. There’s a fine line between being irresponsible and failing. There are different types of risk and it’s important to not take irresponsible risks in the name of shooting for success. Don’t fear failure, but also don’t take irresponsible risks.


Friedman states “the acceptance and even cherishing of uncertainty is critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into he delusion of omniscience.” We don’t have to know it all – we can’t. Embrace the reality that the unexpected will happen. It doesn’t mean bad. It might mean the best possible.

Imaginative Barriers

To 15th century Europe, the equator was an imaginative, emotional barrier. Crossing it was believed to be death from falling off of the earth. The explorers had to be willing to make mistakes (which they made a lot), they had to hope/trust that things would work out (many times they didn’t) and they had to be driven by a spirit to explore and discover to remove imaginary barriers.


Chapter 2: A Society in Regression 

This chapter was eye opening, encouraging, scary and discouraging all at the same time.

It shows how a “society in anxiety” stifles leadership, adventure, strength and rewards weakness and victimization. The author passed away in 1996 so he didn’t even see the current state of society, the advances in communication and ubiquitousness of information. But he was able to clearly see where we were going.

He draws the similarities between the 15th century and our current age. How each are placed in time relative to the recent pasts and accomplishments particularly in information dispersement: the printing press and internet respectively.

Both ages have a great search for safety and certainty. But it’s by going against those that challenges are met and true strides are made.

Edwin points out the 5 characteristics of chronically anxious families/societies:

  1. Reactivity – vicious cycle of reaction
  2. Herding – togetherness over individuality
  3. Blame Displacement – victimization over responsibility
  4. Quick-Fix Mentality – symptom relief rather than change
  5. Lack of well-differentiated leadership – failure of nerve from the first 4

These characteristics cause societal regression which perverts progress of the evolutionary principles of:

  1. self-regulation of instinctual drive
  2. adaptation to strength rather then weakness
  3. growth-producing response to challenge
  4. allowing time for maturing process to evolve
  5. preservation of individuality and integrity

You can see how these two lists line up combined. A society in anxiety can lose it’s ability to cope with change when certain factors occur:

  • Escalating anxiety due to escalating quantity and speed of change
  • Anxiety absorbing (or scapegoating) institutions/individuals no longer absorbing (gone or can’t)

He compares the type of anxiety he means to a room full of fumes and everyone scared for the moment someone strikes a match. However, we tend to blame the ruin on the one striking the match as opposed to ridding the room of the fumes.

Friedman goes through each of the 5 characteristics of anxious families and gives details, examples and explanations of how they subvert the evolutionary principles to make the family/society progress.


It’s marked by a state of taking everything personally, on edge and lack of playfulness (think of a pet dog versus a lizard). It’s unsupportive of a leader which can negate any chance of change.

Herd Instinct

This is characterized by a priority of togetherness over individuality and caters to the least mature and most dependent member. It results in an Orwellian “Animal Farm” state of diversity being eliminated for the sake of diversity.

He gives some great, personal examples of witnessing the herd instinct in society that are jarring.

Blame Displacement

Of course the opposite of responsibility is blame displacement. However, the author points out that in many cases we don’t consider aspects of “self-organized criticality.” That means the state of the object before the outside force was applied.

If two people have the same surgery by the same doctor with the same results, but one recovers much faster, we should consider the health and fitness of them. The one in better health (fitness, weight, age, etc.) prior to the operation is likely to recovery better and faster. The same can be true for other cases.

Maybe the outside force wasn’t the sole issue or much of an issue at all.

Quick-Fix Mentality

It is no news today that our society wants everything now, easy, cheap and effective. This goes against natural processes. You can’t plant a shade tree – you plant a sapling. Easy come, easy go.

Poorly Defined Leadership

Edwin points out major regressive effects on leadership and their contrast to principles of leadership:

  • Leaders lack distance to work out clear visions
  • Leaders are led from crisis to crisis
  • Leaders lack conviction and boldness
  • Leaders lack maturity and sense of self to deal with sabotage

Friedman provides a few tables at the end of the chapter to illustrate the various principles and characteristics of an anxious family/society and how they work against the evolutionary process of progress.

Each of these points seems glaringly obvious to me that we are (families, institutions, organizations, government, etc.) are solidly in the state of anxiety and near panic. We display these characteristics and their effects.

We certainly react quickly to anything that upsets us. We huddle together in the name of peace and shoot any turkey dare raising their head. We blame anything for our issues and plights rather than take any responsibility. We all want it fixed now, somehow by someone else (who we won’t follow unless they lead and say what we want) and easily. And those we put in leadership are as spineless as possible so that we aren’t challenged a bit.

If I want to go against this though I need to remember it won’t happen overnight. Also, I need to remember that a) my circle of influence isn’t very big so b) I need to start where I am (home, church, etc.).

I want to have “response ability” – pause between cause and effect for an appropriate response. I want to value, reward and encourage strength over weakness. I want to be patient and value the journey and the destination. I want to cultivate in myself the vision, conviction and boldness to lead with maturity and individuality all the while knowing I’m not perfect.


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

I think there are some great thoughts in this chapter though I felt bogged down. It was probably my mental/emotional state at the time and such. Also, I read it over multiple sittings over several days so it might not have felt as cohesive.

I mostly like what I felt was the core ideas. That we confuse information with expertise, know-how with wisdom, change with almost anything new and complexity with profundity.

“Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.” ~ Miles Kington

I’ve heard it added that philosophy is then wondering if ketchup is a smoothie.

We tend to overwhelm ourselves with information to the point that any point can be made with the data, all meaning is lost in the numbers and most statistics can be used to contradict any other point.

This all leads to:

  • overwhelming leaders
  • confusing leaders w/ contradictory results
  • emphasizes weakness rather than strength
  • de-selfs leaders by ignoring the variable of individuation

Edwin makes a great point that he can save parents tons of money (i.e., the cost of college tuition) by just having them read all of the literature on parenting. They’ll become so overwhelmed and incapable of raising decent children than their kids will never go to college.

He proposes that parenting has far less to do with “proper technique” than with the nature of the parents’ presence and the type of emotional processes they engender. Particularly how a given parent relates to their own parents.

“I never saw a highly reactive or hypercritical father who was not distant from his own family of origin (and who, thereby, made the members of his new nuclear family too important to him).”

There’s also other aspects of overwhelming data: addiction and ignoring emotional aspects of decision making.

He spends a good bit of time talking about how fads and trends drive books in management, trends in psychology, etc. All fields tend to have ADD and move from one thing that’s key to another. It’s not that what was the focus one day to the next was fixed and conquered, but that people got bored with it.

The author then supplies a lot of content on the brain – particularly four ideas of mapping the brain. He talks about how some scientists see the parts of the brain as separate and others as parts of a whole. How the different parts work together, work in isolation and work with (or independently from) the body itself.

One part I found interesting was how Dr. Paul McLean believes the base of the brain (which he believes evolved first) is somewhat common in lower animals (e.g., reptiles) and handles instinct. The next level is more “mammal” and does primary thinking. The third is the cortex.

He believes that when we become more and more anxious, our lower level (instinct) area takes over but our cortex still believes it’s “in charge.” This leads to signifiant problems as you can imagine: madness.

If so, these three criteria can be used to determine madness in one’s self or others:

  1. interfering in the relationships of others
  2. unceasingly trying to convert others to their own point of view
  3. being unable to relate to people who do not agree with them

It was an interesting chapter and one I think that is quite cohesive to the rest of the book. However, as I mentioned, it felt a bit bogged down. Maybe because, while very interesting, it’s not a very hopeful book. 🙂


Chapter 4 : Survival in a Hostile Environment

To me this chapter is about 2 things – 1. empathy NOT being the solution to a hostile force and 2. the characteristics of a hostile cell/person/organization/etc. and how they are paralleled on all levels

People tend to use the ideas of togetherness and peace as a trump card to what others have to do. But those that propose this approach tend to feel powerless and are attempting to coerce others into their will.

You can’t be reasonable with a virus.

Responsibility is the crucial variable in survival – not empathy. Empathy is a relatively new word from the German word “einfurlang” (“to feel in”) describing projecting one’s self into a work of art.

Destructive entities share the inability to self-regulate and will perpetually invade the space of neighbors and they can not learn from experience. Their relentless energy and stamina to drive this comes from a lack of purpose and can not be empathized with.

Viruses are a great example for that level and up. They are parasites that can not create their own energy and are not self-determined.

Healthy cells (unlike malignant cells or viruses) have several key traits:

  • purpose
  • specialized function that contributes
  • communicate in a mutually reciprocal network
  • propagate same-functioned offspring
  • apoptosis – cease/die when no longer functioning

Malignant cells, people, organizations and such are the opposite. They can not be reasoned with or sympathized with. They can not be made to self-regulate through these means.

The host/boss/leader needs to instead focus on their leading and deal with the virus/tumor/etc. in more direct means.

The “function of a leader within any institution: to provide that regulation through is or her non-anxious, self-defined presence.”

There are 3 factors in survival: 1. physical reality 2. dumb luck (out of your control) and 3. personal response (of the organism). We can only really control number 3.

In my personal experience in dealing with “malignant” people, trying to understand the reasoning is “going down the rabbit hole” – it doesn’t end. Don’t let yourself get sucked into their game and down the never-ending hole of insanity.


Chapter 5: Autocracy Versus Integrity: The Fallacies of Self

Wow, this book. So good. The concepts are building and building and it’s probably going to be hard to digest and write about as opposed to saying “read the chapter.”

A Natural History of Self

He starts the chapter talking about cell-based organisms and how prokaryote cells don’t have a nucleus and basically exist to join with others. But eukaryotes are fine differentiating and being individual. I’m butchering that but it’s a great analogy for organizations, leadership and individuals.

But it’s everywhere – the struggle between playing it safe in togetherness and the adventure of exploration and individuality.

Adventure and exploration has the risks of harm and mistakes but also the rewards of discovery and improvement. The negative spin on “self” needs to be overcome when dealing with leadership. Self is not always selfish.

E pluribus unum – “out of many, one” – he discusses the similarity of our country’s origins with the cell structure and related organism makeup. How smaller units make up the larger and the benefit of the smaller helps the larger and the survival of the larger ensures the survival of the smaller.

In a very informative section he explains how the Articles of Confederation were too weak in their form of togetherness. There was no immune system. Later, the Constitution remedied that with the 3 branches of government and aspects of how the states can make laws where the federal government hasn’t made any (federalism), one area can’t overtake others (separation of powers) and states can’t make laws overruling federal laws (supreme law).

The Politics of Self

He discusses how “self” can modify other words in various ways: negative (selfish, self-centered), positive in possessing self (self-assured, self-control) or positive in absence of self (self-denial, self-sacrifice).

The immune system also takes up a good part of this chapter. He explains how the immune system for centuries was thought of a almost violent defense system against outside forces. But it might really ought be thought of as more of a system holding together and separating the self from non-self.

The immune system parallels human relationships in four key characteristics:

  • makes possible self
  • grows after birth
  • necessary for love (allows getting close w/o losing self)
  • can be perverted to attack host

In a relationship, one needs to keep the integrity of self and that makes self immunity. To invade someone else’s self/space/role, is to attack.

He ends the chapter with a section on differentiation. He defines it as a “lifelong process of striving to keep one’s being in balance through the reciprocal external and internal processes of self-definition and self-regulation.” It’s more of a process than a goal.

Differentiation, gathering from the chapter’s previous examples, leads to self-control emotionally, clearly knowing one’s beliefs, confidence in standing up for one’s beliefs, knowing “one’s place” and taking responsibility for one’s emotions and destiny. It’s more of an emotional concept than cerebral.

These qualities in a leader acts as an immune system for the organization/family. However, it can also stir up an anxious response in those favoring togetherness over strength/growth. Friedman believed staying in touch with and effectively dealing with this system is the key to the kingdom.

The idea to think of the immune system in this way is pretty mind blowing. To be able to recognize what is self and therefore what is not means one can clearly determine what is acceptable and what needs to to be avoided, rejected or removed. The emotional ability to act on that determination is a lifelong struggle.

But in differentiating yourself, you can clearly define self. Taking responsibility for your beliefs, roles, emotions with intentionality allows and is allowed by differentiation. Allowing others to overstep in these areas (or overstepping in these areas of others) prevents the differentiation and therefore self and a vicious circle can ensue.


Chapter 6: Take Five

This is the start of where the book was unfinished when the author passed away. It may feel a bit less polished or it might just be my imagination – either way, it’s still powerful.

He spends a good bit of time on the Old World explorers again which is very interesting.

5 aspects of the Old World explorers what allowed them to lead a civilization to a New World:

  • Capacity to get outside the emotional climate of the day
  • Willingness to be exposed and vulnerable – go it alone and come to love it
  • Persistence in the face of resistance and rejection
  • Stamina in the face of sabotage
  • Being “headstrong” and “ruthless”

He makes a point that I’ve come to think a lot these days. We’re becoming skimmers of past accomplishments. We’re living on the interest of past investments and starting to eat into the principle. I fear we’ll realize the debt too late… it might already be too late, but I don’t want to be negative.

“Old World” thinking:

  • Leaders are to be emulated
  • Leaders need to understand the needs of their followers
  • Communication depends on word choice
  • Consensus is achieved by striving for consensus
  • Stress comes from hard work
  • Hierarchy is power

“New World” views:

  • Leaders’ major effect is from presence (emotional being)
  • Leaders’ main job is to understand himself
  • Communication is emotional: direction, distance, anxiety
  • Stress if from taking on responsibility of others’ relationships
  • Hierarchy is from the nature of protoplasm

Innovations and Paradigm Shifts

The “soft sciences” (e.g., psychology) haven’t made the strides and leaps as much as the physical sciences and are still rooted in theories from long ago. They are gridlocked in societal regression to the point of being faith systems.

One exception is the family system model. And it can be scaled out to larger groups. Individuality needs to be retained more than the priority of togetherness.

Systems Thinking

He discusses “system” in the sense of independent variables whose product is greater than the sum.

Field theory – the field (e.g., magnetic) is created by proximity and once created controls the individuals more than the individuals do themselves. But it doesn’t exist without the individuals.

Nature of Institutions

The models the author uses, as he points out, differ from traditional views in 3 ways:

  1. People adapt to their position and play that role
  2. Generational influence overlaps (telescope)
  3. Leadership concepts scale and apply at all levels

A summary of the previous chapters is listed:


Chapter 7: Emotional Triangles

“The manner in which the relationship between any two people, or a given individual and his or her symptoms, can be a function of an often unseen third person, relationship, or issue between them.”

Emotional triangles follow their own universal laws, function predictably, require a different level of inquiry, and provide different criteria for what information is important.

The rules they follow:

  • They form out of the discomfort of people with one another.
  • They function to preserve themselves and, perversely, oppose all intentions to change them.
  • The interlock in a reciprocally self-reinforcing manner.
  • They make it difficult for people to modify their thinking and behavior.
  • They transmit a system’s stress to its most responsible or most focused member.

Thinking in terms of triangles can be the key to dealing with stress, health, effectiveness and relationships.

Types of Emotional Triangles

  1. Family – spouse/spouse/3rd person, spouse/spouse/issue or symptom, parent/child/parent, parent/child/3rd person, parent/child/habit
  2. Workplace – CEO/VP/VP, CEO/Union/Board, CEO/culture/change, worker/manager/worker, etc.
  3. Healing and Mentoring Triangles – Healer/patient/symptom, healer/patient/healer’s income, healer/patient/reputation, etc.

The “Laws” of Emotional Triangles

Emotional Triangles form because of the inherent instability of two-person relationships. They create the illusion of intimacy. It can provide a common enemy or scapegoat to focus on. Adultery is a common triangle but that has more to do with the bond created when “triangulating out” the other spouse.

The common family triangle is parent/parent/child. The child tends to go to extremes of achievement or dysfunction (emotionally or physically). The symptoms will only cease when the parents deal w/ the unresolved issue.

The fix may be for the parents to differentiate from the child. If so, that can often carry over into the marriage and the spouse become more independent. If so, the other spouse may rebel against that and another triangle fight for preservation.

Triangles scale well – whole societies can have them.

How Emotional Triangles Operate

They are

  1. Self-organizing
  2. Perpetuated by distance
  3. Tend to be perverse

Self-organizing – One side of the triangle tends to have more conflict. If that conflict subsides, another side may see conflict rise.

Distance can create a false intimacy by including and excluding selectively (e.g., rumors) and fights against openness, directness and intimacy.

Perverse – Side A can not change the relationship between B and C (only their direct relationships). A leader’s presence is more effective.

The Interlocking Nature of Emotional Triangles

Two triangles can share a side. This can propagate into many interlocking triangles – a far reaching molecule-like structure.

Often if one triangle can be resolved, the other will as well.

Stress in Emotional Triangles

A leader’s stress and effectiveness are related – they are most effective when they create the least stress.

When a leader becomes involved in a triangle of two others’ relationship – they will take on the stress of that relationship (as the most responsible party). Stress from work is related to how the work is approached (like lifting a heavy object – it’s about technique).

The way out is to make the other parties responsible for their relationship or problem. It’s not quitting – in fact staying in the triangle gives one more power.

The Togetherness Position

The feeling of responsibility for keeping a system together is called the “togetherness position” and is the most dangerous to a leader’s health. Edwin states that whenever he develops physical symptoms, he suspects this and knows he’s “been lying to himself.”

I had a particularly hard time w/ this chapter. Not b/c I don’t believe it or didn’t understand it. But I’m having a hard time knowing how to identify triangles, recognizing the issues and then how to resolve them or handle it. Maybe my writing “how to resolve them” is a tell – that’s my assumption: I have to resolve them.

In reality, I think the way out is to make the other 2 parties responsible for themselves. At least in some cases I’d say that’s it.

I read the chapter and made notes and markings as usual. Then I went back through it over the last couple of days. I may return to it (or the whole book) at the end. Only one more chapter.


Chapter 8: Crisis and Sabotage: The Keys to the Kingdom

Good sailors know how to use the wind to their advantage. Like a Judo expert using their opponent’s weight against themselves.

In relationships there’s always a conflict of will. So how does one go with the flow at still lead?

By position oneself such that the natural forces of emotional life carry one in the right direction. By the leader’s own self-differentiation:

  1. non-anxious presence
  2. challenging presence
  3. well-defined presence
  4. paradoxical presence

Rooted in one’s own sense of self rather than focused on that of his or her followers. Leaders function as the immune system of the institutions they lead. The trick is to be both non-axioms and present simultaneously.

This type of leadership can be misconstrued in multiple ways: justification for passivity, data and method are unimportant, bottom line doesn’t matter, outcome is irrelevant and the approach impractical.

Leadership Through Self-Differentiation

Being informed, if it takes over, can be overrated. Relying on experts can complicate matters. When you ask the same question to new people and get no new information, it’s probably time to stop gathering.

The experts are your advisors and counselors but you make the decisions. Be aware of the relationships among and between your advisors as well.

Injecting humor and keeping things loose helps. The looser your presence is, the looser everyone’s relationships will be w/ you and each other. This helps w/ managing the anxiety.

Managing self is also key: remain clear, manage anxiety, remain de-triangled, determine to be responsible and decisive.

Principles in times of crisis:

  • Keep up functioning
  • Develop a support system
  • Stay focused on long-term goals
  • Practice deep breathing, pray and meditation
  • Listen to your body
  • Watch the triangles
  • Balance responsibility for self and being labeled obstreperous
  • Keep things loose with humor
  • No new info -> decision time
  • Own functioning may be cause, may be able to influence recuperation


The Question of Sabotage

Sabotage is often precipitate by a leader’s own self-differentiation. Self-differentiating will triggering reaction and sabotage. Being prepared to skillfully deal with this is the “keys to the kingdom.”

This is often when the leader reverts, has a failure of nerve and looks for the quick fix.


Epilogue: The Presence of the Past

Understanding the overlapping relationship of the past generations to the present is important. The analysis of it has several key benefits.

  • puts them in touch with the nature and power of emotional process
  • delineates difficulties and capacities to understand how the past supports the present
  • enables understanding of why relationships and institutions don’t change
  • given an angle of entry into their own past, their differentiation and their presence as leaders

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