Some months ago I attended a meeting relating to the roll out of a strategic plan. The agenda was to review the requirements for leadership and leadership training. The context was for a mainline church denomination but some of the discussion could apply more broadly.
Several participants had been asked to research and bring leadership concepts and common key words emerged for leadership roles. Words like “mediating”, “perfecting”, offering” and “blessing” appeared in one report. In another the author had been fond of the letter “C” – and used nouns like “character”, “calling”, “competence” and “community”. “Servant” leadership was also on the table. My key words echoed some of the others – “disicipline”, “humility” and “learner”. I was also strong on “collaboration” rather than “hierarchy” even though we are still working within a hierarchical structure. But leader still assumes followers and someone has to take the first step.
The most interesting submission was a summary of a work by Ed Friedman entitled A Failure of Nerve. The writer of the summary had limited himself to 500 words and boiled down the role of the leader to a non-anxious presence. We spent little time on Friedman’s idea in the meeting, but I had read his book some years before and its mention whetted my appetite to return to it.
Failure of Nerve was compiled after Firedman’s death in 1996 by his daughter and students and has been recently reissued. It is timely. Friedman was a rabbi and psychotherapist by training and as well as founding a successful congregation he served as advisor to six US presidents as well as to many senior church leaders and individual clients. Even before his death he saw that America in the nineties had become a frightened society, fearing change and seeking safety as opposed to the spirit of adventure of its early explorers and founders. He’s strongly critical of this stance and challenges us to change our mental models.
Friedman is often caustic and witty – and several readers have collected maxims that represent the substance of his thinking. Here are some that apply to leadership:
- Leadership can be thought of as a capacity to define oneself to others in a way that clarifies and expands a vision of the future.
- ‘no good deed goes unpunished; chronic criticism is, if anything, often a sign that the leader is functioning better! Vision is not enough.
- Leaders need “… to focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than through techniques for manipulating or motivating others.”
- Leadership through self-differentiation is not easy; learning techniques and imbibing data are far easier. Nor is striving or achieving success as a leader without pain: there is the pain of isolation, the pain of loneliness, the pain of personal attacks, the pain of losing friends. That’s what leadership is all about.here
Much of where Friedman is coming from is defining church congregations and enterprise units as family systems, a concept developed fully by therapist Murray Bowen. It posits that we call rational in congregations and enterprises is always framed by the emotional responses learned in our personal birth and extended families. Those families and tribes, like all systems, seek equilibrium. When things get tense, it’s likely that learned behavior in earlier systems are in play. When things are going well, Friedman says, expect sabotage.
The remedy is for the leader to develop self-differentiation rather than to try to persuade or motivate others to change.If a non-anxious presence is required it assumes there is already anxiety and conflict in the room. But it is working on one’s own development that allows others to learn by example – and take responsibility for their own development.
Here's a brilliant brief video of Friedman's work: