• Dr. Patricia Gianotti

A Failure of Nerve

One of my favorite books is A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin Friedman. Although the book was published in 2007, Friedman’s insights about leadership seem to be more urgently needed today than ever before.

Principles of good leadership extend beyond leading a country or an organization; they pertain to how we parent, teach our children, run our school systems, churches and synagogues, or guide any institution the serves a greater community purpose.

A “failure of nerve” can be defined as a condition or response where people turn a blind eye, throw their hands up in the air, give in to badgering, make excuses for or minimize bad behavior, or lash out in frustration when a difficult situation presents itself. A failure of nerve can also be understood as allowing ourselves to adapt to the pressure of what Friedman calls “collective immaturity”, a condition that generally arises when enough people are exposed to a climate of reactivity, sensationalism, and fear.

There are two basic responses or attempts at adaptation when faced with collective immaturity. The first is to hold onto the mistaken notion that you can use logic and reason to calm reactivity and immaturity. A secondary response (when trying to reason with someone fails) is to gradually begin to believe that nothing you do will make any real difference, so why bother. This is when a person or groups of people shift from expressing concern to passive-resignation.

Friedman states, “There is a widespread misunderstanding about the relational nature of destructive processes in families and institutions that leads leaders to assume that toxic forces can be regulated through reasonableness, love, insight, role-modeling, inculcation of values, and striving for consensus. It prevents them from taking the kind of stand that set limits to the invasiveness of those who lack self-regulation.” Examples of this occur every day, in every arena of life.

For example, the other day I was talking with my cousin who is the Medical Director of a national insurance company headquartered in another state. She told me about a former boss, someone who made everyone’s life miserable for years. Even though my cousin remained with the organization, she witnessed many good people quit because nothing was done. It’s a familiar story – someone is promoted into a leadership position by taking credit for everyone’s accomplishments, or stirring the rumor mill, or flying off the handle, or choosing favorites as well as scapegoats based on whether their ego gets stroked or not.

Everyone is aware of what’s going on, yet no one speaks up, everyone seems to be afraid to set a limit. It’s as if no one is really in charge, and the price if left unchecked is a wake of destruction, measured by lost talent, inefficiency, frustration, demoralization, polarization, and decreased productivity. My response to my cousin’s story is, “Why does this seem to be happening?”

Pandering to or cowering in the face of people who lack self-regulation creates a regressive, downward spiral. Difficult people or difficult problems don’t magically correct themselves. Waiting to take action generally makes a situation worse, not better. Friedman equates a lack of leadership accountability to a hostage situation, where the “terrorist” (substitute bully, abusive spouse, difficult employee, selfish, self-absorbed individual, spoiled, demanding child) is creating an environment where there is no one with “nerve” enough to stand up and say, “enough is enough”.

According to Friedman, a good leader possesses a steadiness and maturity that can stand firm in the face of divisive forces or reactivity on the part of others. A good leader is someone who is self-differentiated, that is, someone who is able to maintain his or her own separate identity while still remaining connected with others. This combination of personal steadiness coupled with caring concern is what allows good leaders to maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence.

Managing one’s own reactivity is also what allows a person to find the inner resources and capacity to be able to take a difficult stand, even at the risk of displeasing others. No one does this easily, and there’s no such thing as “a born self-differentiated leader”. It is something that takes time to master, and it is probably the most important capacity to hone and develop throughout a lifetime. 

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