A Failure of Nerve

I recently completed reading Edwin H. Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. I am not one given to “leadership” books in general. This stems from three main reasons:

  1. Most of them are a collection of sports stories and truisms.
  2. Most of them play to the reader’s ego excessively.
  3. Jesus and the Apostles spent a lot more time talking about being a servant than about being a leader.

However, after a strong recommendation by a good friend whom I have much trust in, I bought this one, albeit reluctantly.

I have to admit there are a lot of gems in this book. Friedman diagnosed several contemporary problems (even though most of his writing happened in the 1980’s.) The book is not without its weaknesses, however. I tired of being compared to a single-celled organism after a while. (The author draws a lot of inferences from biology.) I also found his extended discussion on brain-mapping a bit hard to swallow after his earlier chapter discussing the way cartography shaped (and hindered) exploration.

The value of this book to me is the way it focuses on the leader not so much in relation to others and what he can or cannot get them to do, but in relation to himself.

I am convinced that to the extent leaders of any family or institution are willing to make a lifetime commitment to their own continual self-regulated growth, they can make any leadership theory or technique look brilliant. (p. 20)

This is an insightful observation. I see this all around me (or the lack of it.) Those who are self-motivated to keep growing, to keep learning, tend to continue rising up the ranks and having influence. Those who stagnate in this area tend to stagnate in their careers. This is related to this quote later in the book.

“Clients can rarely rise above the maturity level of their helpers, however.” (p. 59)

This phenomenon holds true in the military as well as the church. A leader, by definition, is one who has followers. That means they are behind you, not in front of you. Therefore, it stands to reason they will generally go no farther than you have gone and usually not quite that far.

Could it be that the reason we see such a pervasive luke-warmness in the contemporary church is we have a lot of pastors who aren’t moving themselves? It may not be the full answer, but it certainly is a root cause.

Continued growth is not all about formal education and certification. It is not even all about reading, though reading is certainly a component of it. Part of my reason for my 500-word per day writing challenge to myself is to keep myself growing. It’s not the only thing I’m doing, but it is one of the things. As both a priest and a staff officer, communication, especially written communication, is a key competency I need to continue to refine.

I will address some of the specific ideas in this book in future posts.


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