Wednesday, 9 November 2011

A Failure of Nerve

The two books which have shaped my ministry more than any other are James W Fowler's Stages of Faith and Edwin H Friedman's Generation to Generation. So, when Stu Crossan mentioned in passing that he was reading the book that Friedman was working on at the time of his death ten years ago, I immediately hotfooted it off to Amazon.com and got myself a copy. I read it quickly and am writing this without the book in front of me because I have already lent it to someone. It's that good.

A Failure of Nerve is about leadership and Friedman's thesis is quite simple: good leadership, he says depends less on expertise and data than it does on the maturity of the leader. He defines maturity as development on two parameters, a) self differentiation and b) the ability to take responsibility for one's own emotions. He argues that many organisations are profoundly anxious and, of course, provides analysis of the characteristics of an anxious organisation and the factors which keep them that way. His penetrating assessment lays bare the workings of many of the families, parishes, dioceses,local bodies, governments and corporations I am familiar with. His assessment of the leadership models which anxious organisations gravitate towards, with their overarching concerns for safety and empathy and their endemic antipathy to risk, I found illuminating and reassuring.

Particularly helpful is the analysis of the role of leadership in an anxious system as one of being rather than doing. I'm not sure if the phrase "The non anxious presence" originated with Friedman but it certainly sums up his thesis. Able to own her own reactions and assured of her differentiation from the organisation she leads, the leader is able to set and maintain direction, and her equanimity will have a profound effect not just on those with whom she immediately deals, but, through the working of systemic process, on the whole organisation.   

This is quite a flawed book. The final few chapters were written after Friedman's death by close colleagues working from his notes. These last pages tend to repeat  material better expressed elsewhere in the book, and which are found more fully and cogently argued in Generation to Generation. The whole book reads like an early draft but the ideas are profound and in the early 21st Century quite radical and counter cultural. It is a powerful and potentially life forming book that after a fortnight I am still working hard to process.