25 Quotes from A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman
Quotes from one of the most important (but unreadable) books I've ever read.
A Failure of Nerve is easily one of the most important books I have ever read. Unfortunately, it’s also so dense that it’s nearly unreadable. However, the concepts found in it have absolutely revolutionized the way I think about so much, and I’ve only scratched the surface of the implications of the whole book. If you haven’t read the book, I hope these quotes give you a taste. There is so much more. It’s worth digging through to find the gold.
Maturity will be defined as the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny.
The children who work through the natural problems of maturing with the least amount of emotional or physical residue are those whose parents have made them least important to their own salvation.
Here are four major similarities in the thinking and functioning of America’s families and institutions that I have observed everywhere, and which I believe are at the heart of the problem of contemporary America’s orientation toward leadership:
A regressive, counter-evolutionary trend in which the most dependent members of any organization set the agendas and where adaptation is constantly toward weakness rather than strength, thus leveraging power to the recalcitrant, the passive-aggressive, and the most anxious members of an institution rather than toward the energetic, the visionary, the imaginative, and the motivated.
A devaluation of the process of individuation so that leaders tend to rely more on expertise than on their own capacity to be decisive. Consultants (to both families and organizations) contribute further to this denial of individuation by offering solutions instead of promoting their clients’ capacity to define themselves more clearly.
An obsession with data and technique that has become a form of addiction and turns professionals into data junkies and their information into data junkyards. As a result, decision-makers avoid or deny the very emotional processes within their families, their institutions, and within society itself that might contribute to their institution’s “persistence of form.” (This phrase is borrowed from biology, which tries to understand the uncanny self-organizing ability of some embryos that duplicate themselves even after some of their parts have been rearranged or cut away.)
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 stands that set limits to the invasiveness of those who lack self-regulation.
In any type of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true 100 percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the very top of that institution is a peace-monger. By that I mean a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consensus, a “middler,” someone who is so incapable of taking well-defined stands that his “disability” seems to be genetic, someone who functions as if she had been filleted of her backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas—one whiff, on goes the emotional gas mask, and he flits. Such leaders are often “nice,” if not charming.
By well-differentiated leader I do not mean an autocrat who tells others what to do or orders them around, although any leader who defines himself or herself clearly may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own emotional being and destiny. Rather, I mean someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about.
What counts is the leader’s presence and being, not technique and know-how.
As long as new innovations are focused on method and technique rather than on the elements of emotional process, all changes are doomed to recycle.
Anyone who has ever been part of an imaginatively gridlocked relationship system knows that more learning will not, on its own, automatically change the way people see things or think. There must first be a shift in the emotional processes of that institution. Imagination and indeed even curiosity are at root emotional, not cognitive, phenomena. In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from the emotional processes that surround them before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently. Without this understanding, it becomes impossible to realize how our learning can prevent us from learning more.
There are three major, interlocking characteristics common to any relationship system that has become imaginatively gridlocked:
an unending treadmill of trying harder;
looking for answers rather than reframing questions;
and either/or thinking that creates false dichotomies.
An emotional barrier is a belief born of mythology and kept in place by anxiety.
Precisely because our technologically advanced society constantly keeps us in often-simultaneous touch with one another it may be more difficult today not to become caught up in the surrounding systemic anxiety. Ironically, the very advances in technology that mark our era tend to intensify the “herding instinct” characteristic of an anxious society. This kind of enmeshment inhibits further the kind of individuation that is the essential precondition for bold leadership and imaginative thinking.
Employing five characteristics of chronically anxious families, I will illustrate how those same characteristics are manifest throughout the greater American family today. I will demonstrate their regressive effects on our thinking about and the functioning, formation, and expression of leadership, among parents and presidents. Those five characteristics are:
1. Reactivity: the vicious cycle of intense reactions of each member to events and to one another
2. Herding: a process through which the forces for togetherness triumph over the forces for individuality and move everyone to adapt to the least mature members
3. Blame displacement: an emotional state in which family members focus on forces that have victimized them rather than taking responsibility for their own being and destiny
4. A quick-fix mentality: a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change
5. Lack of well-differentiated leadership: a failure of nerve that both stems from and contributes to the first four
At the same time that a society is “pro-gressing” technologically it can be “re-gressing” emotionally.
As with individual families, an entire society could lose its ability to cope with change when certain factors occur simultaneously:
Anxiety escalates as society is overwhelmed by the quantity and speed of change.
The institutions or individuals (whether scapegoat or symptomatic) that traditionally absorb or bind off society’s anxiety are no longer available to absorb it.
Chronic anxiety might be compared to the volatile atmosphere of a room filled with gas fumes. Any sparking incident could set off a conflagration, yet rather than trying to disperse the fumes people blame the person who struck the match.
There is no way out of a chronic condition unless one is willing to go through an acute, temporarily more painful, phase.
One of the most extraordinary examples of adaptation to immaturity in contemporary American society today is how the word abusive has replaced the words nasty and objectionable. The latter two words suggest that a person has done something distasteful, always a matter of judgment. But the use of the word abusive suggests, instead, that the person who heard or read the objectionable, nasty, or even offensive remark was somehow victimized by dint of the word entering their mind. This confusion of being “hurt” with being damaged makes it seem as though the feelings of the listener or reader were not their own responsibility, or as though they had been helplessly violated by another person’s opinion. If our bodies responded that way to “insults,” we would not make it very far past birth.
Ad hominem retorts that displace the problem onto another’s personality are almost always an indication not only of the anxiety of the person expressing them but also of their helplessness, if not emptiness.
This focus on safety has become so omnipresent in our chronically anxious civilization that there is real danger we will come to believe that safety is the most important value in life. Everything we enjoy as part of our advanced civilization, including the discovery, exploration, and development of our country, came about because previous generations made adventure more important than safety.
As long as leaders—parents, healers, managers—base their confidence on how much data they have acquired, they are doomed to feeling inadequate, forever. They will never catch up. The situation can only get worse. Yet everywhere in our society, the social science construction of reality has confused information with expertise, know-how with wisdom, change with almost anything new, and complexity with profundity.
Differentiation refers to a direction in life rather than a state of being.
Differentiation is the capacity to take a stand in an intense emotional system.
Differentiation is saying “I” when others are demanding “we.”
Differentiation is containing one’s reactivity to the reactivity of others, which includes the ability to avoid being polarized.
Differentiation is maintaining a non-anxious presence in the face of anxious others.
Differentiation is knowing where one ends and another begins.
Differentiation is being able to cease automatically being one of the system’s emotional dominoes.
Differentiation is being clear about one’s own personal values and goals.
Differentiation is taking maximum responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context.
The general rule is this: One can only change a relationship of which one is directly a part.
Leaders function as the immune systems of the institutions they lead—not because they ward off enemies but because they supply the ingredients for the system’s integrity.
A major criterion for judging the anxiety level of any society is the loss of its capacity to be playful.
People cannot hear you unless they are moving toward you, which means that as long as you are in a pursuing or rescuing position, your message will never catch up, no matter how eloquently or repeatedly you articulate your ideas.
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Based on this post, I picked up the book last night and started reading it. It is definitely living up to the hype, both in terms of significance and importance - and in how dense and difficult it is to read.