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A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix [Kindle Edition]

Edwin H. Friedman
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (60 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Ten years after his death, Edwin Friedman's insights into leadership are more urgently needed than ever. He was the first to tell us that all organizations have personalities, like families, and to apply the insights of family therapy to churches and synagogues, rectors and rabbis, politicians and teachers.

A Failure of Nerve is essential reading for all leaders, be they parents or presidents, corporate executives or educators, religious superiors or coaches, healers or generals, managers or clergy.

Friedman's insights about our regressed, "seatbelt society," oriented toward safety rather than adventure, help explain the sabotage that leaders constantly face today. Suspicious of the "quick fixes" and instant solutions that sweep through our culture only to give way to the next fad, he argues for strength and self-differentiation as the marks of true leadership. His formula for success is more maturity, not more data; stamina, not technique; and personal responsibility, not empathy.

This book was unfinished at the time of Friedman's death, and originally published in a limited edition. This new edition makes his life-changing insights and challenges to a new generation of readers.


Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Edwin H. Friedman was an ordained rabbi and practicing family therapist. His ground-breaking volume Generation to Generation, which exposed the connections between emotional process at home and at work in religious, educational, therapeutic, and business systems, has become a modern classic. In great demand as a consultant and public speaker throughout the country, he lived in Washington DC. He died in 1996.

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
142 of 142 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A "must" for all who truly would lead October 5, 2006
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is perhaps Edwin Friedman's magnum opus -- or would have been, had he lived to see this to completion. Building on his earlier work in Generation to Generation and on a multitude of conversations he had been involved in since the publication of that work in 1985, Friedman was working on this book on leadership at the time of his death in 1996. Friedman's wife worked with several of his colleagues to bring the manuscript to print -- at least, the 300+ pages that Friedman had written by that point. The first five chapters are thorough; the latter five chapters are somewhat more sketchy; but there is enough material here that the interested reader can get a pretty good glimpse of where Friedman was headed.

Friedman's thesis: there is a "failure of nerve" in American civilization today. "There exists," he says, "throughout America today a rampant sabotaging of leaders who try to stand tall amidst the raging anxiety-storms of our time. It is a highly reactive atmosphere pervading all the institutions of our society -- a regressive mood that contaminates the decision-making processes of government and corporations at the highest level, and, on the local level, seeps down into the deliberations of neighborhood church, synagogue, hospital, library, and school boards." This reactivity leads to what he calls a "leadership-toxic climate" that makes it exceptionally difficult for clear, decisive, well-defined leadership to function effectively. The book, he says, "is about leadership in the land of the quick fix, about leadership in a society so reactive that it cannot choose leaders who might calm its anxiety.
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22 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Courage in Leadership June 4, 2007
Format:Paperback
Note: This review originally appeared as a "You Be the Critic" column in the Rochester NY Democrat & Chronicle, 5/8/07:

In 20 years of coaching executives, I've read scores of books on leadership. I continue to return to Edwin Friedman as the most insightful, realistic analyst of the dynamics that occur in the emotional soup we call the workplace.

This book is not for the faint of heart. As the title implies, the antidote to a failure of nerve is courage. Courage becomes necessary once a leader begins to shift his/her own participation in the brokenness of the organization - e.g., to finally address a performance issue with a key employee. With this commitment to decisive, mature action, reactions are inevitable. Thus the need for courage: to persist in the face of those reactions.

Leaders will discover keys to recognize the emotionality that contaminates all decision-making processes, and what is required to provide clear, decisive, well-defined action. Friedman offers a treasure trove of tools, concepts and principles (e.g., five characteristics of a highly anxious system) to help leaders diagnose complex situations and to determine what is helpful and what is harmful.

Perhaps his most crucial contribution is the insistence that the leader focus on self: that is, in order to create transformation in a system, the leader needs to identify his/her participation in the present dynamic, and focus on altering his/her own role. Again, courage is a requirement here, but thankfully, focus on self diminishes the stress inherent in attempting to change others.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
By pdeldc
Format:Paperback
This book provides a great application of Bowen family systems theory on a macro level. Having some basic understanding of family systems theory is helpful, but not absolutely necessary, in understanding the concepts of this book. Friedman applies family systems ideas to leadership in ways that will make you think differently about what makes an effective leader (whether it be a President or a parent or any leader in between). For those, like me, who use family systems on a micro level in psychotherapy to help individuals and families function better, seeing how these same family system ideas can also be applied to the "big picture" is eye opening. Friedman's writing style is clear and enjoyable. As a framework to explain his theories on leadership, Friedman uses the cultural mindset that existed in Europe at the time explorers were proposing to set out across the Atlantic to seek new trade routes to Asia. This framework may seem odd and out of place, but is in fact a clever and captivating means for Friedman to explain his theories effectively. The editors of this book also deserve praise in how they astutely updated and stayed true to this unfinished work by Friedman. Whether you are a leader looking for new ideas to become more effective in what you do or simply a person who is just interested in leadership as a cultural concept, this book will inspire you to think differently and question conventional wisdom.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Adventuresome Leadership November 2, 2007
Format:Paperback
A Failure of Nerve presents a unique approach on leadership among the books I have read on the topic. Friedman concentrates on several themes throughout the book that combine lessons learned from decades of experience and research.

The themes include the necessity of a sense of adventure and the possession of courage in leaders, the importance of self-differentiation, focusing on strengths instead of catering to weaknesses, the destructive nature of relationship triangles and the challenges leaders face among followers.

He highlights some negative practices of leaders in our culture, mainly the over-dependence on data and information and the misplaced emphasis on emphathy over action.

In this book, readers will find practical, simple ways to improve leadership. This book will challenge some of the accepted practices of organizational leadership today and should open readers' eyes to necessities of effective leadership.

All of Friedman's themes are applicable to families, congregations, businesses, government, etc. This is an especially useful book for parents and pastors/rabbis.

The downside of the book is that it was published posthomously, so the last three chapters were collected by colleagues who also edited the book. The effect is that it is not as cogent and concise as it might have been if Friedman had lived long enough to complete the writing himself.

This is a dense book on leadership that is definitely worth the effort of reading, as it will change the way you lead and relate to others.

Craig Stephans, author of Shakespeare On Spirituality: Life-Changing Wisdom from Shakespeare's Plays
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars with great first-hand
new insights on old issues; looks at the real human aspects and not the X's and O's; focuses on human relations and not chained to data and mechanics. Read more
Published 1 month ago by Gary Narron
5.0 out of 5 stars This is the best book on leadership I have ever read
This is the best book on leadership I have ever read; I give it to friends and colleagues all the time. Friedman was an amazing thinker.
Published 2 months ago by Rev Julia
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
great to read a different approach on leadership at every level
Published 2 months ago by Johannes Mos
5.0 out of 5 stars For Every Leader, Especially Pastors
This is a book that should be read by every leader, but particularly those in religious institutions. Read more
Published 3 months ago by Alan Cassady
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant thoughts
His thoughts are so refreshing, innovative and incredibly thought-provoking. Even if you don't end up completely agreeing with everything he says, you won't regret having... Read more
Published 3 months ago by Heidi Naylor
5.0 out of 5 stars Spot on!
Right on the money! This book speaks to many levels of human endeavor. And should be read by all leaders.
Published 4 months ago by Milton N. Burgess
5.0 out of 5 stars Friedman is a genius who rightly asserts that the greatest failures in...
Instead of self definition and taking a stand, today's leaders too easily bend to the pressure of a small yet vocal minority or to the misguided passions of a crowd. Read more
Published 5 months ago by Amos Smith
5.0 out of 5 stars Looking at old problems in a new way - although, this is a relatively...
We all think of ourselves operating as independent intellectually operating entities - that is, after all, how our Western culture defines us. Read more
Published 5 months ago by DKH2150
5.0 out of 5 stars excellent!
This text presents so much helpful information. I wish I had discovered it a few years ago. Comparing our present context to the advent of exploration, Friedman described the state... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Jay Mc G
5.0 out of 5 stars Timely, exceeded expectations.
All today's leaders need to read this book and refer to it frequently. "Spin" is not playing fair and leads to distrust.
Published 6 months ago by Betty Lightle
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More About the Author

The late Edwin Friedman was an ordained rabbi and practicing family therapist. His ground-breaking work, Generation to Generation, exposed the emotional connections between home and work in religious, educational, therapeutic, and business systems, and has become a modern classic. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, is an acclaimed work on leadership. Friedman died in 1996.

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