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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."
Reflecting on his learnings since writing Generation to Generation, Friedman says that he came to see that "resistance" is "part and parcel of the systemic process of leadership." He writes, "Sabotage, I began to realize, is not merely something to be avoided or wished away; instead, it comes with the territory of leading, whether the 'territory' is a family or an organization. And a leader's capacity to recognize sabotage for what it is -- that is, a systemic phenomenon connected to the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system and not to the institution's specific issues, make-up, or goals -- is the key to the kingdom."
In talking about what a "well-differentiated leader" looks like, Friedman says that he does not mean "someone who autocratically tells others what to do or coercively orders them around, although any leader who defines him- 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 life goals, and, therefore, someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing." He similarly talks about how leaders "function as the immune systems of their institutions." "The crucial issue of leadership in democratic societies may not be how much power they exercise but how well their presence has been able to preserve that society's integrity."
In the first chapter, "Imaginative Gridlock and the Spirit of Adventure," Friedman talks about the "quantum leap" forward that occurred around the year 1500 as enterprising leaders moved Western civilization out of "imaginative gridlock" through their self-differentiated leadership. These leaders shared five characteristics: a capacity to get outside the emotional climate of the day; a willingness to be exposed, that is, vulnerable; persistence in the face of resistance and downright rejection; stamina in the face of sabotage along the way; and a perception (by others with less resolve) as being "headstrong" and "ruthless." Friedman retells the story of Christopher Columbus from this vantage point (and, in the process, "rescues" Columbus from the bashing that he has received in recent years, making him appear significantly more interesting than most of us perceive him to be).
The second chapter, "The Nationalization of a Neurosis: Society in Regression," talks about the how, at the end of the 20th century, our society is stuck in "imaginative gridlock" in ways similar to that of medieval Europe at the end of the 15th century, and how we desperately need leaders with "a bold sense of adventure" to help us move to a new plane. Friedman describes our society, at present, as "chronically anxious," featuring five distinguishing characteristics: reactivity, hearding, blame displacement, a quick-fix mentality, and a lack of well-differentiated leadership.
The next three chapters ("Data Junkyards and Data Junkies: The Fallacy of Expertise"; "Survival in a Hostile Environment: The Fallacy of Empathy"; and "Autocracy vs. Integrity: The Fallicies of Self") all describe the ways in which Friedman sees leaders engaging in behaviors that lead in a direction other than self-differentiated leadership that can help our society move past our emotional gridlock. I found the chapter on empathy to be particularly compelling, particularly his analysis of the origins of the concept of "empathy" (he argues that it's only been since World War II that empathy has become part of common parlance) and the ways in which empathy is symptomatic, in his opinion, of the herding/togetherness force characteristic of societal anxiety. "Ultimately," he argues, "societies, families, and organizations are able to evolve out of a state of regression not because their leaders 'feel' for or 'understand' their followers, but because their leaders are able, by their well-defined presence, to regulate the systemic anxiety in the relationship system they are leading and to inhibit the invasiveness of those factions which would preempt its agenda. After that, they can afford to be empathic."
The last five chapters of the book ("Take Five"; "Emotional Triangles"; "The Power of Presence"; "Crisis and Sabotage: The Keys to the Kingdom"; and "The Presence of the Past") all build on the first five chapters. They outline -- in brief -- what self-differentiated leadership actually looks like, in practice. Unfortunately, these chapters are nowhere near as developed as the first five; all together, they comprise about only 20% of the book. But there is enough material here, combined with hints from the first part of the book, to make it clear where Friedman is headed. The section on sabotage is particularly helpful. Friedman identifies two different kinds of crises leaders face. The first has little to do with the leader's own functioning and is brought on by an outside source (such as a health crisis). The second type of crisis is "precipitated by the leader's own leadership -- that is, not his or her failures or incompetence but his or her success at self-differentiation." In other words, sabotoge is "part and parcel of the leadership process itself." Self-differentiation triggers reactivity. "The tendency of any leader when faced with this kind of crisis is to cease doing all that which had gone into differentiation. This is the moment when the adaptation pattern is likely to reverse itself and go in the direction of the most dependent and scared. This is the moment when a leader is most likely to have a failure of nerve. This is the moment when the leader will find it tempting to seek a quick fix." "A leader can never assume success because he or she has brought about a change. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently refrained from changing back in order to calm down the resulting reactivity that the leader can feel truly successful."
On the whole, I found this book to be deeply profound. My penciled-in noted on the margins attest to the insights I found myself coming to as I worked through the book. This is a totally comprehensive view of leadership, a "lens" from which I now find myself filtering just about everything else I read on the subject of leadership. I would suggest that the mere process of working through this book (and it does, indeed, feel something like a "workbook") helps leaders to become more self-differentiated, to have a clearer understanding of their task and purpose (or, perhaps more accurately, presence), and to raise their level of courage and stamina. At least, that's what it did for me.
[A side note: This review is based on the original edition of the book, published through the Edwin Friedman Estate. The book has recently (2007) been published in a more traditional book-like form, with, I understand, some editorial modifications to make it less repetitive and a bit more accessible. I have not compared the two different editions myself, however.]
All in all, an incredibly important book -- one of the most significant, life-enriching books I've ever read. After soaking in this material, you will not be the same. You just might be . . . a more effective leader.
Leaders who have weak emotional processes are susceptible to avoid all risk, blame others for their mistakes, or be influenced by emotionally reactive people. Leaders must have the capacity to move themselves and their organization forward; propelled by their own internal guidance system rather than being tossed by the perceptions, complaints, or reactions of others.
Friedman identifies five aspects of leaders:
A capacity to get outside the emotional climate of the day
A willingness to be exposed and vulnerable
Persistence in the face of resistance and downright rejection.
Stamina in the face of sabotage alone the way
Being "headstrong" and "ruthless"
This book is worth reading; you will be drawn to come back to it again and again.
Of all of these listed, Peter Senge's and Margaret Wheatley's books come close to Friedman in their ideas of leadership, but Friedman's resonates with me far more. He challenges the idea that good leadership is about things like charisma, diplomacy, and expertise, and equates the endless pursuit of information and specialized knowledge with addiction and substance abuse. For Friedman, good leadership is about personal integrity and a non-anxious presence. To the extent that leaders have clarity about their own life goals, can be separate individuals while staying connected to the group, who can both nurture and challenge without getting caught up in a group's anxiety about change or crisis, who can calmly stay the course in the face of knee-jerk reactions and sabotage, who can take stands at the risk of upsetting people--such leaders will grow and mature and subsequently foster growth and maturity in their organizations, whether that organization is a family, a business, or a nation.
I find myself rereading this book every year or so and mining new insights from it each time. If I had to pick one book that continues to change the way I see the world and live in it, it's this one.
I always refer back to this text when presented with a relationship or leadership difficulty. It is unfortunate that he passed away while working on this text, but for leaders in any field his thinking will change you.
I particularly find his writing on emotional barriers to be freeing, realizing that as a leader you never really know the true extent and universal ramifications of breaking through a previous "unbreakable" barrier. Take the example of the 4 minute mile, in came down faster once that barrier was broken than when the barrier was being approached.
Great work on thinking about true leadership and change.