A Failure of Nerve – Organizational Dysfunction 


One of the best things about reading is serendipitously stumbling from one author or book to another.

You read one book and you become interested in something else as a result so the chain of learning and fun keep going. 

A blogger that I read regularly, who comes from a completely different field from me, recommended a leadership and personal development book by Edwin Friedman called A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. 

I recently read it and loved it and plan to re-read it again. 

By the way, keep reading because YOU are a leader. Yes, YOU.  We are all leaders in one way or another.

2 Common Mistakes that Trip Us Up From Group and Creative Success

One of the things that stuck out the most about the book and resonated with me was the two biggest mistakes the author lays out as where most groups get stuck in a dysfunctional trap:

1) Data– that somehow compiling more and more information is somehow going to make a problem go away.  This could be related to overlearning, or getting bogged down in minutia or technique and losing sight of the big picture narrative. 

So in the case of an overemphasis on data the main thrust is towards more knowledge, and not on wisdom, or what to do with all that knowledge.  This is a big mistake for leadership.

An example from the book he gives is parents studying multiple parenting books or going to multiple doctors, counselors, etc. without ever spending time with their children to really get to know them and find out what’s going on, as somehow more information is going to magically solve the problem(s). 

I think this is an applicable critique to many situations.  I’m most certainly a logical, rational thinker who craves more and more information, which can at times be a detriment to losing the emotional weight of various moments or interactions.  I find certain subjects to be so fascinating that I can easily slip into an obsessive information overload instead of getting out and “doing” the knowledge.   

The critique of data is particularly relevant in the information age.  Friedman wrote his books 20 years ago, so his warning about too much of an emphasis on data and information is even more relevant now that we have libraries of information available at our ever-beckoning call. 

2) Empathy- This critique is fascinating.  In a group situation or relationship, it is good to be empathetic to a point, but this can be a bad thing.   Feeling empathy for someone, though it may allow you to sympathize with another fellow human’s plight, does not actually solve any problems or propel positive change.  Empathy, on the contrary, can actually be a hindrance to growth or change. 

Friedman teaches that when a person you are involved with, romantically or at work or in another capacity, has anxiety or fear that they can try to transfer that to you.  This is an immature way for someone to deal with fear.  Someone emotionally immature may try to relieve his stress by piling it on to you.  This is a coping mechanism for them and they may not even be aware they are doing this.   In a case like this, many will play along empathizing and the game keeps going.  Nothing changes and the success of the relationship is stunted.

One of the topics which has benefited me the most to study in my life has been the subject of boundaries.  Sometimes I’ve failed miserably, but it is good to be aware of boundaries and understand how to set them and stick by them.  Boundaries are a particularly healthy thing in relationships, because they allow us to be loving, and vulnerable, and courageous but also not allow others to injure us or allow us to injure ourselves. 

Boundaries relate to this topic of empathy because they push the burden of change back on to the other.   If the one seeking empathy is really looking for an enabler, or a co-dependent, or someone just to listen to their excuses and negativity, if you refuse to play that game, it can actually be a good thing by forcing the other to deal with their problem.   I am naturally an empathetic person, but I have learned over my life that empathy can be self-destructive if you if you aren’t careful. 

An analogy I like is this:

Be Gold, Not Copper.  This means that we should care deeply and love others (be like gold), but we don’t have to let them sink their anxiousness and problems into our psyche (like copper).

Without the kind of negative empathy Friedman talks about, the anxiety to change is thrown back on to the stressed or anxious one.  This is a good thing if the person deals with it correctly.  With nowhere else to turn a move towards maturity can happen.  Most organizational or personal problems can be dealt with in a constructive way if we learn to gather the resources we need within ourselves or with the help of others, and then come to a resolution and move forward.      

Self-actualization, character growth, courageous leadership, and emotional maturity are prodded along by challenge, not by empathy.  We can still be good friends and co-workers and lovers to one another without this type of pathological empathy. 

The failure of leadership is often the failure to stay focused on the creative, big-picture aspect of success. 

What is it that we want?  Great friendships?   Happy marriages?  Successful and meaningful businesses or careers?  A personal life with plenty of time to do things we enjoy?  A fun trip doing what everyone wants to do? A devoted spiritual life?  To feel good physically?  To eat well and enjoy eating? What is the purpose of our organization?  What is our family all about?

If we want to achieve our goals, we shouldn’t get caught up in emotional game-playing or accumulating more and more information. 

We need to stay focused on the big thing and not get bogged down by these two traps.  

I am really enjoying Friedman’s work and am just starting to read Friedman’s Fables which is excellent too.  I’ll write some more on this soon. 

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