Leading with Courage and Self-Differentiation


“But no one has ever gone from slavery to freedom with the slaveholders cheering them on, nor contributed significantly to the evolution of our species by working a forty-hour week, nor achieved any significant accomplishment by taking refuge in cynicism.”

Edwin H. Friedman

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I have been working my way through and reading and re-reading “Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of Anxiety” by Edwin Friedman.”

This is an excellent book and I highly recommend it.

We first discussed two pitfalls in leadership that we often fall into.  By the way, we are all leaders in one way or another.  At the very minimum, you have to lead yourself, which can at times be the hardest type of leadership of all. 

These two common leadership pitfalls, according to Friedman, are:

1) Data Overload- believing that more and more information is magically going to change things for the better.  In reality, this is often an excuse for hard work or conflict which is necessary for growth and creativity.

2)  Pathological Empathy – by making excuses for people, by failing to put pressure on them to deal with their anxiety instead of letting them put it on you, we at times end up hurting people by helping them.  Change can only happen when people deal with their own problems. 

This first point we discussed, data overload, is extremely relevant in our information age.  We can bring up the entire history of the European continent at the touch of a finger on a smartphone, and papers about quantam physics, and so on, but what good does this do us?  Are we doing something worthwhile with it?  What good is all this information doing us?  I laugh when I see something about how technology is going to”revolutionize” something.   Data is neutral at best and negative at worst.

Data and information overload can often weigh down on the deeper meaning and emotional weight of an experience.  For example, when you go on vacation, it doesn’t really make the trip any better to tote around 4 guide books and to stress yourself out trying to sightsee to exhaustion.  It’s often better to get the data you need and then move on.  Otherwise, we lose the ability to motivate ourselves and others, and to see the big picture for what it is. This has also been called “analysis paralysis” or information overload, but it is often an excuse for taking action or for confronting change.

Secondly, we discussed empathy that hurts or what I would call pathological empathy.  Jocko Willink, a badass Navy Seal and seriously good writer and business consultant puts it this way in his brilliant military lingo:

“If you’re helping them, you’re hurting them.” -Jocko Willink

I also heard Tony Robbins say one time that the major problem he had with socialism was that by taking the weight off of people to care for themselves, you’re making them weaker like an astronaut in space loses muscle because of a lack of gravity- people on welfare start wasting away.  Empathy is good as long as it does not turn into an excuse not to change, which it often does. It’s ok to care about people and be sincer about it, but we should never enable someone to wallow in their misery or anxiety.  We can care about others without making their problems worse, or by taking on their anxiety. It was said brilliantly by Robert Bly:

“Be Gold, not Copper.” -Robert Bly

I think we are all guilty at one time or another, I know I am, of trying to accumulate more and more data and trying to be too empathetic with ourselves or others.  Most of the time, we’re better off putting down the data and information and stop making excuses for ourselves and others and just getting down to work.

“It has been my impression that at any gathering, whether it be public or private, those who are quickest to inject words like sensitivity, empathy, consensus, trust, confidentiality, and togetherness into their arguments have perverted these humanitarian words into power tools to get others to adapt to them.”

“But what is clear about pain universally is this: To the extent that we are motivated to get on with life, we seem to be able to tolerate more pain; in other words, our threshold seems to increase. Conversely, to the extent that we are unmotivated to get out of our chair, our threshold seems to go down.”

― Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

What We Need is Courageous Leadership through Self-Differentiation

Leadership is often talking about what people don’t want to talk about. 
Leadership is often about doing what no one else wants to do. 
Leadership requires someone to step up and carry the direction of the team.
Leadership often requires arguing, not controlling or dominating, but arguing for the truth.
Leadership requires courage, discipline, and commitment.
Leadership requires us to overcome shame.

When it comes to overcoming fear and leading, let’s look at shame.  Shame is a mental and spiritual virus, a type of resistance and fear.  I think often times, once we decide to lead, we immediately run into resistance, both within ourselves and others within our organization.  This often comes in the form of shame. It’s like a virus that spreads from one person to another and it perpetuates fear.  Courageous leadership requires us to stare down shame coming at us from within ourselves and others, and to move past it.  Shame is tricky though, because like many viruses, people don’t know they have it or that they are passing it on to others.

Shame tries to put you in your place.

Shame says that you are not worthy, or that you do not have as much worth as someone else, or that there’s something wrong with you.  Most of us pick up this stuff in our childhood from other people, adults and children who don’t know they have it.  They spread their shame to us.  Courageous leadership requires us to be aware of this and move past it. We may have at some point in our lives done something wrong, but that is not the same as shame.  Shame says that our soul does not have worth.  We each have the power to reject shame.

Friedman mentions in his book that change will always meet resistance.  This is a common theme in life, even in physics and science.  One of the 3 Laws of Physics, the Law of Inertia, states that an object in motion will stay in motion unless acted upon by an outside force.  In other words, it is a physical law of the universe that people do not like change.  We want to keep doing what we’ve always done, and this includes taking risks and leading.  We don’t want to lead because it means we might have to speak up, disagree with someone, call someone out for something they did, show our work, speak publicly, and the list goes on.  We might even have to admit our own faults and mistakes.  It takes courage to lead.  If we never deal with the shame viruses and other types of resistance, we may never be the type of leader we can be.

Someone said there are only really two emotions: fear and love.  I agree with this, especially when it comes to getting the job done.  We have to focus on what we love to keep the fear out.  You can’t do fear and love at the same time. 

For example, when I wrote my first book, I could hear voices in my head telling me I was crazy, that I was being cocky, or that people wouldn’t like it.  I had to overcome that.  Ironically, that was my ego’s protective mechanism talking.  When I actually did write the book and publish it, I had shame viruses come at me, where people laughed at my book, or rolled their eyes, or so on.  But I just kept plowing ahead out of love.  I love the topic of mental health, stress, anxiety, and depression and I know how powerful exercise can be in battling these things.  So love wins out over fear and the book comes out and helps alot of people.   Just the other day, a reader told me it was one of the best books he’d read and changed him.

Chalk one win up for courage over shame.  But every day the battle starts over.   Leadership requires constant courage. 

For Friedman, Self-Differentiation is the Key to Effective Leadership

I’ve read enough to gain a significant distate for self-help nonsense, but Friedman’s teaching is right on the money. Most of the time, supposed “success”  gurus will tell you their are tricks, techniques, or shortcuts you can take but that is rarely the case.  Most of the time, to get the job done, you have to have a clear goal, stay focused and disciplined, and most importantly, be willing to deal with conflict.

“Leadership through self-differentiation is not easy; learning techniques and imbibing data are far easier. Nor is striving or achieving success as a leader without pain: there is the pain of isolation, the pain of loneliness, the pain of personal attacks, the pain of losing friends. That’s what leadership is all about.”

― Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

What does Friedman mean by self-differentiation?

Ego is actually the enemy.

We often look at leaders as having a big ego, but that’s not really always the case.  Most truly great leaders are most certainly confident, but they also must be willing to move beyond pettiness, fear, jealousy, and they can’t really hide.   They have to be brave and be willing to step out from the crowd.  If you think about it, to play any role well, whether it’s mother, writer, father, boss, owner, son, employee, or team member we have to do this.  We need to embrace who we are in that particular context and do it well.  One could have no sense of pride, arrogance, or ego, like a Mother Teresa, and still be a great leader by serving others. 

When I wrote my book, it didn’t take ego to do it, it took overcoming ego to do it! The ego gives us fear, but the spirit gives us courage to act on behalf of the people or values we love.  That’s what we need to tap into, the spirit of leadership, if we want to do great things.

Self-differentiation involves stepping out from hiding and taking on the task of distrubing the peace, or inertia, so that the team can move in a better direction or a bigger goal can be achieved. Challenges will always come up one way or another, so why not move forward in a creative stance, building something better, instead of reacting left and right anxiously to things that pop up.

Self-Differentiation in ourselves leads to the same in others. 

When we are leading like we should, instead of reacting left and right to other people’s anxiety, shame, game-playing, and resistance and sabatoge, we create a culture of positive change and constructive creativity.  Clarify your thoughts, values, and goals and be willing to communicate these things fearlessly and daily in your life, family, and work.  This is not controlling, or arrogant, this is leadership and real love. 

We need you.   You’re free now to come out of hiding and be a leader.  There are millions hiding but you don’t have to.  Start with leading yourself.  It’s easy to be cynical but it takes a hero to care enough to have courage and lead.  That could be you.  There are people waiting on you to lead. 

  “A willingness to be exposed and vulnerable. One of the major limitations of imagination’s fruits is the fear of standing out. It is more than a fear of criticism. It is anxiety at being alone, of being in a position where one can rely little on others, a position that puts one’s own resources to the test, a position where one will have to take total responsibility for one’s own response to the environment. Leaders must not only not be afraid of that position; they must come to love it.”

― Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

Suggested Readings:

Iron John, by Robert Bly
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, by Franklin Covey
A Failure of Nerve, by Edwin H. Friedman
Jocko Podcast, Itunes
Movement is Motivation, blog post by Scott Godwin: Click here to read.
If you like this article, pass it on!

Read Next: On Friendship




Website support & hosting by