Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Part I


The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them.
Edwin Friedman

Over the course of his 30-year professional career, rabbi and psychologist Edwin Friedman discovered that there are 2 different types of leaders. First there are those who strive for peace-at-all-costs, focused on empathizing and bonding with those whom (s)he leads. Then, there are the real leaders, committed more to their own maturity, personal responsibility and self-differentiation, the ability to "be your own person" without being fused to the expectations of others.

In A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Friedman posits that clear, decisive decision-making is far more emotional than logical, making all the latest leadership data and technique overrated at best. That's great news. All of us, "from parents to Presidents," can stop the never-ending pursuit of news, knowledge and know-how in order to be familiar with all the latest expertise. Instead, the key is reflecting on our own emotional process. That's where the bad news comes in (at least for "peace-mongers" like me). Friedman posits that the best leaders will inevitably need to endure sabotage from those we lead. This will take stamina and a whole lotta guts.

Friedman is, by no means, offering a dictator model of leadership. He's not trying to recruit Hitlers to run our families, firms and faith communities. He has simply assessed our societal condition as one that favors and rewards the most immature among us. Our culture has taught us how to complain, threaten, argue and whine to get what we want. The most petulent and presumptuous among us get the promotion, product or prestige. His work, in his own words, is "about leadership in a society so reactive that it cannot choose leaders who might calm its anxiety." Because chronic anxiety in all our relationships is so pervasive, we do not focus on calming ourselves down (self-soothing) so that we can make decisions that will benefit the most imaginative and virtuous of those we are leading. Here is how Friedman fleshes out what a well-differentiated leader is:

-has clarity about his or her own life goals
-is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about
-can be separate while still remaining connected
-can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence
-can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others
-be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing


Rabbi Friedman is working from the Bowen school of family systems therapy which trumps pathological labels: she's type-A, he's passive-aggressive, those guys are all assholes. These analyses all may be true, but these folks are that way for a reason. They have learned patterns in their family of origin (and beyond) to cope with a diverse blend of enmeshed, conflictual, distant and, yes, abusive relationships. All those waves of stress come from "relational triangles," not hard work and demanding lifestyles. And that ever-present anxiety is not "in your mind" but breeds in that tense space between you and the people you are closest with. Friedman's paradigm-shifting work in the posthumously published Failure gives a rich working model for all of us living the challenge of leadership in the United States of (Chronic) Anxiety. It is the kind of manual that begs to be read carefully, consistently and communally over a lifetime. It is calling for recovering peace-mongers like me to take up the torch of well-differentiated leadership. Will you join me?

--Theological Autopilot

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