Monday, January 25, 2016

On self-differentiation: This blog post may save your church, your career, and your marriage

A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Edwin Friedman. Seabury Books, 2007.

Imagine a stack of books, a coffee table, a coffee shop, and this reviewer seated in an Ikea PoƤng gazing out the windows at a winter haze. I'm hard at work re-reading Friedman's posthumous classic, underlining long sections, when in walks one of my favorite people in the world, a neighbor and missionary and evangelical church elder.

My friend has been through a lot. He lost his young daughter in a tragic car accident about seven years ago. It has been devastating for his whole family. They are forever changed. The grief of losing a child is different than other grief. It can increase in intensity for years.

John came over to my table and started paging through the stack of books near my feet. He told me he was building his reading list for 2016. I asked him what he was reading. He told me he was splitting his time this year 50/50, half of his time reading new works, half re-reading things he'd read before.

On the top of his list for re-reading was Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me. On the top of the new works he mentioned Rescuing theGospel from the Cowboys by Richard Twiss. I told him one of my new reads for the year was The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings. We both agreed Coates's book was essential. I was glad to learn of Twiss's work, having never heard of the book before.

Then I held up Edwin Friedman's book, A Failure of Nerve, and said I was reviewing it for this journal. John looked at me, startled, and said, "You've never read it?" My answer: "Of course, many times. But Mark Throntveit wanted a new review of it because it is an oldie but goodie so essential for our 'troops'."

So then John says, "Let me tell you a story about that book." Apparently he heard the call to seminary after his daughter's death, so when he arrived at seminary, he was a mess of emotions. He was reading all of his assigned coursework, lots of it evangelical literature that rubbed him the wrong way, and then he was assigned A Failure of Nerve in a class.

He liked the book even less than the others. Couldn't stand it. So he approach the professor and said, "Why are we reading this book? This book argues against empathy, and empathy has really been helping me through my grief after the death of my daughter?" He waited, she looked him up and down, and then she responded, "Well, John, some people just aren't cut out for seminary." Then turned and walked away.

We both agreed this is embodied Edwin Friedman. In one sentence, one paradoxical turn, she lived this book.

Here is where things get tricky. From this one anecdote, you as a reader of the review might have an emotional response to the story, and come to the conclusion that Edwin Friedman was a cold-hearted man, lacking basic empathy and emotional intelligence. Perhaps you think this is a terrible story, that the professor was a terrible person. Perhaps you feel bad for John. So it is helpful to know first of all that John found the professor's blunt response liberating. It set him free to finish seminary.

Second, just because you come to a conclusion about the teachings of Friedman on this one story doesn't mean you actually understand what Friedman is trying to teach. Your emotional response to his teachings is not the same thing as the teachings themselves.

I have found this to be a rule when reading Friedman, that often my initial emotional response to his insights gets in the way of actually understanding him. This is an essential insight, I think, not just in reading Friedman, but engaging Bowen Family Systems theory more generally. You don't just read Friedman and get it. Instead, like the process of differentiation itself, "it is a lifetime project with no one ever getting more than seventy percent there" (183).

There are many ways into this project, many ways of gaining greater clarity on anxiety and societal regression, and the failure of leadership that in all likelihood exacerbates such evolutionary decline.

In an anxious age, people often confuse a well-defined stand for coercion. Their emotional response to perceived coercion is protest and sabotage. Most pastors experience this with some regularity, if they are in fact leading at all. In response to the sabotage or protest, clergy will often look for solutions, methods, data. This, Friedman argues, is the wrong direction, and is an anxious response to an anxious system.

Instead, leaders who wish to lead well in an anxious age will focus "on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than techniques for manipulating or motivating others" (13). This is the lodestone to which any reader of Friedman should return. Whenever we are prone to interpret his work as a set of techniques, or assume we totally and finally "get" what he is saying, we are to be reminded that what his work is really about is an ongoing invitation and challenge to focus on our own presence as a leader within emotional systems.

Friedman says of his own work, "Let the reader beware how subtly radical some of the ideas that follow may be. Perhaps subversive is a better word, though not in an obviously confrontational way. Readers may find that the ideas here conflict with what they have always assumed to be the eternal truths of their profession, their politics, their understanding of life, or, sometimes (and perhaps most disturbing), their therapy. Some of the concepts that I will present--particularly with regard to how empathy has become a power tool, the totalitarian effects of consensus, the exaggerated importance of being informed, and the colossal failure of insight to bring change--will also be as jarring to 'common sense' as Copernicus's notions were to even the most learned medieval mind" (28).

So fair warning, the reactivity of the reader to this work may leave them misappropriating Friedman's concepts if they too quickly shift to implementing the insights as techniques, or confusing their reaction to Friedman's ideas with their actual content. Friedman's theses on self-differentiation, anxious systems, and leadership, are isomorphic and iterative in their implications, not static or singular. That is, they scale both up and down in their application, applying even to the solutions that emerge for their first application.

This is why you need to read Friedman more than once, and you need to read him slowly. Only through such reading and contemplation does a leader have a chance to break out of anxious systems and focus on their own presence rather than the system itself.

Friedman believes his insights into systems are of such wide-ranging consequence the insights apply (and/or he gains the insights from) the study not only of family systems, but also neuroscience and evolutionary biology. In fact, the chapters that delve into systems theory as it relates to cellular structure the function of the brain are particularly fascinating, and worth the time.

Why would you want to read Friedman over and over? Well, here's a list of the principles of leadership Friedman values. If you at all align with these, then Friedman's book is the very best possible book on the market that can assist you in continuing the journey to leading in these ways. For Friedman, well-defined leadership has:

-the capacity to separate oneself from surrounding emotional processes;
-the capacity to obtain clarity about one's principles and vision;
-the willingness to be exposed and to be vulnerable;
-persistence in the face of inertial resistance; and
-self-regulation in the face of reactive sabotage.

By comparison, poorly defined leaders:

-lack the distance to think out their vision clearly;
-are led hither and yon by crisis after crisis.
-are reluctant to take well-defined stands, if they have any convictions at all.
-are selected who lack the maturity and sense of self to deal with sabotage.

This kind of work is not the kind of work one can do once for all, and be done with it. Anyone who tells you, "I studied Friedman in seminary. I get it, don't need to study it anymore," absolutely does not get it, because the work of self within relational systems, and the differentiation necessary to lead well, is a lifelong task.

While I was reading Friedman's book, I couldn't help but think that what is really needed from his work is a commonplaces collection. There are simply so many felicitous sentences, so many paragraphs worth memorizing. So after you go read Friedman, or re-read him, here's my Friedman commonplace book. May it work something salutary in those who read it.


"The absence of playfulness in any institution is almost always a clue to the degree of its emotional regression" (64).

Any renaissance, anywhere, whether in a marriage or a business, depends primarily not only on new data and techniques, but on the capacity of leaders to separate themselves from the surrounding emotional climate so that they can break through the barriers that are keeping everyone from “going the other way.” (33)

"For, whether we are considering a family, a work system, or an entire nation, the resistance that sabotages a leader’s initiative usually has less to do with the “issue” that ensues than with the fact that the leader took initiative."

"A group of clergy came to me from one of the major religious denominations in our society and said, "We are about to start a project that will raise fifty million dollars for our five hundred most troubled ministers. How would you spend it?" I responded, "Why would you put the fifty million into your five hundred most troubled? You will advance your denomination and our society far more if you put it into your five hundred best." They answered, "But we could never raise the money for that." (72)

"the most important ramification of the herding phenomenon for leadership is its counter-evolutionary effect. In order to be 'inclusive,' the herding family will wind up adopting an appeasement strategy towards its most troublesome members while sabotaging those with the most strength to stand up to the troublemakers."

"Therapy has shifted its focus from the presence of the therapist to the problem of the day" (109).

"Emotions do not simply modify thinking, reasoning, or decision-making processes; they are part and parcel of the process of reasoning" (117).

"To be effective, a 'head' must find a way to be present in the body it is leading, but that presence does not have to be communicated by a chain of command. Second, the nature of that presence is felt through its impact, not its messages" (126). 

"The 'old world' view separates data from emotional process and focuses leaders on the 'talking heads' of others, while the 'new world' view focuses leaders on the nature of their own presence" (129).

"The 'catch-22' of emotional processes is this: in order to be able to identify those processes, one must be able to think differently in the first place. The capacity to 'hear' new ideas in a family, in an institution, or in an entire civilization thus depends to a large extent on the capacity to avoid being automatically regulated by that system's emotional processes. And the more reactive the surrounding climate, the more that society in its anxious efforts to seek certainty will reify its models and eventually confuse them with reality itself" (131).

"Forces that are un-self-regulating can never be made to adapt toward the strength in a system by trying to understand or appreciate their nature.... it is self-regulation, not feeling for others, that is critical in the face of entities which lack that quality. There is an alternative that is both caring and self-preserving--one that frees healers, leaders, and parents... it is promoting responsibility for self in another through challenge" (135).

"All entities that are destructive to other entities share one major characteristic that is totally unresponsive to empathy: they are not capable of self-regulation. This is an absolutely universal rule of life in this galaxy" (138).

"Nurturing growth always follows two principles. One is: Stay out of its way; you cannot 'grow' another by will or technique. But the second is: Do not let it 'overgrow' you" (144). 

"The twin problems confronting leadership in our society today, the failure of nerve and the desire for a quick fix, are not the result of overly strong self but of weak or no self. There certainly is reason to guard against capricious, irrational, autocratic, vainglorious leadership in any form of organized life. But democratic institutions have far more to fear from lack of self in their leaders and the license this gives to factionalism (which is not the same as dissent) than from too much strength in the executive power. Indeed, that is precisely one of the major advantages of democratically based institutions: they can reap the benefits of imaginative, aggressive, energetic leadership far less perilously than totalitarian societies driven by unbridled autocracy. This was precisely the view of both Alexander Hamilton and James Madison when they wrote the Federalist Papers to support the 'colonization' of the thirteen colonies, arguing that the integrity of a community is assured only when it can preserve the integrity of its leader" (163).

"The struggle between individuality and togetherness exists in every relationship system, and is a far more basic issue for compatibility in relationships than any other (social science) difference" (172).

"It is only when self is valued that leaders can be less at the mercy of the data/technique deluge, no less its addictive properties. It is only when leaders value self that their cortex can be kept from the service of the reptilian brain and their cerebration can be true thinking. It is only when leaders value self that they can recognize the importance of making their own self-definition more crucial than feeling for others. It is only when leaders value self that in times of crisis they can emphasize the response of the organism rather than the conditions of the environment. It is only when leaders value self that they can prevent it from being eroded by the chronic anxiety of a society in regression. It is only when leaders value self that they can muster the self-regulation necessary for countering the sabotage that will greet them, ironically, in direct relation to the extent that they value and express their self. It is this latter conundrum that so often takes leaders unawares and throws them off course, just when they are functioning best" (174).

"The major relational problem for our species is not getting together; protoplasm loves to join. The problem is preserving self in a close relationship. No human on planet Earth does that well... I know how to teach any family or organizatonal member, regardless of size, how to make another member of that system dysfunctional. I would simply teach them how to overfunction in the other's space" (181).

"How does ones go with the flow and still take the lead? Answer: by positioning oneself in such a way that the natural forces of emotional life carry one in the right direction. They to that positioning is the leader's own self-differentiation, by which I mean his or her capacity to be a non-anxious presence, a challenging presence, a well-defined presence, and a paradoxical presence. Differentiation is not about being coercive, manipulative, reactive, pursuing or invasive, but being rooted in the leader's own sense of self rather than focused on that of his or her followers" (230).

"Anyone can remain non-anxious if they also try to be non-present. The trick is to be both non-anxious and present simultaneously" (233).

"Having spelled out throughout this book the value of self-differentiation, a caveat must now be added. Self-differentiation always triggers sabotage. This is the aspect of leadership that is not emphasized enough, if at all, by most leadership theories that focus on vision, team-building, and so forth. It differs from other kinds of crisis in that it is systemic in nature. The tendency of any leader when faced with this kind of crisis is to cease doing all that which had gone into differentiation... if there is a moment of truth in leadership, it is amid this type of crisis... Another way of putting this is that 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 endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful... lest this sound too hostile, however, what needs to be added is that most sabotaging initiatives are mindless" (247). 


  1. Anonymous7:41 AM

    I'm reading this book right now. I find his insights to be excellent and this book describes American culture more today than the day he died. Thanks for your review of the book.

  2. I've read and reread this book for years. Lately I've been presenting many of the concepts from it, and Murray Bowen, in council retreats. One of my favorite Friedman quotes is "I'm just teaching Christians to follow Jesus." Yep. That's about right.