For the Bookshelf: A Failure of Nerve

For the Bookshelf: A Failure of Nerve

August 3, 2015—The re-issue of Edwin Friedman’s final work (unfinished at the time of his death), A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Press, 2007. 260 pages. $28.00. ISBN 978-1-59627-042-8), is quintessential Friedman. While there is repetition from his other works, most notably Generation to Generation, in A Failure of Nerve one can see the author’s attempt to fine-tune his thinking about Bowen Family Systems Theory in its application to areas outside of the theory’s main focus on clinical therapy. to the field of leadership. Indeed, in certain brilliant sections there is evidence of the author striking out into new thinking. In A Failure of Nerve Friedman applies the concept of “leadership” broadly. A leader is any person who occupies that position in whatever system he or she functions, whether a family, business, congregation, or political body. This is in keeping with the concept that leadership is a matter of emotional process related to function rather than title, expertise, or official position.

The first five chapters of A Failure of Nerve are well developed while the remaining three chapters and epilogue are sketchy. Those latter chapters were unfinished at the time of the author’s death but the editors seem to have deemed it worthwhile to preserve and present the author’s drafts. They were right to do so for the latter section contains hints and notes of some of Friedman’s new direction of thinking and new areas of application of the theory.

In this work Friedman challenges popular notions about the nature of leadership which derive their framework from the pragmatic, personality theories, or social science theories. Using the framework of Bowen Family Systems Theory the author re-defines leadership as a function of emotional process the principles of which are universally applicable in whatever context: family, congregation, government, or corporation. Beginning with the premise that we live currently in an age of societal regression the author depicts the ways our culture and institutions sabotage the kind of leadership they need to get unstuck and move toward health, adventure, and evolutionary progress. To make his case Friedman draws from a wide variety of sources by way of illustration and evidence for support of his ideas: medicine, history, the arts, science, and biology.

This book provides a helpful, and at times creative, review of concepts that view leadership and relationship systems from a Bowen Family Systems perspective, including the author’s previous work, Generation to Generation. From what this reviewer could discern, the two newly developed concepts in this work are (1) a deeper examination and explication of the togetherness-separateness dynamics in emotional systems related to the function of leadership and self, and (2) an attempt to more clearly define the concept of the Self and how it relates to thinking about leadership in emotional systems.

The book, as a work, has some weaknesses. For example, at many points the editors refer to writings, cite examples, data, or facts that are unsubstantiated by reference to footnotes or sources. There is an index at the end of the book which cites the names referred to in the body of the text, but there is no bibliography for the source material. At some points the author seems prone to overstatements, or provides anthropomorphic explications for dynamics and forces. Some examples often are left unconnected to explication related to the theory or other frames of reference. One can wish for a firmer editorial hand throughout the book in terms of writing style.

There are redundancies and repetition of text at spots. Portions of several chapters read like an extended book proposal where the author describes what he plans to write about and do in future chapters. Much of this can be attributable to the problems of working on an unfinished manuscript but, by and large, do not detract from the strength and worth of the book as a whole. The work is what it is, an unfinished work that reveals the original and at times brilliant thinking of someone who is becoming one of the most influential thinkers of our time. Those who have heard Friedman speak will recognize how much of his working out the theory through his speaking found its way into the book. We can be grateful to the publisher and editors for making this volume available.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning and Director of Online Education at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.

His books on Christian education include The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H).

Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans and to the Digital Flipchart blog.

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