Summary: Edwin Friedman’s “A Failure of Nerve” in 500 Words

failure_of_nerveOne of the most insightful leadership books I’ve read in the past few years is Edwin Friedman’s book A Failure of Nerve. Recently I created a short summary of the book’s insights to share with some emerging leaders in Coram Deo.

A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman (New York: Church Publishing, 2007)


Edwin Friedman (d. 1996) served for 20 years as a pulpit rabbi and for 25 years as an organizational consultant & family therapist in the Washington DC area. He also served in the Lyndon Johnson administration. His unique experience allowed him to observe leadership – and its problems – in the family, the church, and the political sphere.


The real problem of leadership is a failure of nerve. Leaders fail not because they lack information, skill, or technique, but because they lack the nerve and presence to stand firm in the midst of other people’s emotional anxiety and reactivity.


Friedman’s understanding of leadership hinges on the idea of emotional process. Every family and every institution has an implicit emotional/relational environment, and a way of operating within that environment. Good leadership has less to do with skill, data, technique, or knowledge, and more to do with a leader’s ability to discern and navigate the emotional and relational climate of a family or organization.


The key variable in leadership is a leader’s presence. Rather than focusing on technique or know-how, we need to focus on the leader’s own presence and being. Throughout his work Friedman speaks of the importance of a “well-differentiated leader.” Here’s what he means:

  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by reactivity. A well-differentiated leader doesn’t react to other people’s reactions; he or she is a calm, steady presence.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by a herding instinct. A well-differentiated leader has a strong sense of self and can effectively separate while remaining connected.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by blame displacement. A well-differentiated leader takes responsibility for himself and leads others to do the same.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by a quick-fix mentality; relief from pain is more important than lasting change. A well-differentiated leader realizes that true long-term change requires discomfort, and he or she is willing to lead others through discomfort toward change.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by poorly defined leadership. A well-differentiated leader takes decisive stands at the risk of displeasing others.

These characteristics of unhealthy emotional systems are easily seen in families; but Friedman suggests that this sort of chronic anxiety is a defining characteristic of our whole culture. “The climate of contemporary America has become so chronically anxious that our society has gone into an emotional regression that is toxic to well-defined leadership… This kind of emotional climate can only be dissipated by clear, decisive, well-defined leadership.”

Friedman asserts that a leader’s job is to be “the strength in the system.” Families, groups, and institutions have “emotional fields” (like magnetic fields or gravitational fields). The leader’s self-differentiation, or lack thereof, has an effect on the emotional field. Leaders will either take on the chronic anxiety of the system, or they will transform that anxiety by their calm, steady, well-defined presence.

Here are some reflection questions to help apply Friedman’s insights:

  1. Describe the emotional climate of a) your family of origin; b) your workplace; c) your gospel community.
  2. In what ways are you a well-differentiated leader? In what ways are you NOT a well-differentiated leader?
  3. If you saw leadership as primarily about your presence, not about skill or technique or know-how – what would change?
  4. If leadership is primarily about presence, how does that change the sort of growth or transformation you seek as a leader?
  5. How would a gospel perspective (idolatry, identity, worship, repentance-and-faith) add even deeper nuance to Friedman’s insights?


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  1. Thanks for summarizing this Bob. It’s very helpful and you did an excellent job distilling a somewhat dense book. Appreciate your leadership!

  2. Thank you for this outstanding summary. I am a fulltime caregiver for a family member living with a severe brain illness. This book made such a difference over the past several years while providing and managing her care. I look forward to sharing your summary with the caregiving community.

  3. Throughout Friedman’s lectures ( on tape and elsewhere) my life and sustained pastoral ministry and as an interim … has been a joy … ( it’s more than that actually) maybe not so much for what to do … but what not to do.

  4. I very much appreciate this summary. Here in 2023, I can see things have changed. Great leadership does require the intimacy of emotional connection and presence. It also requires competency, passion and integrity. To focus only on the emotional system reminds me of a Martin Luther King quote:
    “Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

    The question I find myself asking of every leader I know: If we’re facing a battle, and they yell, “Charge!” would I follow them over the hill?

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