Review: “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix”
Edwin Friedman, Church Publishing, Inc., 2007
    by Frank Staropoli

In 20 years of coaching executives, I’ve read scores of books on leadership. I continue to return to Edwin Friedman as the most insightful, realistic analyst of the dynamics that occur in the emotional soup we call the workplace.

This book is not for the faint of heart. As the title implies, the antidote to a failure of nerve is courage. Courage becomes necessary once a leader begins to shift his/her own participation in the brokenness of the organization – e.g., to finally address a performance issue with a key employee. With this commitment to decisive, mature action, reactions are inevitable. Thus the need for courage: to persist in the face of those reactions.

Leaders will discover keys to recognize the emotionality that contaminates all decision-making processes, and what is required to provide clear, decisive, well-defined action. Friedman offers a treasure trove of tools, concepts and principles (e.g., five characteristics of a highly anxious system) to help leaders diagnose complex situations and to determine what is helpful and what is harmful.

Perhaps his most crucial contribution is the insistence that the leader focus on self: that is, in order to create transformation in a system, the leader needs to identify his/her participation in the present dynamic, and focus on altering his/her own role. Again, courage is a requirement here, but thankfully, focus on self diminishes the stress inherent in attempting to change others.  

While the later chapters are sketchy (Friedman died before completing the text), they hold intriguing snippets – insights into the workings of our organizations and the challenges of leadership.

As with his other writings (e.g., “Friedman’s Fables”), his insights are universal, and leaders will find application as much to their personal/family systems as to their work. His witty style punctuates “heavy” insight with a human and humorous twist that gives the challenges a pleasing flavor.


This article originally appeared in the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle as a "You Be the Critic" feature.

ÓStaropoli Consulting, Inc., 2007.  All rights reserved.