Review: A Failure of Nerve

Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, has a certain popularity among some Christians. For my part, I’m not impressed, and actually concerned that imbibing Friedman’s principles may cause Christians, especially those with power, to view the marginalized in our society as “reactive parasites,” rather than carefully and humbly engaging with them. I’ve found that conservative Christians seem the most susceptible to this form of thinking.

For Friedman, “leadership” is a function of evolutionary progress, the thing that caused prokaryotes to differentiate from eukaryotes, all the way to the present as the thing we need to advance as a species. He starts talking about “evolution” on page two, and doesn’t stop until the end of the book. Every one of the basic components in his explication of “leadership” are understood in this framework of “evolution.” The basic problem in societies is “regression” a term that he defines as “counter-evolutionary”:

“By the term regression I mean to convey something far more profound than a mere loss of progress. Societal regression is about the perversion of progress into a counter-evolutionary mode. In societal regression, evolutionary principles of life that have been basic to the development of our species become distorted, perverted, or actually reversed” (54).

His entire explanation of “characteristics of chronically anxious families” is drawn straight from “evolutionary process” (61ff). These are not incidental, they are the “most important” ramifications of his theory (68). He understands human thinking and behavior in terms of “the evolution of our species” (119ff). On the “most fundamental level” things like “good and evil” and “life and death” are understood in terms of “what is evolutionary and what is regressive” (134). The key to leadership is the same as the key to evolution: “the preservation of self in its leaders” (165). “Regressive” elements in current society are compared throughout to the less evolved eukaryotes, cancer, viruses, and parasites, who “don’t know when to quit, much less die.” Being a good leader, in Friedman’s system, will involve appearing and being called “arrogant” and “selfish” but that just comes with the territory.

He then adds a psychological layer of “emotional triangles” to this foundational structure, claiming that these triangles “seem to be rooted in the nature of protoplasm itself” (205). For him, triangles and evolution are deeply compatible. The “entire book” could have been cast in terms of triangles (207) though, in fact, the entire book has been cast in terms of evolutionary theory. Sins like increased drinking” and “sexual acting-out” are simply symptoms of being in an emotional triangle. Adultery can be positively affected by “mischievously encouraging the affair” (209).

I fail to see how such a construal of “leadership” is compatible with what the Bible teaches in any but the most superficial of manners. I would argue that a sine qua non of a Biblical account of leadership is humility (John 13:1-17, Matthew 20:20-28). While evolutionary terminology appears in every section of the book, and defines the most fundamental of its terms, the word “humility” (or its cognates) appears not even once. In fact, the place where its opposite, pride, is addressed, is a section explaining that Friedman’s form of “leadership” will often be construed as “arrogant.” Start to finish, this book is a meal of mostly bones and few scraps of meat.

Nevertheless, there are a few salvageable lessons from this dunghill: “take responsibility for your own actions and responses”; “be playful sometimes, and not always so deadly serious”; “have clear goals.”

A book whose best features can be reduced to mere slogans, but whose entire underlying structure is antithetical to a Biblical account of the subject might be better left off. At worst it might turn out to be a dangerous subversion, at best it’s just a waste of time.

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