Two types of chronic anxiety from “A Failure of Nerve”

I just finished reading A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, by Edwin Friedman. It’s a book about leadership in the #2018TechReadingChallenge.

Friedman’s key concept in the book is chronic anxiety, which is the foremost challenge to leaders. Leaders have “a failure of nerve” when the fail to rise above the anxiety that surrounds them.

Since we all are surrounded by anxiety, we all have the opportunity to become leaders. One of Friedman’s catch phrases is “from parents to presidents,” reflecting that anyone can be a leader, whether you are a leader of a family, or of an entire country. In my day job, I’m a leader by being a senior software engineer, since I am responsible for delivering value, minimizing risk, as well as mentoring the junior developers on the team.

The desire for a quick fix is the first example of anxiety. It occurs when we reactively look to solve a symptom, rather than being thoughtful and addressing the underlying problem. We look for techniques and methods, without realizing that the last 6 methods we tried did not solve the problem. Maybe the quick fix is converting the entire organization to scrum, without realizing that the underlying relationships of your organization are toxic.

A leader is a person who realizes that methods and techniques won’t solve problems. Instead, it’s more about what you do after you make the decision.

Reactivity is the second example of anxiety. Reactivity in leadership is the person who blames others when there is a problem, or who has the same knee-jerk reaction every time. It’s the person who blows up when something unexpected happens. It’s me, when I take it out on a coworker whose work didn’t meet my expectations.

The well-differentiated leader is less reactive. “Those who are less reactive are more self-contained, less blaming, more imaginative, less anxious, and more responsible. When they do seek help, they generally can hear suggestions well, offer less resistance to suggestions for change, and treat their consultant as a coach rather than a savior. Such an approach emphasizes strength rather than weakness, accountability rather than blame, taking responsibility for self rather than feeling for others.” (p. 164)

In a software development context, the well-differentiated leader is the person who is able to maintain their professionalism in the mist of an emergency bug fix. Or the person who is able to clarify expectations and help the team deliver, even when the priorities of the organization seem to be constantly changing. Or a person who handles interruptions to their work with grace, even when it is the 3rd interruption that day.

Anxiety is not just an individual challenge, it is a challenge for organizations and societies at large. Anxiety is a driving force in the emotional processes that permeate our interactions one another. Unchecked, these emotional processes will stifle our imagination. Regardless of the emotions themselves, these processes have a way of being passed down from generation to generation, and so the greatest challenge of a leader is to see and overcome the processes surrounding him or her.

Instead of our imagination being stifled, we must take responsibility for our own being and destiny, which Friedman calls being a well-differentiated leader. This is not a matter of finding the right techniques or having a self-improvement checklist, and so in this sense, the book is not a typical self-help book. Rather, it aligns more with leadership books such as Ordering Your Private World, and Leading with a Limp. It also reminded me of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which I did a review of a few years ago (part 1) (part 2).

One Comment

  • Couldn’t have summarized it better myself!