coffee with dead people: edwin friedman

‘Coffee with Dead People’ is a recurring series on figures I find to be fascinating, reflections on their lives and works mashed up with mine. And they’re dead.

I don’t like leadership. No, let me clarify: I loathe leadership — leadership classes, leadership books, leadership workshops, leadership leaders, leading leaders who lead by leading. It’s a pretentious system propped up by people who couldn’t do much else with their lives, so in an effort to reclaim their misguided adolescent sense of importance, they wrote books and wore bad Cosby sweaters and talked of synergy, mentorship and mentees, visioneering and other varied ephemera, which is to say, other varied bullcrap.

The biggest affront to our common sense from the leadership set was that leaders are made and not born.

In a desert of dry, self-congratulating, self-nullifying leaders, reading Edwin Friedman–a Jewish Rabbi and therapist who found himself working in the Lyndon Johnson administration–was counter-intuitively like drinking deeply at the oasis of sensibility; a forerunning kindred spirit who reassured me that there was, indeed, a place for blackish sheep like myself in leadership.

Ed Friedman has been dead for nearly 18 years.

Edwin Friedman, courtesy Wikipedia

“This book is for parents and presidents. It is also for CEOs and educators, prioresses and coaches, healers and generals, managers and clergy. It is about leadership in the land of the quick fix, about leadership in a society so reactive that it cannot choose leaders who might calm its anxiety,” Friedman asserts at the outset of his unfinished work–and required reading material for any and all of the above mentioned–A Failure of Nerve. “It is for leaders who have questioned the widespread triumphing of data over maturity, technique over stamina, and empathy over personal responsibility. And it is for anyone at all who has become suspicious of the illusions of change–suspicious of the modern fashion wherein solutions, as well as symptoms, burst upon us in every field of endeavor (management, healing, education, parenting) and then disappear as unexpectedly as they had first appeared, only to be supplanted by the fad of another ‘issue’ or cure, sending everyone back to square one.”

Needless to say, Friedman’s shotgunning resonated loudly with me. And–wouldn’t you know it?–he delivered the goods, right up until his death.

I keep coming back to Failure of Nerve because there hasn’t been a situation I’ve been in with regard to work, church or relationships that doesn’t ultimately get addressed by Friedman’s notions of emotional triangles, imaginative gridlock or data junkyards/junkies. (I also keep coming back to him because I keep recommending this book to people I know who really would benefit from it and they don’t bother.)

The make-up of a leader isn’t based on what they can regurgitate back, on how much they can relate to people’s pain or their methodology. I know plenty of wonks who make very poor decisions for themselves or those they lead. I’ve seen people who get so clouded by their sense of empathy or disregard better judgment in the name of attempting to relate and understanding–socially-acceptable sociopathy–and, as a result, end up in disastrous, often compromised positions. In both, a person’s leadership is self-sabotaged in the name of an ill-advised short-sighted pragmatism because either data or sympathy pains are making the decisions and not the rooted, differentiated self. This need not be exclusive to leaders, either: this can easily include friends, co-workers, peers, family members–anywhere relationships are present; which is to say, everywhere, because there can be no leadership without an established relationship. (Washington, are you listening?)

In any case, Edwin Friedman came along at the right time in my life, after the original critical thinking epiphany and during a period in my life when I was in the throes of being herded, isolated, maligned and left for dead by ‘leaders’ who were more interested in protecting their causes and their positions than they were in any sense of meaningful progress. Friedman helped restore my faith in the idea of a leader. If you’re disillusioned, I’m confident reading him will have a similar result.

Ed, this smooth cup of decaf is for you.

A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix


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