Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Anxiety, leadership & Rabbi Friedman

I’ve just lent out my copy of the most teasingly brilliant leadership book I know — Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve — Leadership in the age of the quick fix. The rabbi, who died over ten years ago now, was a family and congregational systems therapist. His book isn’t, like many other studies, a how-to book or analysis of “successful” leaders. Leadership isn’t really about what you do, as much as why you do it, what it does to you, and how is is grounded in the person you are. Sounds heavy, but it’s common sense, actually. As a skilled systems therapist, Friedman diagnosed six phases in the process of leadership:
  1. Differentiating the self: If you don’t know who the hell you are, why would anybody else? This means defining yourself as more than just a pale reflection of what everybody wants from you. If you start to disappear into the context, your boat has sunk and it won't be going anywhere. This is the key to the whole deal: “Leadership [is] the capacity to define oneself to others in a way that clarifies and expands a vision of the future.”
  2. Staying connected: Sticking with reality, including your own pragmatic reality, not merging yourself into the demands and anxieties of the most angry and conficted focus groups you serve.
  3. Maintainng a non-anxious presence: “Keeping your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you” as the man said. Colluding with hysteria increases the amount of idiocy in the system.
  4. Keeping open space to be proactive: Not becoming entirely imprisoned by the latest crisis; making phonecalls as well as answering them. Entiely reactive turns you into a football for others. Being that compromises (1) above.
  5. Managing triangles: This is where three people run scripts between them where any two gang up on any one serially. There re also fix-it games which are actually hellish triangles of blame — hot potato circles in which nobody accepts true responsibility. Ther’s an old game of Victim—Rescuer—Persecutor. Three chairs, two people, keep moving. Just Don’t do it!
  6. Persisting in the face of sabotage: ‘No good deed goes unpunished!’ That’s a reason to do it, not to fail to do it...
Rabbi Friedman observes that in every area of life these days (10 years ago), especially perhaps the Church, many (most?) people are chronically anxious and desperate for quick fixes. Leaders who get sucked into that stuff and start playing to it lose their souls and burn out. The institutional frameworks that once held leaders in a zone from which they could lead have been compromised and busted all over the place as society has de-institionalised. Therefore the only people left do the job are the leaders themselves, and, er, God!
The only tragedy of Friedman’s book is that he died before it was finished, so half of it is barely reconstructed from notes. Does it ring bells for anyone else?


Erika Baker said...

It does ring bells, but some of them are warning bells.
With all the best advice in the world you can only truly succeed if you have the abilities within you to begin with. Otherwise:

“Defining yourself” is in danger of becoming rigid inflexibility because I am what I am and I will not let others influence me.

“Sticking with reality” is in danger of becoming sticking with my own perception of reality because I no longer listen to the reality of others. Dismissing others on the basis of their level of anger can be correct, but it can also be a symptom of having lost touch with their reality and the possible justness of their requests.

If you can get those two right, the other points are fantastic and really should help.

maggi said...

Thanks, +Alan, helpful thoughts

Geoff Colmer said...

This is an excellent book and his thinking deserves wider exposure. I've done the BridgeBuilder (London Mennonite Centre) Family Systems Theory Course and it's based upon the work of Bowen and Friedman - it's superb! They use videos and I'm told that the ones by Friedman are now available on DVD which would be very worthwhile aquiring - he's something else on the screen!

BridgeBuilder do follow-up days for those having done the course in order to carry on processing this stuff, though I've not managed to get to one yet. Thanks for raising it - I've got it on my 'blog to do' list.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Thanks, Erika for diagnosing a possible note of rigidity about "defining myself" that I don't imagne the good rabbi would have endorsed. I think what he meant was "me having the freedom to be myself" but not "me holding desperately?) onto a rigid view of myself regardless of feedback." He stressed being aware of what is me and what is not, rather than having a big I am view of myself. I'm entirely with your concern, here. Geoff, in ignorance, I hadn't made the connection between the Mennonite process and family systems theory; many thnks. I'd be interested in Friedman's DVD. I know Mary Cotes in MK has used his "Fables" in groups — but I remember her telling me about trying to use one with a rather cautous and stuck congregation in a Church in Wales, with whom family systems rabbinic wisdom went down like a bit of a rat sandwich...

FrDarryl said...

Episcopalians in Dallas were totally immersed in Rabbi Friedman's Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. My treasured copy is right here in front of me...

G2G was effectively the 'manual for ministry formation' in the Diocese with its 'radical' idea that clergy must be a non-anxious presence and provide self-differentiated leadership. We even did a diocesan family systems study based on some of the ideas.

Another very effective tool is the concept of triangulation and mostly the warning to avoid it. I actually preached on the idea last Sunday, suitably 'laicised', here at my parish.

In these days of endemic clergy breakdowns, some of it way too close for comfort, Friedman's wisdom could not be more appropos.

I wonder if he prays for us stressed-out clergy in heavenly Hebrew. Comforting thought that!

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