Handout 2: Gridlocked Systems

Handout 2: Gridlocked Systems
Handout 2: Gridlocked Systems

Adapted and summarized from Edwin H. Friedman's book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 2007).

Friedman writes that chronic anxiety "influences our thoughts and our leaders toward safety and certainty rather than boldness and adventure." He suggests that we are "imaginatively stuck" and that leaders have developed barriers which prevent new and creative thinking. He names "imagination limiting" notions that keep today's leaders gridlocked:

  • Data: that data are more vital to leadership than the capacity to be decisive;
  • Empathy: that feeling for others helps them mature or become more responsible; and
  • Self: that selfishness is a greater danger to a community than the loss of integrity that comes with having no self.


Friedman writes of the current obsession with gathering data and with finding the right technique to move the institution forward. He speaks of a "quick fix" mind-set which focuses on problems and not strengths and demands certainty and easy answers rather than creativity and adaptation. He writes:

What I am driving at is this: As long as leaders—parents, healers, managers—base their confidence on how much data they have acquired, they are doomed to feeling inadequate, forever...

The data deluge can only be harnessed to the extent that leaders realize that not all information is worth gathering, and also to the extent that they can develop criteria for discerning what information is important to leadership...

Ultimately, the capacity of leaders to distinguish what information is important depends less on the development of new techniques for sorting data than on a leader's ability to avoid being driven by the regressive anxiety that is often the source of unregulated data proliferation to begin with.


A second imagination limiting notion is the focus on empathy rather than responsibility, and weakness rather than strength. He writes of the tendency of chronically anxious organizations to work to lessen the pain of some needy or immature members and to organize itself around their needs, rather than nurturing the creativity of the healthier, more mature members of the organization. He writes:

On the one hand, there can be no question that the notion of feeling for others, caring for others, identifying with others, being responsive to others, and perhaps even sharing their pain exquisitely or excruciatingly is a heartfelt, humanitarian, highly spiritual, and an essential component in a leader's response repertoire. But it has rarely been my experience that being sensitive to others will enable those "others" to be more self-aware, that being more "understanding" of others causes them to mature, or that appreciating the plight of others will make them more responsible for their being, their condition, or their destiny...

Ultimately, societies, families, and organizations are able to evolve out of a state of regression not because their leaders "feel" for or "understand" their followers, but because their leaders are able, by their well-defined presence, to regulate the systemic anxiety in the relationship system they are leading and to inhibit the invasiveness of those factions which would preempt its agenda. After that, they can afford to be empathic.


Friedman writes about the importance of the leader's capacity for self-differentiation, that is, ability to remain grounded in one's own sense of purpose and identity and to avoid being swept into the anxiety of the organization's system. He writes:

The key... is the leader's own self-differentiation, by which I mean his or her capacity to be a non-anxious presence, a challenging presence, a well-defined presence, and a paradoxical presence. Differentiation is not about being coercive, manipulative, reactive, pursuing or invasive, but being rooted in the leader's own sense of self rather than focused on that of his or her followers. It is in no way autocratic, narcissistic, or selfish, even though it may be perceived that way by those who are not taking responsibility for their own being. Self-differentiation is not "selfish." Furthermore, the power inherent in a leader's presence does not reside in physical or emotional strength, but in the nature of his or her own being, so that even when leaders are entitled to great power by dint of their office, it is ultimately the nature of their real strength. Leaders function as immune systems of the institutions they lead — not because they ward off enemies, but because they supply the ingredients for the system's integrity.

For more information contact religiouseducation@uua.org.

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