Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Harvest the Power, 2nd Edition: A Lay Leadership Development Program for Adults

Handout 2: Gridlocked Systems

For Workshop 5, Integrity, Activity 6, Barriers

Adapted from A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin H. Friedman (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), and Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age by Juana Bordas (2012, Berett-Koehler Publishers).

In his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Edwin H. Friedman writes that chronic anxiety “influences our thoughts and our leaders toward safety and certainty rather than boldness and adventure” (p. 37). He suggests that we are “imaginatively stuck” and that leaders have developed barriers that prevent new and creative thinking. He names “imagination limiting” notions that keep today’s leaders gridlocked. He identifies three sticking points for effective leadership: data collection, empathy, and lack of self-differentiation:

  • Data: The notion that when enough “data” are collected, a decision will become clear.
  • Empathy: The notion that leaders must be sure that every individual in the community is happy with a decision as presented.
  • Self: The notion that self-differentiation and self-care are “selfish.”

While Friedman’s work explores leadership barriers that lead to gridlock in white-dominant-culture organizations, in Salsa, Soul, and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural Age, Juana Bordas explores leadership styles in communities of color. Considering these insights together can strengthen the ability of all Unitarian Universalist lay leaders to lead with creativity, humility, and integrity.


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 that focuses on problems rather than strengths, and demands certainty and easy answers rather than creativity and adaptation:

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]... develop criteria for discerning what information is important to leadership. (p. 104)

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 the unregulated data proliferation to begin with. (p. 105)

In Salsa, Soul, and Spirit, Bordas lifts up the collaborative nature of leadership in communities of color:

Whether I or We is central to a society contours the shape of its leadership. A We identity promotes a collective and people-centered leadership that espouses the well-being of the people as a whole…​​(p. 79)

…​Collaborative leadership transforms the I orientation of hierarchical leadership to a group-centered or We orientation. Instead of supplying all the answers, the collaborative leader creates an environment that promotes teamwork and learning together. (p. 80)

Consider these questions:

  • How might the collaborative approach that Bordas describes serve as an antidote to the “data deluge” problem Friedman identifies?
  • Might your leadership team consider addressing any current issues by turning away from data collection and instead toward creating an environment of teamwork with the people you serve?


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

Bordas writes:

The American belief that only democratic voting can ensure equal participation runs contrary to many indigenous forms and traditional cultures in which building consensus, integrating people’s needs, and strengthening the collective is the goal. In democratic systems, voting signifies that the majority rules. In some instances 49 percent of the group might not agree with the other 51 percent, and rarely is there unanimity. In collectivist cultures, in which relationships are lifelong and ongoing, this would weaken the community fabric…​. Building consensus and integrating everyone’s opinions takes time and a great deal of patience and dialogue! Encouraging everyone’s participation may seem cumbersome. However, it is a surefire way to garner the collective wisdom and to secure the commitment of all involved. (p. 180)

Consider these questions.

  • As a member of the leadership team, how do you take care not to silence the voices of those often on the margins (including members of the leadership team) in the name of moving forward?
  • How can your leadership team distinguish between individuals or voices blocking the congregation from staying true to your mission and those that are, in their disagreement or protest or complaints, keeping the leadership true to that mission? How do you, as a team, need one another in this discernment?


Friedman writes about the importance of the leader’s capacity for self-differentiation, that is, one’s 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 [their] 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 [their] 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 economic strength but in the nature of [their] own being, so that even when leaders are entitled to great power by dint of their office, it is ultimately the nature of their presence that is the source 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. (pp. 230–231)

Read this quote from Salsa, Soul, and Spirit:

Leaders in communities of color receive their legitimacy from the people they serve. They garner this respect by exhibiting a high level of morality, including being generous, honest, and humble, and by serving. As they model these behaviors, they lift up the morality of their followers and community as well. With limited resources, leaders must be adept at mobilizing people to address critical issues, including an examination of the social structures that limit equal participation. (p. 71)

Consider these questions about your leadership group:

  • What qualities are most important for leaders to exhibit?
  • How does your leadership team pay attention to the spiritual and character development of its members, both as individuals and as a team?