The reign of the dysfunctional

At the advice of my friend Pastor Phil McCutchen, I just finished reading Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix . It’s not an easy read, but one very worth the investment, particularly if you are in leadership in any capacity.

The premise of the book is the very observable phenomenon of the anxiety of the most dysfunctional members of any family or organization being allowed not just to influence but to rule.  This has grown into a world-view and Friedman attacks it – as the prevailing view of west culture at large – in the name of the word “empathy”. That its expression and working out should be the primary governing directional focus cripples the entire group but particularly the leader.

He uses the phrase “well-differentiated” throughout the book – only defining it about 60% through – to describe a leader that has distinguished him/herself from the anxiety-driven weight of group judgment. If empowered, the least stable and productive and functional in a group will elect itself as a jury to approve and disapprove of every decisive whim and movement taken.

I think he makes good points. Points to be taken in balance, but good ones nonetheless. As a reaction to over-reaching and oppressive leaders, checks have been established. They are found in laws, in labor movement structure and lots of other places. They are legitimate and have done good. In America we celebrate something good on Labor Day.  And civil laws protecting individuals from those who would victimize them are a good thing too.

But in some cases and in the general cultural mindset what these counter measures have morphed into is stultifying. If all leadership is suspect, how will anything ever get done? Friedman likes Christopher Columbus for his adventuring spirit, admitting he was a lousy governor. To hear people talk today, Columbus was nothing more than a butcher of native people. Good case in point, because the truth is somewhere between.

And Friedman does not advocate oppression as part of “self-differentiation”. That’s as dysfunctional as ruling victims. I think he strikes a good balance. And those of the prevailing culture will necessarily be up in arms at his conclusions. Because they are out of balance.

My recent experiences as a leader have been traumatic. It has felt terrible each time because I want to people to work and serve together. But my biggest accomplishment over the past year plus, if you could call it that, has been watching or helping people leave my teams. I’ve seen people leave who haven’t gotten what they wanted, like an unseen alarm clock had gone off. I’ve seen people whose departure I aided when they were a bad fit and/or were poisonous to the team. I haven’t always communicated well – and that’s a big learning point for me going forward.  And there are other lessons learned – painful though they have been.

But I was blessed to read what Friedman said because it put labels on things I have seen – as we all have.

We have gone too far in calling dysfunctional people victims. In so doing, we have valued their state and have let therapeutic language and action too powerfully into governance and policy.

The modern polarity lacks the ability to balance these things. It cannot reconcile empowered, decisive (and yes, wealthy) leadership with benefit. It cannot value or nurture the resiliency of hurt people as they overcome and heal.

There’s no question that in the popular ideological stamping Friedman’s ideas are on the right politically.  But those who dismiss them like that will dismiss a reasonable, sane voice that offers good balance.  And at some level, in some endeavor, adopt inertia.

Again it’s NOT a blind eye to suffering or those who cause it that’s advocated, just a reality-based view that moves on spite of it. We take measures to help the poor – really help them – but do not let their poverty steal and reign.

And I guess if you call this a dangerous stance, you should consider the danger of the anxious inertia that keeps things from happening. Because that is just as real and just as bad as oppression and even abuse. We must fight both, not just one or the other.