Old World superstitions, New World orientation

July 29, 2016 § Leave a comment

Here’s a second nugget from Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix (see this post for an earlier nugget on being an organisational emotional domino).

Friedman cites superstitions which underpin what might be called the age of anxiety, wearing us all down. And then, he suggests some ‘new world’ orientations to relationships.

First, those old world superstitions (some of them appear to be quite mainstream and liberal!) –

  • Leaders influence their followers by the model they establish for identification or emulation
  • the key to successful leadership is understanding the needs of their followers
  • communication depends on one’s choice of words and how one articulates them
  • consensus is best achieved by striving for consensus
  • stress is due to hard work
  • hierarchy is about power.

Instead, argues Friedman, a new world orientation to relationships will produce a view of leadership that will say the following:

  • a leader’s major effect on his or her followers has to do with the way his or presence (emotional being) affects the emotional processes in the relationship system
  • a leader’s major job is to understand his or her self
  • communication depends on emotional variables such as direction, distance and anxiety
  • stress is due to becoming responsible for the relationships of others
  • hierarchy is a natural systems phenomenon rooted in the nature  of the [material itself within the organisational system] – what Friedman confusingly terms ‘the nature of protoplasm’).

(adapted from p195, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the age of the quick fix, by Edwin Friedman. 2007. New York: Seabury Books).

If one can avoid being distracted by the phrase ‘the nature of protoplasm’, for me this list of orientations is exciting and profound.

A systems-thinking approach to leadership – essential in today’s VUCA world (volatile, uncertain complex and ambiguous) – leads us to hone and use our intuition to understand the whole, work with the interconnections, and shape the ‘river of change’ to to the best ends possible. And within that, Friedman identifies a principle task of the leader to understand themselves, and their invisible and often counter-intuitive impact on the system around them.

I love the reference to followers – and note I understand leadership and followership to refer to roles rather than being fixed permanently to people, and that informally these roles can rotate to suit the circumstances. And, as has been described elsewhere, leaders and followers can be in a dynamic relationship, ‘interacting to co-construct leadership, followership and outcomes’ (Ira Chaleff).

For me, effective leadership does require one to be alert to the needs of followers – so clearly I’m still partly buying into at least one of Friedman’s superstitions!

But I warm to the primary emphasis on knowing oneself and the reality of one’s presence. If that presence is truly discerned then, from a Gestalt perspective at least, awareness frees resistance (inner resistance, in this case) and will release insight and energy for transformation. And in that sense, maybe yes one can then be alert to the needs of followers, from an unblocked and deeper place of understanding.


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