A Failure Of Nerve | Review & Notes

Edwin H. Friedman. A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Seabury Books and The Edwin Friedman Trust, 1999, 2007. (260 pages)

Greg Wiens review; All Is Grist review; Todd Noren-Hentz book notes; Todd Hiestand summary; 10th Anniversary IntroductionAlastair’s Adversaria’s review/notes; Bob Thune 500 word summary; Edwin Friedman Tables from A Failure Of Nerve.


This may be one of the most powerful and influential books I have ever read. Friedman’s theses of “anxious systems” and “self-differentiated leadership” have been referenced in my ministry, and in my own personal “self-counseling” more times than I can count since being introduced to his writings. Not only have I felt a personal benefit, but I have witnessed in our greater society the symptoms from which we are all suffering. This, of course, only causes me to yearn for more “parents and presidents” to consider deeply and carefully Friedman’s work. This then, of course, only causes me to lament the paucity of influence Friedman has on our discourse of leadership, and emotional systems. How glorious it would be if we had an epidemic of “non-anxious presence” in our families, schools, work places, and government?

While I have only begun the journey of fully grasping the depth and wisdom of these concepts, I have and will continue to take great joy in deploying them in whatever areas of life which I have influence. I am deeply grateful to Friedman for this contribution to my journey, and I beg of others, please read this book, and practice self-differentiated leadership. The world will be better if you do.


Editors’ Preface

  • “Playfulness can get you out of a rut more successfully than seriousness.”
  • “Triangles are the plaque in the arteries of communication and stress is the effect of our position in the triangle of our families.”
  • “If you are a leader, expect sabotage.”
  • “The colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change. If you want your child, spouse, client, or boss to shape up, stay connected while changing yourself rather than trying to fix them.” (ix)

Introduction: The Problem with Leadership

Those who wish to disrupt leadership will always frame the problem in terms of liberty and order, while those in positions of leadership will always see the problem as one of order and chaos.

The great thing to remember is that the mind of man cannot be enlightened permanently by merely teaching him to reject some particular set of superstitions. There is an infinite supply of other superstitions always at hand; and the mind that desires such things, that is, the mind that has not trained itself to the hard discipline of reasonableness and honesty, will, as soon as its devils are cast out, proceed to fill itself with their relations. – Gilbert Murray, Five Stages of Greek Religion, in a chapter entitled “A Failure of Nerve”

[via: cf. Matthew 12:45]

…when anxiety reaches certain thresholds, “reasonableness and honesty” no longer defend against illusion, and then even the most learned ideas can begin to function as superstitions. (1)

I believe there exists throughout America today a rampant sabotaging of leaders who try to stand tall amid the raging anxiety-storms of our time. (2)

It is my perception that this leadership-toxic climate runs the danger of squandering a natural resource far more vital to the continued evolution of our civilization than any part of the environment. We are polluting our own species. … For whenever a “family” is driven by anxiety, what will also always be present is a failure of nerve among its leaders. (2)

The emphasis here will be on strength, not pathology; on challenge, not comfort; on self-differentiation, not herding for togetherness. This is a difficult perspective to maintain in a “seatbelt society” more oriented toward safety than adventure. … For, whether we are considering a family, a work system, or an entire nation, the resistance that sabotages a leader’s initiative usually has less to do with the “issue” that ensues than with the fact that the leader took initiative (2-3)

It will be the thesis of this work that leadership in America is stuck in the rut of trying harder and harder without obtaining significantly new results. (3)

In the pages that follow I will show that America’s leadership rut has both a conceptual and an emotional dimension that reinforce one another. The conceptual dimension is the inadequacy of what I shall refer to as the social science construction of reality. … The emotional dimension is the chronic anxiety that currently ricochets from sea to shining sea. However, the word emotional as used throughout this work is not to be equated with feelings, which are a later evolutionary development. While it includes feelings, the word refers primarily to the instinctual side of our species that we share in common with all other forms of life. (3)

By the social science construction of reality, I mean a worldview that focuses on classifications such as the psychological diagnosis of individuals or their “personality profiles” and sociological or anthropological niche … rather than on what will be emphasized in this work: the emotional processes that transcend those categories and that all forms of “colonized protoplasm” share in common, irrespective of those differences. (3-4)

In neither case, therefore, can the way out be obtained simply by developing some new method for “tinkering with the mechanics,” or by redoubling our efforts to try harder. The way out, rather, requires shifting our orientation to the way we think about relationships, from one that focuses on techniques that motivate others to one that focuses on the leader’s own presence and being. (4)


…the batting average in the war on cancer and the batting average in the struggle to heal chronically troubled institutions is remarkably similar, with cancer perhaps a little ahead. (5)

Or, to put the problem another way, when we say something has gone into remission, where do we think it has gone? (6)

Ignoring the emotional processes connected to systemic disease process, either in an organism or an organization and whether one is an oncologist or a business consultant, will rarely produce a lasting cure. (6)

It was, in fact, the consistency of my inability to predict the future course of relationships in families and institutions over the course of several decades that first led me to question the adequacy of the social science construction of reality and eventually led me to wonder if an intended source of enlightenment had become, in fact, a force for denial. (6)

…acquired characteristics are never inherited by the next generation unless they enter an organism’s germ plasm. What did it take, I began to ask myself, to get into the “germ plasm” of family or organizational emotional processes? (7)

…whatever the nature of a family’s customs and ceremonies, the universal problem for all partnerships, marital or otherwise, was not getting closer; it was preserving self in a close relationship, something that no one made of flesh and blood seems to do well. (8)

  • The children who work through the natural problems of maturing with the least amount of emotional or physical residue are those whose parents have made them least important to their own salvation. (Throughout this work, maturity will be defined as the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny.)
  • Children rarely succeed in rising above the maturity level of their parents, and this principle applies to all mentoring, healing, or administrative relationships.
  • Parents cannot produce change in a troubling child, no matter how caring, savvy, or intelligent they may be, until they become completely and totally fed up with their child’s behavior. (8)

…whether we are considering any family, any institution, or any nation, for terrorism to hold sway the same three emotional prerequisites must always persist in that relationship system.

  • There must be a sense that no one is in charge–in other words, the overall emotional atmosphere must convey that there is no leader with “nerve.”
  • The system must be vulnerable to a hostage situation. That is, its leaders must be hamstrung by a vulnerability of their own, a vulnerability to which the terrorist–whether a bomber, a client, an employee, or a child–is always exquisitely sensitive. (9)
  • There must be among both the leaders and those they lead an unreasonable faith in “being reasonable.” (10)


Sabotage is not merely something to be avoided or wished away; instead, it comes with the territory of leading, whether the “territory” is a family or an organization. And a leader’s capacity to recognize sabotage for what it is–that is, a systemic phenomenon connected to the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system and not to the institution’s specific issues, makeup, or goals–is the key to the kingdom. (11)

contemporary leadership dilemmas have less to do with the specificity of given problems, the nature of a particular technique, or the makeup of a given group than with the way everyone is framing the issues. (11-12)

Here are four major similarities in the thinking and functioning of America’s families and institutions that I have observed everywhere, and which I believe are at the heart of the problem of contemporary America’s orientation toward leadership:

  • A regressive, counter-evolutionary trend in which the most dependent members of any organization set the agendas and where adaptation is constantly toward weakness rather than strength, thus leveraging power to the recalcitrant, the passive-aggressive, and the most anxious members of an institution rather than toward the energetic, the visionary, the imaginative, and the motivated.
  • A devaluation of the process of individuation so that leaders tend to rely more on expertise than on their own capacity to be decisive. Consultants (to both families and organizations) contribute further to this denial of individuation by offering solutions instead of promoting their clients’ capacity to define themselves more clearly.
  • An obsession with data and technique that has become a form of addiction and turns professionals into data-junkies and their information into data junkyards. As a result, decision-makers avoid or deny the very emotional processes within their families, their institutions, and within society itself that might contribute to their institution’s “persistence of form.”
  • A widespread misunderstanding about the relational nature of destructive process in families and institutions that leads leaders to assume that toxic forces can be regulated through reasonableness, love, insight, role-modeling, inculcation of values, and striving for consensus. It prevents them from taking the kind of stands that set limits to the invasiveness of those who lack self-regulation. (12-13)

This book will develop an approach to leadership that goes in a different direction. It will encourage leaders to focus first on their own integrity and on the nature of their own presence rather than through techniques for manipulating or motivating others. I will suggest that the importance of leaders being well-informed is overrated, and that the focus on the intellect outside of an emotional context is actually anti-intellectual. It will show leaders how not to be victimized nor held hostage by victims, and offer empowering models of leadership and relationship systems based on the natural thinking systems found in contemporary biology and physics, rather than on “psychological” and other abstract social science models that, despite the accuracy of their data, tend to view life in the paradigm of nineteenth-century mechanics. (13)

In any type of institution whatsoever, when a self-directed, imaginative, energetic, or creative member is being consistently frustrated and sabotaged rather than encouraged and supported, what will turn out to be true one hundred percent of the time, regardless of whether the disrupters are supervisors, subordinates, or peers, is that the person at the very top of that institution is a peace-monger. By that I mean a highly anxious risk-avoider, someone who is more concerned with good feelings than with progress, someone whose life revolves around the axis of consensus, a “middler,” someone who is so incapable of taking well-defined stands that his “disability” seems to be genetic, someone who functions as if she had been filleted of her backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas–one whiff, on goes the emotional gas mask, and he flits. Such leaders are often “nice,” if not charming. (13-14)

well-differentiated leader…[is] someone who has clarity about his or her own life goals, and, therefore someone who is less likely to become lost in the anxious emotional processes swirling about. I mean someone who can be separate while still remaining connected, and therefore can maintain a modifying, non-anxious, and sometimes challenging presence. I mean someone who can manage his or her own reactivity to the automatic reactivity of others, and therefore be able to take stands at the risk of displeasing. It is not as though some leaders can do this and some cannot. No one does this easily, and most leaders, I have learned, can improve their capacity. (14)


…the connection between leader and follower as reciprocal and as part of larger natural processes, many of which, I came to realize, were intergenerational. (16)

…the systemic effects of a well-defined leadership presence can be seen by observing what happens in a community after major catastrophes such as tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and assassinations. One can observe an inverse correlation between the speed with which the top political officer in a community defines a presence and the amount of disintegration or looting that occurs. It is not merely the presence of the National Guard that dissuades looters–leaders function as the immune systems of their institutions. (17)

…the crucial issue of leadership in democratic societies may not be how much power they exercise but how well their presence is able to preserve that society’s integrity. (17)


My growing awareness of the universality of these systemic principles of leadership raised fundamental questions in my mind about the nature of most leadership training (including course on parenting) that puts primary emphasis on others (children or employees) as objects to be motivated rather than on the systemic effects of the presence, or self, of the leader. I began to see that the same emotional processes that produced dysfunction in an institution when the leader was anxiously reactive or absent could work in reverse. These emotional processes could be salutary rather than destructive. (18)

Rather than being concerned with the size of an organization or its product, or the latest fad for reorganization, those criteria have to do with a leader’s capacity to avoid being regulated by an institution’s emotional processes as they are transmitted and reinforced from generation to generation. (18)

Vision is basically an emotional rather than a cerebral phenomenon, depending more on a leader’s capacity to deal with anxiety than his or her professional training or degree. (18)

With families, I stopped creating encyclopedias of data about all their issues and began to search instead for the member with the greatest capacity to be a leader as I have defined it. That person generally turned out to be the one who could express himself or herself with the least amount of blaming and the one who had the greatest capacity to take responsibility for his or her own emotional being and destiny. (19)

I began to concentrate on helping the leader to become better defined and to learn how to deal adroitly with the sabotage that almost invariably followed any success in this endeavor. (19)

…to the extent leaders are successful in their differentiating efforts in their own family of origin, there is immediate carry-over to their functioning in the organizations (or families) which they lead. What has also been striking is the universality of the process, no matter what the profession. (20)

…the endeavor to gain more regulation over one’s own reactive mechanisms requires commitment to the lifetime project of being willing to be continually transformed by one’s experience. … I am convinced that to the extent leaders of any family or institution are willing to make a lifetime commitment o their own continual self-regulated growth, they can make any leadership theory or technique look brilliant. And conversely, to the extent they avoid that commitment, no theory or technique is likely to succeed for very long. (20)

…before any technique or data could be effective, leaders had to be willing to face their own selves. (21)

…the chronic anxiety in American society has made the imbibing of data and technique addictive precisely because it enables leaders not to have to face their selves. (21)


The five aspects of chronic anxiety are reactivityherdingblaming, a quick-fix mentality, and lack of leadership. … Each of these perverts natural principles of evolution, namely, self-regulation, adaptation to strength, the response to challenge, and allowing time for processes to mature. (24)

Thus self-differentiation is shown to be a force that is not anti-togetherness; on the contrary, it is a force that modifies the emotional processes within any group’s togetherness so that a leader actually promotes community through the emerging self-differentiation (autonomy, independence, individuality) of the other members. (25)

This book is not fo those who seek political allies, but for those who are excited by the adventure of challenging ideas and who are concerned that our theories not get in the way of our survival. (28)

1. Imaginative Gridlock and the Spirit of Adventure

The safest place for ships is in the harbor, but that’s not why ships were built. – Anonymous

It is appropriate that this “rebirth” of the human spirit has been referred to as the “Renaissance.” But the tendency to attribute the Renaissance to a renewed interest in learning may, despite its origins, be the same kind of academic bias that focuses leadership training programs on data and technique rather than on emotional process. It certainly has not been my experience in working with imaginatively stuck marriages, families, corporations, or other institutions that an increase in information will necessarily enable a system to get unstuck. And the risk-averse are rarely emboldened by data. (31)

Anyone who has ever been part of an imaginatively gridlocked relationship system knows that more learning will not, on its own, automatically change the way people see things or think. There must first be a shift in the emotional processes of that institution. Imagination and indeed even curiosity are at root emotional, not cognitive, phenomena. In order to imagine the unimaginable, people must be able to separate themselves from surrounding emotional processes before they can even begin to see (or hear) things differently. (31)

The great lesson of this turnaround is that when any relationship system is imaginatively gridlocked, it cannot get free simply through more thinking about the problem. Conceptually stuck systems cannot become unstuck simply by trying harder. For a fundamental reorientation to occur, that spirit of adventure which optimizes serendipity and which enables new perceptions beyond the control of our thinking processes must happen first. (32)

But for that type of change to occur, the system in turn must produce leaders who can both take the first step and maintain the stamina to follow through in the face of predictable resistance and sabotage. (33)

…just because an idea is sophisticated does not prevent it from functioning as a superstition when encompassing emotional processes put it to their regressive service. (34)


  • an unending treadmill of trying harder;
  • looking for answers rather than reframing questions; and
  • either/or thinking that creates false dichotomies.

These attributes are both symptom and cause… (34)

The treadmill of trying harder is driven by the assumption that failure is due to the fact that one did not try hard enough, use the right technique, or get enough information. This assumption overlooks the possibility that thinking processes themselves are stuck and imagination gridlocked, not because of cognitive strictures in the minds of those trying to solve a problem, but because of emotional processes within the wider relationship system. The failure to recognize those emotional processes, if not the outright denial of their existence, is what often initiates and ultimately perpetuates the treadmill effect. (35)

…it took European civilization almost three centuries to grasp fully that what it had found–North America–might be more important than what it was looking for. (35)

Answers Rather Than Questions

…the way one frames the question, or the problem, already predetermines the range of answers one can conceive in response. (37)

Innovations are new answers to old questions; paradigm shifts reframe the question, change the information that is important, and generally eliminate previous dichotomies. (37)

Either/Or Thinking

Evidently in those days people seeking research grants fudged data in order to support their hypotheses. (40)

Do times make the man (or woman), or does the person make the time?” Obviously, conditions must be propitious for imagination, boldness, or energy to bear fruit; but for ripe times to benefit from what they have to offer, someone simply must be able to separate himself or herself enough from surrounding emotional processes to go first–whether we are considering a marriage or a corporation. (40)


Amerigo Vespucci … He writes up his travels and because he includes lurid details of exotic sexual practices to spice his adventures, his travelogues sell like wildfire. They make his name well known, and as a result Amerigo has half the world named after him. (43)


Three facets of the discovery process I have described convey this relationship between risk and reality and add more evidence for the proposition that both being stuck and becoming reoriented are essentially emotional processes:

  • the ultimate unimportance of mistakes when the quest is driven by adventure rather than certainty.
  • the importance of serendipity in freeing oneself from one’s own thinking processes; and
  • the will to overcome imaginative barriers, like the equator.

The Freedom to Make Mistakes

…the role of cartographers in modeling reality deserves some mention. They, after all, are the publishers, the evaluators, and in some ways the censors of what is to be filtered into the (44) public consciousness. Sometimes they seem to have had more power to determine reality than the explorers themselves. (45)

Cartographers differed widely in their concern for accuracy, their ability to draw, their taste, and their honesty. They mixed fact, theory, and hypothesis according to their illusions, their fears, their wishes, their biases, and their political prejudices. (45)

In any field, then, is reality primarily what the “cartographers” of the day say it is? Answer: Only when the leaders of that age have deferred to the “mapmakers” because of their fear of making mistakes. (45)

The Value of Chance

…the acceptance and even cherishing of uncertainty is critical to keeping the human mind from voyaging into the delusion of omniscience. The willingness to encounter serendipity is the best antidote we have for the arrogance of thinking we know. Exposing oneself to chance is often the only way to provide the kind of mind-jarring experience of novelty that can make us realize that what we thought was reality was only a mirror of our minds. (46)

Emotional Barriers

I have called them imaginative or emotional barriers rather than simply myths, illusions, or erroneous beliefs because their effect is more than cerebral. For they are usually dissuasive in their influence, and their influence always spreads throughout society well beyond the content of their subject, much as family secrets affect relationships well beyond the subject of the secret itself. (47)

To sum up, this is not a book that will play it safe. My thinking is based on the notion that contemporary American civilization is as misoriented about the environment of relationships as the medieval world was misoriented about the Earth and the sky. (49)


Chapter Focus “Old World” Orientation “New World” Orientation
1. Adventure Imagination is cerebral. Imagination is emotional.
2. Anxiety It’s in the mind. It’s in between people.
3. Data Be as informed as possible. The capacity to be decisive is more critical.
4. Empathy Foster feelings, sensitivity, rights. Foster responsibility for one’s own being and destiny.
5. Self A leader’s “selfishness” destroys community. A leader’s self is essential to the integrity of a community.
6. Models of Leadership Linea; reality has to do with the nature of things; work to motivate others. Systemic; reality is about relationships; work to differentiate self.
7. Stress Results from hard work. Results from position in relational triangles.
8. Crisis and Sabotage Are basically dangers to be avoided; polarize the opposition. Can be a sign of success; preserve self and stay connected.
Epilogue: The Past It is prelude to the present. It resides within the present.

2. A Society in Regression

A society cannot evolve, no matter how much freedom is guaranteed, with the citizenry is more focused on one another than on their own beliefs and values.

Each age is marked by population drifts toward more concentration. Each epoch is characterized by a rising tide of purification: the Inquisition or “political correctness.” Each period is scarred by a rampant plague: Black Death or AIDS. Each society is characterized by increasing polarization, rigidity of belief, clouded vision, and an inability to change direction. … What both periods have in common is what I shall call a tendency toward societal regression. (52)

My thesis here is that the climate of contemporary America has become so chronically anxious that our society has gone into an emotional regression that is toxic to well-defined leadership. (53)

…in contrast to the Renaissance spirit of adventure that was excited by encounter with novelty, American civilization’s emotional regression has perverted the élan of risk-taking discovery and pioneering that originally led to the foundations of our nation, shaping much of its fundamental character into an illusive and often compulsive search for safety and certainty. This is occurring equally in parenting, medicine, and management. The anxiety is so deep within the emotional processes of our nation that it is almost as though neurosis has become nationalized. (53)

…no matter how advanced its state of technology, chronic anxiety can induce an approach to life that is counter-evolutionary. One does not need dictators in order to create a totalitarian (that, is totalistic) society. Then, employing five characteristics of chronically anxious personal families, I will illustrate how those same characteristics are manifest throughout the greater American family today, demonstrating their regressive effects on the thinking and functioning, the formation and the expression, of leadership among parents and presidents. Those five characteristics are:

  1. Reactivity: the vicious cycle of intense reactions of each member to events and to one another.
  2. Herding: a process through which the forces for togetherness triumph over the forces for individuality and move everyone to adapt to the least mature members.
  3. Blame displacement: an emotional state in which family members focus on forces that have victimized them rather than taking responsibility for their own being and destiny.
  4. A quick-fix mentality: a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks symptom relief rather than fundamental change.
  5. Lack of well-differentiated leadership: a failure of nerve that both stems from and contributes to the first four.

By the term regression I mean to convey something far more profound than a mere loss of progress. Societal regression is about the perversion of progress into a counter-evolutionary mode. In a societal regression, evolutionary principles of life that have been basic to the development of our species become distorted, perverted, or actually reversed. Chief among those evolutionary principles are:

  • self-regulation of instinctual drive;
  • adaptation to strength rather than weakness;
  • a growth-producing response to challenge;
  • allowing time for maturing processes to evolve; and
  • the preservation of individuality and integrity.

Emotional regression, therefore, is more of a “going down” than a “going back”; … At the same time that a society is “pro-gressing” technologically it can be “re-gressing” emotionally. (54)

When a society (or any institution) is in a state of emotional regression, it will put its technological advances to the service of its regression, so that the more it advances on one level the more it regresses on another. Furthermore, a civilization’s major technological advances can become perverted into a force for irresponsibility, if not immorality, as in modern warfare. (55)

The ultimate irony of societal regression, however, is that eventually it co-opts the very institutions that train and support the leaders who could pull a society out of its devolution. (55)



Chronic anxiety is systemic;… Rather than something that resides within the psyche of each one, it is something that can envelope, if not actually connect, people. … Chronic anxiety might be compared to the volatile atmosphere of a room filled with gas fumes, where any sparking incident could set off a conflagration, and where people would then blame the person who struck the match rather than trying to disperse the fumes. (38)

The same i the case when an entire society stays focused on the acute symptoms of its chronic anxiety–violence, drugs, teenagers smoking, crime, ethnic and gender polarization, economic factors such as inflation and unemployment, bureaucratic obstruction, and entangling tax code, and so on–rather than on the emotional processes that promote those symptoms and keep them chronic. In that case, the society will continue to recycle its problems, no matter how much legislation it passes, how it redistributes its resources, how many agencies it creates or dismantles, how many forms it finds for reinventing itself, or how many wars it engages in as a way of binding that anxiety off. (60)

…there is no way out of a chronic condition unless one is willing to go through an acute, temporarily more painful, phase. …most individuals and most social systems,…will “naturally” choose or revert to chronic conditions of bearable pain rather than (60) face the temporarily more intense anguish of acute conditions that are the gateway to becoming free. (61)


1. Reactivity Self-regulation of instinctual drive
2. Herding Adaptation toward strength
3. Blame Displacement A growth-producing response to challenge
4. A Quick-Fix Mentality Allowing time for processes to mature
5. Failure of Nerve in Leadership All of the above

1. Reactivity

It is as though the family were contained in a “feeling plasma,” with everyone’s nervous system constantly bombarded by the emissions of everyone else’s. (62)

The more aggressive members are in a perpetually argumentative stance, and the more passive are in a constant state of flinch. (63)

Chronically anxious families (including institutions and whole societies) tend to mimic the reptilian response: Lacking the capacity (63) to be playful, their perspective is narrow. (64)

In an atmosphere where everything is dire, a vicious cycle develops as a loss of playfulness destroys perspective. (64)

But the most damaging effect of intense reactivity in any family is on its capacity to produce or support a leader. (64)

2. The Herd Instinct

Since the emergence of the earliest self-reproducing life forms, a critical principle of evolution has been that as new forms develop, life (66) evolves in the direction of its strengths by preserving a balance between togetherness and individuality. The herding instinct in a chronically anxious family upsets that balance, however, by encouraging the force for togetherness to smother the force for individuality. It does so by reversing the direction of adaptation toward strength, and it winds up organizing its existence around the least mature, the most dependent, or the most dysfunctional members of the “colony.” (67)

The overall effect of herding is circular: if reactivity causes people to herd, then herding increases the conditions for reactivity. … This loss of self in turn lessens the capacity of any one member to gain the distance and perspective that are needed to maintain self-regulation, thus diminishing further the imaginative capacity of anyone to even see things differently from the rest of the “herd.” (68)

It is always easier to be the least mature member of a highly mature family than the most mature member of a highly regressed system. (69)

The use of abusive rather than objectionable has enabled those who do not want to take responsibility for their own efforts to tyrannize others, especially leaders, with their “sensitivity.” … It has been my impression that at any gathering, whether it be public or private, those who are quickest to inject words like sensitivity, empathyconsensus, trustconfidentiality, and togetherness into their arguments have perverted these humanitarian words into power tools to get others to adapt to them. (71)

3. Blame Displacement

One of the major advances in modern medicine has been the effort to stamp out disease not by trying to eliminate all the disease agents int he environment, but by enabling the body to limit a toxic agent’s invasiveness. (75)

The same avoidance of looking inward that leads members to cast blame outside the family also prevents family members from looking inward for the support of their own natural resources. The focus is (76) constantly on pathology rather than strength. (77)

What chronically anxious families are largely incapable of seeing is that trauma is often, and perhaps usually, less the result of the impacting agent than of the family’s own evolving emotional (77) process. … Basically, the idea is that when an outside force triggers dysfunction or disintegration within a system, the degree of disruption, the consequent symptomatology, or the resulting regression is not simply proportional to the strength of the impacting agent. The extent of the damage is rather the consequence of the way the system had been organizing itself to that point. (78)

What is needed is pre-traumatic stress leadership. Perhaps the outstanding example of blame displacement in chronically anxious America is what has come to be called anti-incumbency, the tendency of voters to reject whoever is in office almost irrespective of their party affiliation. … Instead of focusing on their own response to the challenges of change, these voters find fault in their political stars. (79)

But anti-incumbency is not that sort of rational search. It is more a reactive response to the voter’s own inner emptiness, personal frustration, general unhappiness, loss of (79) hope, and feelings of helplessness. (80)

[via: This reminded me of Hillbilly Elegy]

Contrary to popular thinking, it does not require two people working on a marriage to change it. Rarely are both partners equally motivated. But changing a marriage fundamentally does require that someone function as a leader in the sense in which I have been using that term. Where one partner can be taught to regulate his or her own reactivity, the other will often begin to imitate that behavior, and adaptation can ultimately be reversed. But for this shift to occur a critical point of departure must be reached: the more motivated partner must also be able to stop shifting blame to the other and to look more at his or her own input. This does not mean that they should look more at their own faults, but rather at how they have been compounding the situation. (81)

…even marriage counseling has been caught up in societal regression, for it requires changing the criterion from”Who has the problem?” to “Who has the motivation to focus on strength, not weakness, and on leadership, not pathology?”

The focus on pathology rather than strength throughout our society is itself a form of displacement, since it protects us from the far more difficult task of personal accountability. (81)

Parents cannot possibly hope to insulate their children against all the pathogenic forces and ideas in the environment. That way of thinking has to lead to unending cycles of anxiety. Where does it end? But they can “inoculate,” so to speak, their children against those noxious forces by the maturity they (82) instill in them through their own-well differentiated leadership. The immune response is always about self, strength, and integrity. (83)

We are on our way to becoming a nation of “skimmers,” living off the risks of previous generations and constantly taking from the top without adding significantly to its essence. Everything we enjoy as part of our advanced civilization, including the discovery, exploration, and development of our country, came about because previous generations made adventure more important than safety. (83)

4. The Quick-Fix Mentality

The chronically anxious family is impatient. (84)

To the extent that we are motivated to get on with life, we seem to be able to tolerate more pain; in other words, our threshold seems to increase. Conversely, to the extent that we are unmotivated to get out of our chair, our threshold seems to go down. (85)

People can rise above the level of the maturity of their leaders or mentors. (87)

For as long as leaders cater to the demand that they fix things quickly rather than encourage, promote, or even force their clients to deal with their own emotional being, then these leaders–be they parents or presidents–also miss out on challenging opportunities to grow. (88)

5. Poorly Defined Leadership

The majority regressive effects on leadership on chronic anxiety in both personal families and in the greater American family are these:

  • Leaders lack the distance to think out their vision clearly.
  • Leaders are led hither and yon by crisis after crisis.
  • Leaders are reluctant to take well-defined stands, if they have any convictions at all.
  • Leaders are selected who lack the maturity and sense of self to deal with sabotage. (89)

I have found that the single most important factor distinguishing those families that became hopelessly stuck or disintegrated into crisis from those that recovered was the presence of a well-defined leader. And again, by leader I do not mean someone who tells others what to do, but someone who can maintain the kind of non-anxious, well principled presence I have been describing. (89)



1. Reactivity

* automatic responses

* boundary erosion

* exaggeration of extremes

* loss of resiliency (playfulness)


* uproars over perceived slights

* bureaucratic entanglements

* ad hominem retorts

* disruption, interference, and censorship of opposition

Effect on Leadership: Leaders become less imaginative, are eventually worn down, and resign or “go through the motions.”
2. Herding

* togetherness as supreme value

* totalism in thinking and relating

* wills conflict, polarization, and cut-offs

* organizes around dysfunction

* adapts to immaturity


* uncompromising special interests

* courts lose base in principles

* funding for weakness, not strength

* politically correct language

* dignifying of immaturity (sexual acting-out)

Effect on Leadership: Leaders become indecisive because, tyrannized by sensibilities, they function to soothe rather than challenge and to seek peace rather than progress.
3. Blame Displacement

* loss of integrity and accountability

* fault projected outside

* quickness to blame (sue)

* cynical pessimism

* focus on safety rather than adventure


* anti-incumbency

* litigiousness and violence

* rising divorce rate

* national displacement issues

* carcinogens, abuse, environment

Effect on Leadership: The least mature are selected while those with the greatest integrity, precisely those who have the best capacity to pull a society out of a regression, do not even seek office.
4. Quick-Fix Mentality

* low pain threshold

* simple answers

* vulnerability to snake-oil fads

* quest for certainty


* drug culture

* fundamentalism and reductionism

* proliferation of data

* emphasis on technique

Effect on Leadership: Leaders are not challenged to grow.



* polarized and totalistic (black-and-white, either/or, all-or-nothing) * with us or against us polarizations
* reactive rather than stemming from principle * members homogenized or cut off
* reductionist * adapts to the most immature member
* given to ad hominem reasoning * organizes around the dysfunctional
* oriented toward pathology, not strength * sabotages differentiation
* focused externally rather than internally * loss of integrity and individuality (self)
* oriented toward crisis, not opportunity * oriented toward comfort, not challenge
* magical * functions for peace over progress
* serious * scapegoats to bind the anxiety
* no curiosity * judges caring by getting a reaction (hurting)
* given to “group think” * focuses on rights rather than responsibilities



Reactivity regulation of instinct inhibition of self-differentiation perspective on leadership clouded
Herding adaptation to strength organization around immaturity indeciseveness
Blaming response to challenge disintegration Sabotage
Quick-Fix Mentality maturation takes time recycled stuckness Least mature selected

3. Data Junkyards and Data Junkies: The Fallacy of Expertise

Imagination is more important than information – Albert Einstein

As long as leaders–parents, healers, managers–base their confidence on how much data they have acquired, they are doomed to feeling inadequate, forever. (96)

…how much of that information is significant? Without the development of such criteria, leaders will constantly be caught in the development of such criteria, leaders will constantly be caught in a wearying bind wherein the quick-fix orientation of a chronically anxious society spawns unlimited quantities o data and technique, while leaders, in their effort to “stay on top of things,” will contin(96)ually be made more anxious by their efforts to keep up, if not feeling more guilty over the fact that they are not all current. (97)

It is not advancing technology that is creating the information bind, however; it is societal regression, first by perverting the natural instincts of curiosity and adventure into a dogged quest for certainty, and second by focusing on pathology rather than on strength. (97)

The “new world” view of the brain suggests that any data-gathering process, attempts to separate out the intellect from emotional processes not only omit a crucial variable, but in effect become anti-intellectual and actually may be downright “stupid.” (99)

…conventional models of the brain that separate out the brain’s cognitive functioning from our broader emotional heritage–that which connects us with the universal natural processes that govern all life on this planet–is, ironically, in danger of subverting the brain into a counter-evolutionary force. (99)


The focus on data to the exclusion of emotional variables leaves the patient to hope that he or she “falls” into the right category. This atmosphere not only turns patients into statistics; ultimately it turns them into data. (103)

Whether medicine or management, it is precisely the omission of the emotional variables that turns most collections of data into junkyards, and that account for why the problems of the data deluge cannot be solved by limiting the data. Only by adding emotional variables can people be led to a more responsible position for their responses. (107)

In both cases, the research and historical emphasis of the social science construction of reality has been overwhelmingly focused on the pathological nature or effects of these events, not on the type of response that went into survival, during either the trauma or the aftermath. (108)

…talking about our feelings is also a cultural phenomenon rather than the only path to recovery. (108)


If one is interested in the more fundamental goal of maturation rather than a quick fix for a patient’s pain, then the critical factor in mental health healing (as with all leadership) is not the proper categorization of the problem, nor the right technique for alleviating symptoms, but the nature of the counselor’s own being, in particular his or her capacity to maintain an objective distance and a non-anxious, challenging presence. (110)

Family members tend to select from their culture’s repertoire of customs and ceremonies those behaviors that support their own idiosyncratic patterns, whether they are healthy patterns or neurotic, and pay most attention to those values in their tradition that prevent change. (111)


Parenting is no different from any other kind of “managing.” The critical issues in raising children have far less to do with proper technique than with the nature of the parents’ presence and the type of (112) emotional processes they engender. (113)

Where parents are willing to take responsibility for their own unworked-out relationships either with their own parents or with one another, children rarely develop serious symptoms. (113)


…the greatest mental health problem in America today may be the substance abuse of data. If the data deluge puts all leaders on an anxious treadmill of pursuing more information in order to “stay on top of things,” the pursuit of information also offers family and institutional leaders and healers an easy escape from having to deal with society’s chronic anxiety as well as with their own personal being. (114)

Anyone who thinks the difficulties involved in de-toxing are primarily a physiological mater has just never observed the problems of withdrawal involved in trying to separate a golfer, a stamp collector, a gambler, or a fisherman from his habit. And it can be much harder to break a relational addiction than one that is chemical. (115)

There is no quick fix for avoiding a quick fix. (116)


The tendency to equate the brain with only one of its subsystems, the cortex, leads us into the assumption that what we label “thinking” is primarily about the intellect. (117)

Two of the maps are focused inward and have to do with the brain’s “infra-structure”; two have an outward focus and have to do with the brain’s relationship to the body. They begin with a view of the brain as the repository of all evolution and therefore of the human connection to all other forms of life, itself a link to universal emotional processes. And they progress to a relational understanding that not only is the brain intimately connected to the body that houses it, but also, within any relationship system whatsoever, the brain of one individual is connected to the bodies–and the brains–of other individuals through its involvement in the emotional processes between them. (119)

  • The brain does not contain a central processing unit for information.
  • The brain always processes emotional factors and data simultaneously.
  • Thinking always involves the self of the entire organism.

Map 1: The Triune Brain–An Evolutionary Perspective

Madness, therefore, cannot be judged by strange ideas, outlandish theories, unpopular values, or even irrational beliefs–the favorite categories of the social scientists. … Madness has more to do with how people function in a relationship system than with products of their intellect. (121)

Map 2: The Brain’s Interconnections

The brain, says [Dr. Antonio] Damasio, is “a supersystem of subsystems” and the cortex, the subsystem that is usually credited with thinking, is only one of those units. (122)

The body is the “ground reference for reality” and “the mind had first to be about the body.” In other words, neither brain nor body interacts with the environment alone, without the participation of the other. (123)

Map 3: A Liquid Nervous System

There is also a new brain cartography drawn from an external perspective: the relationship of the entire brain itself to other body parts, if not to other bodies. (124)

hormone is the Greek word for impact. [to set in motion] (125)

First, it suggests that to be effective, a “head” must find a way to be present in the body it is leading, but that presence does not have to be communicated by a chain of command. Second, the nature of that presence is felt through its impact, not its messages. (126)

Third, if the relationship between a “head” and a body is organic rather than hierarchical (a word that has almost become the sine qua non of leadership training programs), proximity or even contiguity is not nearly as important as we are wont to think. (126)

Map 4: The Brain and Other Bodies

…one cannot understand one body’s brain without understanding the relationship of that body to other bodies. (127)

A “new world” view of the brain suggests instead that communication is itself an emotional phenomenon, rather than a matter of the intellect that is influenced by feelings or the emotions, and that it depends on three interrelational rather than “mental” variables: direction, distance, and anxiety. … Others can only hear you when they are moving toward you, no matter how eloquently you phrase the message. In other words, as long as you are in the pursuing, rescuing, or coercive position, your message, no matter how eloquently broadcast, will never catch up. And as for anxiety, it is the static in any communication system and can distort or scramble any message. (128)

The “catch 22” is this: in order to be able to identify those processes, one must be able to think differently in the first place. The capacity to “hear” new ideas in a family, in an institution, or in an entire civilization thus (130) depends to a large extent on the capacity to avoid being automatically regulated by that system’s emotional processes. And the more reactive the surrounding climate, the more that society in its anxious efforts to seek certainty will reify its models and eventually confuse them with reality itself. (131)

4. Survival in a Hostile Environment: The Fallacy of Empathy

The great myth here is that feeling deeply for others (133) increases their ability to mature and survive; its corollary is that the effort to understand another should take precedence over the endeavor to make one’s own self clear. (134)

I believe that the increasing popularity of empathy over the past few decades is symptomatic of the herding/togetherness force characteristic of an anxious society. (136)

The focus on “need fulfillment” that so often accompanies an emphasis on empathy leaves out the possibility that what another may really “need” (in order to become more responsible) is not to have their needs fulfilled. Indeed, it is not even clear that feeling for others is a more caring stance (or even a more ethical stance) than challenging them to take responsibility for themselves. (137)


All entities that are destructive to other entities share one major characteristic that is totally unresponsive to empathy: they are not capable of self-regulation. (138)

One attribute is this: all organisms that lack self-regulation will be perpetually invading the space of their neighbors. … The second attribute is: organisms that are unable to self-regulate cannot learn from their experience, which is why the unmotivated are invulnerable to insight. (138)


Malignant Cells



Self-Regulation in the Host


Whether we are considering the self-defense of a nation, the preservation of a family’s integrity, or the cohesiveness of an organization, the key to survival is the ability of the “host” to recognize and limit the invasiveness of its viral or malignant components. If lack of self-regulation is the essential characteristic of organisms that are destructive, it is precisely the presence of self-regulatory capacity that is critical to the health, survival, and evolution of an organism or an organization. (151)

Those who are less reactive are more self-contained, less blaming, more imaginative, less anxious, and more responsible. When they do seek help, they generally can hear suggestions well, offer less resistance to suggestions for change, and treat their consultant as a coach rather than a savior. Such an approach emphasizes strength rather than weakness, accountability rather than blame, taking responsibility for self rather than feeling for others. (155)

integrity in the sense of wholeness and coherent organization. And not integrity in the sense of honesty, though it does include and lead to that, but integrity in the sense of immunity. (157)

5. Autocracy Versus Integrity: The Fallacies of Self

If I am me because you are you, and you are you because I am me, then I am nothing, and you are nothing. – Yiddish proverb

eukaryotes, the first cells to contain a nucleus. (158)

prokaryote cells, lacked a nucleus… (159)

The arrival of the prokaryotes marked the true beginning of cellular life. For the first time, the three characteristics of all existing life forms came together: reproduction, metabolism (energy production), and heritability. But it was the arrival of the eukaryotes that marked the beginning of individuality, as well as the struggle to preserve it. (159)

It is important to note, therefore, that when the first eukaryotes arrived, evolution leaped forward precisely because life decided to no longer play it safe. … And a failure of naerve among its leadership will allow any society to regress to its “prokaryotic” stage. (161)

Far from juxtaposing self to community, I will suggest how parents and presidents can be self-“ish” without being selfish. (164)


Life has evolved not in terms of the ways the past has an impact on the present, but in terms of the ways the past is present in the present. (167)


Normally, adding “-ish” to a word only means “having the quality of.” … Why does not selfish mean “behaving like, or having he character of, a self”? Why does it not mean simply “self-y”? (174)

How can it be good to be both self-sufficient and self-less, self-made and self-effacing, self-respectful and self-denying, self-possessed and self-sacrificing, self-assertive and self-renouncing? Actually, the word self has trouble retaining its self. (175)

Is the difference between genius and madness whether or not you turn out to be correct? (177)

…within medicine the immune system today is defined as the capacity to distinguish self from non-self. … But if its main activity appears to be protection, the immune system is also essential to love, since without “immunity” not only would we never dare touch, but many of us would lose self if we got too close because of emotional fusion. (180)

Chronic illness is an adaptation to a relationship. | Self is not merely analogous to immunity; it is immunity. And from now on, whenever new understandings are gleaned in this field, whatever is found to be accurate about the immune response will also be true about self. (181)

Perhaps the most important lesson from our immune systems is this: the major purpose of the immune system is to preserve the integrity of the organism. (182)

…a leader functions as the immune system of the institution or organization he or she “heads.” (182)


Differentiation refers more to a process than a goal that can ever be achieved. … Differentiation refers to a direction in life rather than a state of being:

  • Differentiation is the capacity to take a stand in an intense emotional system.
  • Differentiation is saying “I” when others are demanding “we.”
  • Differentiation is containing one’s reactivity to the reactivity of others, which includes the ability to avoid being polarized.
  • Differentiation is maintaining a non-anxious presence in the face of anxious others.
  • Differentiation is knowing where one ends and another beings.
  • Differentiation is being able to cease automatically being one of the system’s emotional dominoes.
  • Differentiation is being clear about one’s own personal values and goals.
  • Differentiation is taking maximum responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny rather than blaming others or the context. (183)

Dr. Murray Bowen liked to say, it is a lifetime project with no one ever getting more than seventy percent there. (183)

A problem common to all social science theorizing is that the more accurately any system of thought can make predictions, the less room it allows for free will. (184)

6. Take Five

There are five aspects of their functioning that enabled these explorers to lead an entire civilization into a New World; and they are the very same factors that must be present in the leaders of any social system if it is to have a renaissance.

  • A capacity to get outside the emotional climate of the day.
  • A willingness to be exposed and vulnerable.
  • Persistence in the face of resistance and downright rejection.
  • Stamina in the face of sabotage along the way. A major difficulty in sustaining one’s mission is that others who start out with the same enthusiasm will come to lose their nerve. Mutiny and sabotage came not from enemies who opposed the initial idea, but rather from colleagues whose will was sapped by unexpected hardships along the way.
  • Being “headstrong” and “ruthless”. (189)

“Old World” superstitions are the following notions:

  • 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 sia bout power.

“New World” orientation to relationships will produce a view of leadership that says the following:

  • A leader’s major effect on his or her followers has to do with the way his or her 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 protoplasm.



The term emotional system refers to any group of people who have developed interdependencies to the point where the resulting system through which they are connected (administratively, physically, or emotionally) has evolved its own principles of organization. The structure, or resulting field, therefore tends to influence the functioning of the various members more than any of the components tends to influence the functioning of the system. (197)

One way of trying to understand an emotional system is to apply field theory. A field is an environment of force (for example, gravitational or magnetic) that, upon achieving homeostasis (stability and therefore identity), functions to maintain that balance through inner adjusting compensations. (197)


Relationships are not simply the product of the personalities involved, but are constantly evolving structures that take shape from the adaptation of each member to the adaptations others make to them in response. [via: not one’s personality, but rather one’s ability to adapt…!]


1. Society

  • The characteristics of a chronically anxious family, organization, or society–reactivity, herding, blaming, a quick-fix mentality, lack of well-differentiated leadership–will always be descriptive of a regressed institution.
  • When any institution, relationship, or society is imaginatively gridlocked, the underlying causes will always be emotional rather than cerebral.
  • All pathogenic (that is, destructive) organisms, forces, and institutions, whether we are considering viruses, malignant cells, chronically troubling individuals, or totalitarian nations, lack self-regulation and are therefore invasive by nature and cannot be expected to learn from their experience.
  • For terrorists to have power, whether in a family or in the family of nations, three conditions must be fulfilled: (1) the absence of well-defined leadership; (2) na hostage situation to which leaders are particularly vulnerable; and (3) an unreasonable faith in reasonableness. (201)
  • A major criterion for judging the anxiety level of any society is the loss of its capacity to be playful.
  • A society’s culture does not determine its emotional processes; rather, a society’s culture provides the medium through which a society’s emotional processes work their art.
  • The basic tension that must constantly be re-balanced in any family, institution, or society is the conflict between the natural forces of togetherness and self-differentiation.

2. Relationships

  • It is easier to be the least mature member of a highly mature system than the most mature member of a very immature system.
  • Increasing one’s pain threshold for others helps them mature. (201)
  • Stress and burnout are relational rather than quantitative, and are due primarily to getting caught in a responsible position for others and their problems.
  • In any partnership, the more anxious you are to see that something is done, the less motivated your partner will be to take the lead.
  • In any stuck relationship between an overadequate member of an underadequate other (person or organization), the overfunctioner must change before the underfunctioner can change.
  • In any relationship anywhere, the partner doing the least amount of thinking about the other is the more attractive one to the other.
  • When people differ, the nature of their differences does not determine the extent or the intensity of the differing. (202)

3. Self

  • Trauma lies in the self-organizing quality of the system and the response of the organism rather than in the event. In other words, the trauma is in the epxerience and the response to it, not in the event itself.
  • The toxicity of an environment in most cases is proportional to the response of the organism or the institution, rather than to the hostility of the environment.
  • What is essential are stamina, resolve, remaining connected, the capacity for self-regulation of reactivity, and having horizons beyond what one can actually see.
  • There is no way out of a chronically painful condition except by being willing to go through a temporarily more acutely painful phase.
  • People who are cut off from relationship systems, especially their family of origin, do not heal, no matter what their symptom.
  • Most of the decisions we make in life turn out to be right or wrong not because we were prescient, but because of the way we function after we make the decision.
  • A self is more attractive than a no-self. (202)

4. Leadership

  • Mature leadership begins with the leader’s capacity to take responsibility for his or her own emotional being and destiny.
  • Clearly defined, non-anxious leadership promotes healthy differentiation throughout a system, while reactive, peace-at-all-costs, anxious leadership does the opposite.
  • Differentiation in a leader will inevitably trigger sabotage from the least well-differentiated others in the system.
  • Followers cannot rise above the maturity level of their mentors no matter what their mentor’s skill and knowledge-base.
  • The unmotivated are notoriously invulnerable to insight.
  • Madness cannot be judged from people’s ideas or their values, but rather from (1) the extent to which they interfere in other people’s relationships; (2) the degree to which they constantly try to will others to change; and (3) their inability to continue a relationship with people who disagree with them.
  • People cannot hear you unless they are moving toward you, which means that as long as you are in a pursuing or rescuing position, your message will never catch up, no matter how eloquently or repeatedly you articulate your ideas.
  • The children who work through the natural difficulties of growing up with the least amount of difficulty are those whose parents made them least important to their own salvation. (203)

7. Emotional Triangles

You can’t rely on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus. – Mark Twain

…the manner in which the relationship between any two people, or a given individual and his or her symptoms, can be a function of an often unseen third person, relationship, or issue between them. (205)

…emotional triangles adhere to the following rules:

  • They form out of the discomfort of people with one another.
  • They function to preserve themselves and, perversely, oppose all intentions to change them.
  • They interlock in a reciprocally self-reinforcing manner.
  • They make it difficult for people to modify their thinking and behavior.
  • They transmit a system’s stress to its most responsible or most focused member. (206)



How Emotional Triangles Form

Emotional triangles form because of the inherent instability of two-person relationships. This instability increases because of a lack of differentiation of the partners, the degree of chronic anxiety in the surrounding emotional atmosphere, and the absence of well-defined leadership. They create the illusion of intimacy. How long can any two people talk together without focusing on a third person? It may even be that to the extent the conversations of any two people focus on a third party, there is a flaw in the pseudo-intimacy that has formed. (209)

How Emotional Triangles Operate



The concept of emotional triangles suggests a systems view of stress. To the extent that you (A) become enmeshed in the relationship of B and C (either because you have taken on the responsibility for their relationship or because they have focused on you–that is, triangled you out–as a way of achieving togetherness), you will wind up with the stress for their relationship. (220)

The term psychosomatic is a false dichotomy because it suggests that two different realms somehow touch each other. Everyone is in a triangle between his or her body and his or her mind; the trick is to put them together through the integrating effects of self-differentiation. (221)


In other words, leaders can use their bodies to help them be more effective leaders. Instead of treating their symptoms as impediments, they can see them as messengers–again, not simply messengers about their own health or tattletales about their functioning and their position in the relationship system they are leading, but messengers about what is going on in that relationship system. (223)



8. Crisis and Sabotage: The Keys to the Kingdom

The waves have some mercy, at least, but the rocks have no mercy at all. – Irish proverb

…the power (230) inherent in a leader’s presence does not reside in physical or economic 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 presence that is the source of their real strength. Leaders function as the immune systems of the institutions they lead–not because they ward off enemies, but because they supply the ingredients for the systems’ integrity. (231)

*      focuses on pathology *      focuses on strength
*      is obsessed with technique *      is concerned for one’s own growth
*      works with symptomatic people *      works with motivated people
*      betters the condition *      matures the system
*      seeks symptomatic relief *      seeks enduring change
*      is concerned to give insight *      is concerned to define self (take stands)
*      is stuck on treadmill of trying harder *      is fed up with the treadmill
*      diagnoses others *      looks at one’s own stuckness
*      is quick to quit difficult situations *      is challenged by difficult situations
*      is made anxious by reactivity *      recognizes that reactivity and sabotage are evidence of one’s effectiveness
*      has a reductionist perspective *      has a universal perspective
*      sees problems as the cause of anxiety *      sees problems as the focus of preexisting anxiety
*      adapts toward the weak *      adapts toward strength
*      focuses empathetically on helpless victims *      has a challenging attitude that encourages responsibility
*      is more likely to create dependent relationships *      is more likely to create intimate relationships

…all leadership begins with the management of one’s own health. (234)


Management of Information

Findings, by definition, are based on a particular research method; the assumption is that other research methods might produce other or even contrary results. (240)

The biggest issue regarding the management of information, though, is this: When should you decide you have had enough, and not let the fact that experts know more than you rob you of your responsibility for being decisive? (240)

Management of the Relationship System

Management of Anxiety

In one sense, this entire story is about the management of anxiety and, as I will show, overlaps with the management of one’s self. The principles illustrated here have to do, among other things, with injecting humor and keeping things loose. The looser your presence is, the looser everyone’s relationships will be with you and one another. (242)

Management of Self

To summarize these principles in time of crisis:

  • Keep up your functioning; don’t let crisis become the axis around which your world revolves.
  • Develop a support system outside of the work system, such as professional helpers, family, and friends.
  • Stay focused on long-term goals.
  • Practice deep breathing, prayer, or meditation.
  • Listen to your body.
  • Watch the triangles.
  • Work out the balance between being responsible for self and being labeled obstreperous.
  • Keep the system loose through humor.
  • It’s time to make decisions when the same question brings no new information.
  • Accept the possibility that your own functioning brought it on, which means that you may be able to influence your recuperation. (245)


Lean on others Stay accountable
Get information Be decisive
Keep distance Stay connected
Do not avoid Do not try to solve
Keep up functioning Refrain from avoiding or denying
Maintain commitment to see it through Do not let it become the axis of life
Be willing to risk, take chances Regulate reactivity
Work at being objective Honor perversity
Appreciate loneliness Do not cut off
Stay in triangles Do not get triangled


Self-differentiation always triggers sabotage. (247)

Another way of putting this is that a leader can never assume success because he or she has brought about a change. It is only after having first brought about a change and then subsequently endured the resultant sabotage that the leader can feel truly successful. (247)

Epilogue: The Presence of the Past

The problem with parents, after all, is that they had parents. This explains a lot. (250)

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