A Review of – Failure of Nerve

Review:  A Failure of Nerve by Edwin Friedman

2-minute read

Core Idea: A calm, steady, non-anxious leadership presence is key.


Leadership is change. Change creates fear. Fear leads to sabotage.  

A failure of nerve jeopardizes progress and encourages chaos.  

Social and political anxieties paralyze our ability to think, dream, and move forward.


Leadership nerve is standing firm amid fear, turmoil, anxiety, and gridlock.  

Why it matters: 

Better futures come from new learning. New learning requires risk and the ability to withstand the emotional turmoil that comes with change.  


Thinking Forward:

Friedman likens our times to the calcified thinking of the middle ages. Then explorers like Vasco da Gama and Columbus acted their way into new ways of thinking. Those explorers opened a new world of thinking where:

  • Mistakes are part of learning
  • Serendipity opens new doors 
  • Strong leaders have the will to overcome old ways of thinking

New World Leaders

  • Discern and navigate emotional tensions
  • Clarify their vision, values, and goals
  • Take decisive action when there is no new information coming in
  • Project a non-anxious presence in the face of turmoil 
  • Communicate calmly 
  • Take a calm learning stance amid polarization and reactivity
  • Maintain character and integrity without blaming others

Surviving Crisis and Sabotage

Leaders who stand firm in times of crisis:

  • Don’t let crisis spin them out of control
  • Develop a support system 
  • Stay focused on long-term goals
  • Practice deep breathing, prayer, or meditation
  • Keep the system loose through humor
  • Become decisive when there is no new information
  • Recognize that sabotage is a sign of success rather than failure

Fixing unhealthy emotional systems 

Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by the following:

  • Reactivity: remain steady and proactive 
  • Coalitions of fear: keep communicating
  • Blaming and shaming: don’t get sucked into negative emotions
  • Quick fix thinking: endure the short-term pain for long-term gain
  • Wishy-washy leadership: take a stand; chart a steady course

Sabotage, Friedman says, is part of the territory. He tells of Columbus being held back by a crew that faked needed repairs. He finally decided to control what he could control and announced that he was moving on. The crew magically fixed the problem and caught up.

In our anxious, seat-belt society, the resistance that sabotages a leader’s initiative usually has less to do with the “issue” than with the fear of change.  

Non-anxious leaders calm anxieties by charting a steady course forward.

To Learn More … 


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Larry Nyland – Leadership Coach and Consultant.
Seattle Schools superintendent 2014-2018

To talk about growing extraordinary "high capacity" leadership for your team …
Contact: Larry@Larrynyland.com | 425-418-4398 | LarryNyland.com