Leadership in the Age of Anxiety

The numerous crises in our lives of late have drawn criticism concerning the leadership in Ferguson, Missouri and yet another tide of anti-presidential comment. The same goes for the ISIS crisis, a bill in Congress attacking the President as overstepping his authority (while Congress has been in a dysfunctional stupor). These and other events brought to mind the work of Rabbi Edwin H. Friedman.

In the late 1980’s I read Generation to Generation by Edwin H. Friedman, a rabbi who used Bowen’s family therapy principals to understand the dynamics of every system families to businesses to political system. Friedman proclaimed that we all operate on the same emotional voltage and therefore all systems exhibit the same traits. I then read Friedman’s Fables which used the literary device of the fable to present the dynamics we all encounter. I was hooked and signed up for “post graduate seminars” held in Bethesda, Maryland. Over three weeklong sessions the participants heard the seminal ideas of a book that would be published after his death – A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Earlier Friedman had described the work as “Leadership in the Age of Anxiety.”

It sounds like today.

We are surviving some of the quick fixes in our recent past. The quick fixes to 9/11 and two wars haunt us. The rhetoric concerning ISIS has the usual militaristic quick fix. (Does anyone think that our military involvements over the past fifty years solved anything?) Did Ferguson really require more boots on the ground? More sophisticated military hardware did not appear to resolve the issues.

I think the best response from the President was to speak and then, rather than calling for all out war, returned to play golf. He reacted in self-differentiation. Most self-differentiation gathers a great deal of flack. It has brought out the saboteurs, though many of them have been at work since the election. (One St. Louis County policeman called him “our undocumented president.”)

A case could be made for the national sickness being addiction to quick fixes. It happens in families, churches, cities, states, national governments, businesses, and international relationships. We rush from one train wreck to the next. Have we gotten to the point that we are incapable of being led?

I remember a very painful exchange I had with a person who had early onset dementia. He made a statement which had no basis in fact but came from his feelings. Trying to explain the matter was increasing his frustration and mine. The only helpful thing to do was to act on my own understanding and feelings. I could and did appreciate his dilemma, but there was no convincing him.

That may be the model we are living in our country. We have news designed to meet people’s desires and whims. We get very upset when “someone else” doesn’t solve things the way we think they can be solved. It is like hearing “The truth shall make us free” after Pilate has said, “What is truth?”

One of Friedman’s “post graduate seminars” contained a viewing of a tape concerning President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The different players offered their solution. The air force wanted to bomb them out of existence. The navy wanted to engage the vessel at sea. The army wanted to invade the island and take it over. Every branch had a solution (which was in their area of expertise). Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev both knew we faced the grave threat of nuclear war. Khrushchev had the same multitude of military advisors with the same orientation as the advisors to Kennedy. Our U-2 spy plane had photographed nuclear mission sites being built by the USSR in Cuba but did not want to expose our use of the U-2. After twelve days of long and difficult meetings, Kennedy decided to place a naval blockade around Cuba, not knowing how the USSR would respond. (That is self-differentiation at work.) And it worked. This led to the “Hot Line” connecting Washington and Moscow and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963.

The resolving issue was stated by Kennedy in June 1963: “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”


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