Being non-anxious in an age of anxiety

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Rev. Clay Nelson


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Rev. clay Nelson © 11 June 2017

Last week I spoke of my vision for us to become, individually and as a congregation, servant leaders.

As a reminder, Robert Greenleaf, who coined the term servant leadership, describes it as “The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions…

“The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant-first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served. The best test is: Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants? And, what is the effect on the least privileged in society? Will they benefit or at least not be further deprived?”

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.

But I also pointed out that achieving this vision of becoming servant leaders would not be easy. There are lots of obstacles, the biggest one being our willingness to be easily distracted from our goal. Perhaps, the biggest impediment to our becoming servant leaders is anxiety. It can easily sabotage our best intentions and, as we live in an anxious time, there is plenty to choose from: Brexit, North Korea’s missile testing, climate change, a housing crisis, economic inequality, terrorism, the Middle East…Trump. Then there is the anxiety that swirls around our individual lives, many we hear about at joys and concerns.

In other words, we live in a cloud of anxiety. The problem with anxiety is when it reaches certain thresholds, it can result in a failure of nerve to lead.

In 1985, a few years after I was ordained, Edwin Friedman, a rabbi, family systems therapist, organisational consultant and author wrote his first book, Generation to Generation. It has strongly influenced my ministry to this day. It was intended to help clergy understand the systems at work in their congregations that they might be more effective leaders. There are times when his insights help me negotiate particularly stormy seas that could have sunk my ministry. I give him full credit for the fact that I have never served a congregation that didn’t grow spiritually and numerically. Having had the good fortune to have met Friedman once and enjoy his warmth, wit and wisdom, I was deeply saddened by his unexpected death in 1996. The sense of loss was heightened by the fact that he had not completed his most important book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Fortunately, his wife and colleagues were able to summarise his ending using his notes and drafts, in order to publish it. It is his insights that I believe will help us to stay focused on becoming servant leaders in anxious times.

Friedman’s core thesis is that the real problem of leadership is a failure of nerve. Leaders fail not because they lack information, skill, or technique, but because they lack the nerve and the non-anxious presence to stand firm in the midst of other people’s emotional anxiety and reactivity.

In his second book, Friedman’s Fables, he tells short fables to give examples of having non-anxious presence and how important it is to keep leaders from losing their nerve. My favourite is “The Bridge”. It is the story of a man who had given much thought to what he wanted from life. He experimented with many ways of living and had his share of both success and failure. At last, he had a clear vision of where he wanted to go.

Diligently he looked for the right opportunity to go. Finally, it arrived but he did not have much time and he could not show a lack of commitment by being distracted or else the opportunity would be lost. He was making good time when he came to a bridge over a river far below.

Coming from the other direction was a man who looked a lot like him except he had a rope, maybe thirty feet long, wrapped around his waist. When they met in the middle the other man unfurled the rope and politely asked the man to hold tightly to the other end and not let go. The man thanked him and jumped over the side of the bridge. Instinctively, the man held tight and tried not to get pulled over the side. In shock he shouted down to the dangling man why he did that. The only answer he got back was, “Hold on tight. I am your responsibility. If you let go I will die.”

The man tried everything to pull him up but he could not get leverage and there was no place to tie the rope so he could go get help. He tried to get the man to help by shortening the rope by wrapping it around himself, but the dangling man just kept saying, “Hold on tight. I am your responsibility. If you let go I will die.”
The man on the bridge was aware that his opportunity to get where he was going was slipping away. The point of decision arrived. Will it be my life or his life? Then an idea came to him so new it seemed heretical to his traditional way of thinking.

He called down to the man, “I want you to listen carefully, because I mean what I am about to say. I will not accept the position of choice for your life, only for my own; the position of choice for your life I hereby give back to you.”

“What do you mean,” the man asked, afraid.

“I simply mean, it is up to you. You decide how this ends. I will be the counter-weight but you will have to pull yourself up. I might even tug a little.”
“You can’t mean what you say,” the other shrieked. “How can you be so selfish? I am your responsibility. What could be so important that you would let someone die? You can’t do this to me.”

The man of the bridge waited a moment. There was no change in the tension of the rope. He called down and said, “I accept your choice,” and let go.

At the end of the book the publisher throws a party for the cast of all the fables. There the man on the bridge met the dangling man, and asked him what happened next. The dangling man said, “First I thought, ‘Win some, lose some.’ Then I swam to the shore. Got a new rope and went back up to the bridge to meet the next person to cross it.”

Friedman’s understanding of leadership hinges on the idea of emotional process. Every family and every institution has an implicit emotional/relational environment, and a way of operating within that environment. Good leadership has less to do with skill, data, technique, or knowledge, and more to do with a leader’s ability to discern and navigate the emotional and relational climate of a family or organization. The key variable in leadership is a leader’s non-anxious presence. Rather than focusing on technique or know-how, we need to focus on the leader’s own presence and being. Throughout his work Friedman speaks of the importance of a “well-differentiated leader.” Here’s what he means:

  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by reactivity. A well-differentiated leader doesn’t react to other people’s reactions; he or she is a calm, steady presence.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by a herding instinct. A well-differentiated leader has a strong sense of self and can effectively separate while remaining connected.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by blame displacement. A well-differentiated leader takes responsibility for himself and leads others to do the same.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by a quick-fix mentality; relief from pain is more important than lasting change. A well-differentiated leader realises that true long-term change requires discomfort, and he or she is willing to lead others through discomfort toward change.
  • Unhealthy emotional systems are marked by poorly defined leadership. A well-differentiated leader takes decisive stands at the risk of displeasing others.

Friedman was a student of history. He saw many parallels in our current leadership culture to those faced in the Dark Ages. He posits that the type of leadership needed to bring us through our anxiety-ridden and leadership fearing current culture was exactly the same leadership needed to bring the world out of the Dark Ages. He sees many similarities between the emotional anxiety that kept the world in the dark and what is keeping our world from making progress toward health. He observed that current conditions are very similar to the culture that Columbus faced during the late 15th Century. At that time, the Greeks had known the earth was round for more than 2,000 years, but leaders were still unwilling to stake their fortunes and very lives on it for fear of persecution and ridicule. It was Columbus who was willing to be called a fool and sail in the face of contrary opinion. Had Columbus (among others) not been willing to demonstrate self-regulated leadership, Friedman was convinced that the Dark Ages would have continued for potentially centuries longer.

Friedman elaborates upon the five characteristics that Columbus and other world explorers possessed that led to an entire new civilisation in the New World. It is these same five factors that must be demonstrated by leaders in any socio-emotional system that needs renaissance.

The five characteristics are:

  1. A capacity to get outside the emotional climate of the day.
    For Friedman, vision is not a cerebral exercise. The ability to see things that don’t exist now generally is an emotional phenomenon. It requires being emotionally free enough to not conform to existing patterns of knowing and relating and breaking free of others’ expectations. It is knowing where you as a leader begin and end and knowing the same with everyone else in your life. This is emotional, not cognitive!
  2. A willingness to be exposed and vulnerable.
    As long as a leader is afraid of criticism or failing in front of others they will never be able to lead others out a state of anxiety. When a leader must take total responsibility for their own response to their environment they are very exposed. There must not be a fear of standing where no one else will stand with them; this is where true leadership begins. So many leaders will lead until they are left exposed and alone, and then they have a failure of nerve.
  3. Persistence in the face of resistance and downright rejection.
    To lead in a new direction (out of the state of anxious culture) requires the kind of drive and motivation that appears to others to be out of balance to the status quo. As Friedman states “…no one has gone from slavery to freedom with the slaveholders cheering them on, nor contributed significantly to the evolution of our species by working a 40-hour week, nor achieved any significant accomplishment by taking refuge in cynicism.” The resistance not only comes from the outside, it often comes from inside the leader as thoughts like “How can you have it right and everyone else be crazy?”
  4. Stamina in the face of sabotage along the way.
    The key here is that there will be saboteurs who seek to undermine the efforts of the leader. Most leaders are aware and prepared for this. However, often this becomes an impediment when those who start out on the same team with the same passion and ownership of the vision as the leader eventually lose their nerve and mutiny. For every 10 leaders that can handle sabotage from enemies, only one will survive the sabotage of a friend or teammate without experiencing a failure of nerve.
  5. Being headstrong and ruthless at least in the eyes of others.
    Each of the explorers in the new world did not allow their relationships get in the way of the vision to which they were consumed. Friedman points out that these leaders did not manipulate or use others, but they were very clear in the priority in vision over relationship. In other words, when forced to choose between maintaining a relationship or completing the vision, each explorer stayed with his or her goals. They didn’t rationalise not accomplishing their goals for the sake of “team-building” or “not leaving anyone behind”.

Friedman gives an example from the life of Columbus, which personifies all five of these qualities. On the way to the Canaries, the Pinta’s rudder broke and the crew struggled to fix it. After waiting several days, Columbus felt that this whole incident was an attempt to sabotage his efforts. He sensed his colleagues’ will waning. He finally signalled that he was going on to the Canaries by himself and would wait for them there. He was prepared to go on alone, yet two days later, the Pinta arrived. Columbus was so focused on his goal that whether or not the ships could make a return trip was an afterthought. The objective was reaching his destination, no matter what.

Servant leadership is never easy and it is never finished. It is like a muscle that requires continual exercise to remain strong. It is a muscle that must be used if we are to achieve our vision in the midst of the anxiety that surrounds us. But if we don’t lead with courage and determination who will? May we keep our nerve as we go forward as servant leaders.