Chronic Anxiety and the Death of Leadership

Probably the most important book I have read in the last 20 years is Edwin Friedman’s, A Failure of Nerve. It is not just the originality of his ideas, it is their prophetic significance. Published posthumously by his family after his death in 1996, the book only seems to get truer every day. One of his ideas is that as a society we are devolving into a people ruled by our anxiety. This bears itself out in what has to be considered a mental health crisis in this generation. But it is not just millennials that are anxious, we all are. This chronic anxiety leads to an emotional regression and what Friedman calls “a bias against strength in favor of the immature” and ultimately leaders who will not lead because they are “peace mongers” who lack nerve. He actually wants to call our modern use of empathy as the primary tool the weak use to sabotage the strong. This is controversial stuff, but I think it is fundamentally true.

In a radically new context for human beings, we have instant and widespread feedback on our most insignificant ideas. We are in a constant state of testing as we interact with the world. If our primary social interactions are through media, which is disembodied and quasi anonymous, we welcome an unprecedented volume of critique to even our smallest decisions and notions. This only compounds the anxiety. Add to that the new social injunction against silence (if you say nothing on a topic important to someone else, you are also guilty of a social error) there is now no way out. Aside from abstaining from that social space entirely (which is becoming an increasingly attractive option for people) we are left to deal with either the weakening of our own point of view or consuming a constant stream of criticism. The end result, in Friedman’s words is a “failure of nerve”. It is getting harder and harder to find the strength to say anything with conviction, particularly something that we know will challenge our friend’s way of thinking.

On the other hand, you have the rise of the American demagogue. People who seem to never change their mind and who also seem to never be vulnerable, mistaken or confused. These false leaders carry very little wisdom, very little kindness and seem to make up for those deficiencies with audacity and bravado. While most of us are wringing our hands with anxiety, afraid to lead, we are seeing these egomaniacs fill that space with their pseudo fearlessness. It is not that the news is fake, it is that the news has become market driven. It is what some market is longing to hear. Truth has completely been sacrificed in favor of our collective addiction to confirmation bias. On both sides (of whatever side you are thinking of) that is true. These voices and their unbridled bias is both attractive and cathartic to the American psyche precisely because we are afraid to talk like that. In turn, we are devolving into a totally binary society. Everything is adversarial, everything is two sided, and everything is us vs. them. It is a war. What we need most is not caricatured leaders who represent all our repressed ideas, or peace mongers who have no ideas at all, rather the rise of peacemakers who have the nerve to say both positions have value.

The real unicorn in our time is the person who is able to see value in opposing ideas and lead with the nerve necessary to hold off the criticism that will invariable come from both sides. But understand, this person who tries to walk in a third way is in danger of not only losing friends on both sides of the issue, but having no friends at all. But this is, after all, the essence of leadership. To be the first to do something.

My prayers of late, for our leaders has been that they would lead anxiety free lives, not so that they would be numb or carefree, but so that they could really lead. I am praying that we would simply not need to please everyone, but that we would seek both truth and integrity as its own reward. And, although we may suffer while holding that position for a while, we will in the end do what is most needed, lead.

The world is dying for strong voices who will not back down from a position of honor, hope, and respect for other people and their ideas. It is dying for people who can understand and even appreciate the contrary theory to their own point of view, while still holding firmly to their convictions.

This is, in point of fact, the life and task of the missionary. At least the good ones. They are asked to enter into a culture with honor, respect and love. They are expected to see the good and grace in what is essentially a system they disagree with, and offer, through friendship and honor, good news. Still, this cannot happen if they also come with no honor and no openness to both learn and even be changed by the experience of living and working in that new culture. Missionaries will fail at their core task if they do not have the nerve to challenge the existing system AND the heart to love and respect it at the same time. It is one of the many paradoxes of good leadership. GK Chesterton said, “We must hate the world enough to change it, and yet love the world enough to think it worth changing.” These days, it takes real strength to do both.