A Failure of Nerve

A Failure of Nerve

This is my first blog of 2018. I haven’t had a lot to say lately. Things changed all at once, and some would say this is more of a rant than a blog. I’ll leave it to the readers to decide.

  • It’s about five minutes after the start of Sunday mass at my parish. Just before the first scripture reading, the priest says, “Please move to the center of the pew to make room for the people standing in the back of the church.” If he were feeling less charitable and more truthful, he might have said, “Will those of you who arrived on time please move to the center of the pew, so we can reward those who came late by giving them your seats?” Do you think the people who were late last Sunday are likely to be on time next Sunday? Why do we tolerate and sometimes, reward the bad behavior of people who don’t respect our group norms?
  • A well-known organization in my hometown just tightened up its work-from-home policy. Rather than have the courage to confront the few who were abusing the policy, the organization’s leadership flinched, making blanket changes that punished everyone for the sins of a few. Ironically, it appears the worst abusers were senior managers. What are the odds the person who set the new, tougher policy has a direct report who is an abuser? And what are the odds that the rule maker hasn’t confronted that abuser?
  • Starbucks is in the news with its new “you don’t have to buy anything to use our bathroom and hang out here” policy. In an effort to be nice, Starbucks leadership put their store managers and crew members in a tough position and in the process, made their stores less welcoming to paying customers (where do customers sit if free loading, non-paying guests occupy the seats?). They followed up by closing all stores on May 29 to do diversity training with all their team members (employees). Now, the leadership is committed to creating a new narrative for the company. How successful will they be? That will be determined by what Starbuck’s team members say and do, and what’s in their hearts. It will take a long term, dedicated effort to change the culture of the company. Will they have the nerve to stay the course? Will they flinch? If they do, May 29 will look like a PR stunt, a band aid to hide a scar.

What do these three cases have in common? They are all examples of what the late Edwin Friedman called “a failure of nerve.”

Here’s a pithy quote from Rabbi Friedman on this topic:

You will find that “the person at the very top of the 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 has been filleted of her backbone, someone who treats conflict or anxiety like mustard gas — one whiff, and on goes the emotional gas mask, and he flits. Such leaders are often ‘nice,’ if not charming.”

These are blunt words and I think Friedman nailed it. Leadership isn’t a popularity contest; you don’t get results by avoiding conflict. Friedman challenged each of us to be a non-anxious presence in an anxious world. It’s not easy but it’s essential.