I walked down to my favourite beach on a beautiful sunny winter day a few months ago when I ran across a woman I’d sometimes see at the beach. I guessed she was in her late fifties or early sixties, with long blonde hair and always tanned. I asked her what she was reading and she told me, “A Failure of Nerve. It’s about leadership.” I filed the title away in my head and last week got my hands on a copy.
The author, the late Edwin Friedman, is a master at discussing how we live in emotional systems and what leadership that moves society forward actually looks like, whether you are a parent, teacher, business owner, manager, or politician. And what that leadership looks like may not be what you think it is. It’s a truly compelling read.
Here Friedman talks about our propensity to grab onto other issues, such as safety, kind of like a dog with a bone, rather than putting the time in to take responsibility for our own condition and to develop self, strength and personal integrity:
Today the issues most vulnerable to becoming displacements [things we choose to focus blame onto] are, first of all, anything related to safety: product safety, traffic safety, bicycle safety, motorboat safety, jet-ski safety, workplace safety, nutritional safety, nuclear power station safety, toxic waste safety, and so on and so on. This focus on safety has become so omnipresent in our chronically anxious civilization that there is real danger we will come to believe that safety is the most important value in life. It is certainly important as a modifier of other initiatives, but if a society is to evolve, or if leaders are to arise, then safety can never be allowed to become more important than adventure. We are on our way to becoming a nation of “skimmers,” living off the risks of previous generations and constantly taking from the top without adding significantly to its essence. Everything we enjoy as part of our advanced civilization, including the discovery, exploration, and development of our country, came about because previous generations made adventure more important than safety.
What values are we imparting to our children about life and leadership when we invoke these endless admonishes to play safely and when we curb their natural risk-taking?