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Data Addicts: Have You Learned This Essential Leadership Lesson?

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Sooner or later, what started as an entrepreneurial dream is going to become about leadership.

It usually happens pretty quickly.

The problem is that most of us aren’t any good at leadership.

Some of us know we’d rather not lead anyone.

Some of us think we’re great leaders, but in reality we’re just opinionated and loud.

Growing as a leader is going to help you no matter where your dreams go.

Enter, Dr. Friedman

Edwin Howard Friedman (May 17, 1932 — October 31, 1996) was an ordained Jewish Rabbi, family therapist, and leadership consultant [1].

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I bet you didn’t know that the lesson you needed to learn about leadership would come from a family therapist, eh?

At the time of his death, Friedman had been working on a book.

Of course ideas of such importance would almost not make it into our world.

Published after his death, A Failure of Nerve, is a book about leadership.

Dr. Friedman turns common wisdom about leadership on its head. He has a way of seeing through the fog and saying what needs to be said.

This is not seen more clearly than when he discusses the topic of data.

He sets the stage on which he’ll teach the lesson:

If you went back in history by a factor of ten to the year 206 or 207, the amount of information that existed in the world then would fit in perhaps a single library or two. Ten times that number of years later, the quantity of data that is available to leaders is not ten times greater but a number so huge as to be unimaginable. […] Now, instead of going back almost two thousand years, suppose you were to project forward almost two thousand years. How much data (I use the word interchangeably with ‘information’) will there be [2]?

Dr. Friedman drives home his point:

What I am driving at is this: As long as leaders […] base their confidence on how much data they have acquired, they are doomed to feeling inadequate, forever. They will never catch up. The situation can only get worse [3].

Why is this such a big deal?

It’s a big deal because, according to Dr. Friedman, the greatest threat to your leadership is anxiety. And anxiety is easily triggered by this deluge of information. Specifically, it’s triggered by our chronically anxious society’s expectation that you must drink all available data in order to be successful.

This, Dr. Friedman warns, is an error of the greatest degree.

The addiction to data will kill your leadership, not improve it.

He explains this with the example of parenting:

[T]here is absolutely no evidence that the most successful parents are those who are most ‘knowledgeable’ of either the ‘proper’ techniques or the latest data on the children who are either most troubled or most happy [4].

A quick search on for “Leadership” books returned 190,663 results…

Is becoming a great leader really as simple as reading books on leadership?

Although many of us would answer no to that question, many of us do feel inadequate and we believe that our present unrealized dreams are due to our lack of knowledge in the face of the constant multiplication of information.

It’s still multiplying even as I write this…

So, if leadership is not about amassing more and more information, then what is it about?

There’s good news. It won’t be easy, but taking this to heart, wrestling with it, and putting it into practice will make you a less anxious, and therefore better, leader.

Leadership is about maintaining a non-anxious presence in an anxious environment.

But how!?

By becoming aware of, and addressing your own emotional processes.

Read that sentence again.

Now read it again.

This doesn’t mean that it’s not helpful to learn more information. It simply means that amassing information does not lead to quality leadership.

As leaders, we are usually our own worst enemies and we’re constantly sabotaging ourselves. If we don’t slow down and regulate our inner emotional states, we will not be effective no matter how many books we read.

So, how do we address the data? We must do the more difficult work of waking up and recognizing.

  1. Recognize where you have an addiction to information that numbs your fears of inadequacy.
  2. “[R]ecognize that not all information is worth gathering” [5]
  3. Recognize which information is important for your leadership

The answer to being a successful leader is to become a non-anxious person.

This is what is missing in organizations and businesses.

Of course, you won’t have all of the information, of course, you can’t read all of the books, of course, you can’t know everything. We keep thinking it’s mostly about what we know or who we know.

That might be true for some things, but leadership is about who you are.

Are you a person that constantly reacts to the stress around you? Do you get sucked into problems and tossed about by anxiety? Or, in moments of anxiety, do you bring a non-anxious presence to the situation.

That’s a leader.

When more information is needed, the leader finds it. When action is needed, the leader ignores the screams and itch for more information and she continues on with action.

The most important things, the game changers, are usually overlooked and not talked about. That’s why I’ve written this for you.

The secret to leadership is internal regulation, not external manipulation.

If you have begun to shift your perspective about what is most important for your leadership, then I’ve done my job here — or rather… Dr. Friedman has done his.

You already know you can buy the book on Amazon, but here’s a (non-affiliate) link if you’d like a shortcut. If it’s not already clear, I recommend the book.



[2] Friedman, Edwin H et al. A Failure Of Nerve. New York, Seabury Books, 2007, 95.

[3] Ibid. 96.

[4] Ibid. 112.

[5] Ibid. 96

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