Dealing With Uncertainty: From the Crucible of Anxiety to the Chalice of Change — LESSONS IN LEADERSHIP

Dear Reader:

Last year I published two posts dealing with uncertainty. I have continued to reflect on the events that prompted the posts. I want to share with you some further insights into the challenge of handling complexity at times of crisis, and in particular what they tell me about leadership. My contemplation helped me uncover additional aspects about the leadership capacity within us, and stimulated a continuing search for what makes good leadership and how to develop it. It also made me realize how little I know, and how much help I need to better understand this topic. It has led me to recast my previous posts and focus on the question of teaching ourselves – and others – to be better leaders.

I will be using this article as the basis for a workshop I am leading on May 19, 2017 at the International Association of Management, Spirituality and Religion Conference at the University of Arkansas. The essence of my theme at that workshop is how to discover and unlock the leadership capacity inside all of us.

I very much seek and welcome any ideas, critique, suggestions and insights that you may have on this important topic.

First, a reminder: What makes us entrepreneurs is our consuming drive to bring new products to market to fulfill perceived needs. What makes us entrepreneurial leaders is our capacity to embrace the unknown and guide our organizations in times of difficulty and uncertainty. To be in the midst of this action, either as a driver or contributor, has been my joy for many years, and this joy continues as I serve on Boards and teach. The most difficult element then and now, as I dwell in uncertainty, is to find the right time and best way to act, so as to help shift uncertain situations toward greater clarity and positive resolution. I have come to recognize that nothing helps sharpen one’s capacity as much as living through a difficult experience.

A Situation that Challenged Me — Both Professionally and Personally

One of the companies for which I served as a Board member had reached an impasse. We were making substantial progress in a breakthrough healthcare technology, and were the first to engage in clinical trials. Some of our most recent results were awe inspiring. Yet we were frustrated by the financial market forces making it difficult to continue to finance development of the much-needed medical breakthroughs we were targeting. At the Board’s request, the CEO was asked to consider alternatives. The options were disconcerting: narrowing the research focus; reducing expenses, with consequent layoffs; realigning the ranks of executives to better correspond to a down-sized operation; mounting one more aggressive effort to attract financial resources in a very hostile fund-raising environment. The CEO’s recommendation was to double-down on the most advanced project and discontinue all others, which would significantly reduce the company’s expenses. The focus was to be driven by the COO, who had helped develop the options and was running the R&D.

This recommendation was not unexpected, and is certainly not unusual in entrepreneurial ventures as they pioneer new technology. I had faced these same choices in the companies I had founded and grown. So I thought that with my long experience as an entrepreneur, I was well equipped to handle these complex issues as a Board member. As it turns out, I did have the right intuition about what to do, but in retrospect, I failed in several aspects of the execution. And this is where my learning begins.

The selected scenario required a realignment of the executive ranks to better correspond to a down-sized operation. The CEO counseled a measured approach, moving toward an eventual transfer of power to the COO, while making one more effort to raise money. However, given the dire cash position of the company, the Board felt that action needed to be taken immediately. This created a harsh reality: There was no room for a CEO and a COO in a drastically slimmed-down organization.

Both executives were very talented; they had complementary strengths; and were both highly respected in the industry. In the course of the deliberations, I saw a clear – and to me obvious – path to reconcile the CEO’s desire for a slow transition and the Board’s sense that immediate drastic action was needed: Ask the CEO to become Chair of the Board and promote the COO to the top executive position. Not rocket science. But the sense of urgency in the moment and the severity of the timeline did not give much breathing room for the “of course” considerations that so often come only in retrospect. To me, “my” solution had all the correct ingredients: It would signal a smooth transition to the outside world; it would allow for a harmonious transfer of power and realignment while implementing the difficult step of reducing and focusing the organization; and it would preserve the dignity of the CEO, recognizing his many years of service to the company. There was, however, one more factor, which on the one hand, compounded my personal thought process, and on the other, opened up potential pathways to help resolve the crisis. The CEO had become a personal and very close friend of mine, and he trusted me. Unraveling and appreciating this additional personal pressure on me was to come later. At the time, I simply “knew” what had to be done.

The Board decided to implement the immediate change. They agreed to my suggested approach. Because of my close personal relationship with the CEO, I volunteered to join the Board Chair in conveying the decision to the CEO. I just could not do otherwise, unpleasant as the news would be. I was feeling the emotions that everyone was experiencing and, in particular, anticipating the emotional roller-coaster the CEO would soon be going through. I was not about to leave this tough job to someone else.

The subsequent series of one-to-one meetings with the CEO and the COO – who had to agree to take over immediately from the person who had hired him in the first place – are hard to describe or even for me to revisit. I would not wish this experience on anyone. And here is the hardest part of the story (as if the rest was not hard enough): To my disappointment, in the end the Board did not elect the CEO to be Chair, and he left the company in spite of my recommendation to put in place the smooth executive transition that I had envisioned. I had failed, and this weighed heavily on me.

In retrospect, I was obviously not fully aware of the enormity of the inner forces that were acting on me as I participated in these intense deliberations. I could intimately feel the disappointment of the scientists and physicians who had tirelessly dedicated a significant portion of their lives and careers to driving this important, next-generation technology forward. I could intimately feel the struggle of my friend, the CEO who had staked his life on pursuing the goals of this company in which he deeply believed and to which he had dedicated over fifteen years of his life. (I knew privately that he had refused several opportunities to lead other companies with an easier technological path because of his loyalty to this dream.) I also sensed the forces acting on the other Board members as they wrestled to make the best decision possible under very unpleasant circumstances and a tightening timeline.

To make matters even worse, shortly after we took these streamlining and tightening actions and the CEO had left, we received reports from our clinical trials that while the impact of our treatment was still significant, the level of progress of our study patients had slowed — something we could not immediately explain and had never before observed. We could see ways to determine the cause and implement adjustments, but in our current financial circumstances this was impossible. On top of the trauma of the staff reductions inherent in narrowing the operation’s focus and of the change in leadership, our team was now faced with clinical results that would significantly extend the timeline to commercial implementation and render the company’s survival much more perilous.

A Message of Significance

These events led to many sleepless nights for me. Now that the CEO had left, the questions that continued to haunt me were: Had I done everything I could? What was going on inside me, as I struggled with these forces? How was I handling the unraveling of a company I had supported for so many years? How was I coping with the deep disappointment of a very good friend and a threat to a friendship I cherished?

As I was wrestling with these challenges, my friend Bob Quinn, Professor at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business, posted a brief article in his blog entitled “An Elusive Leadership Skill.” [1] It prompted, in me, a cascade of ideas and reflections about leadership, all centered on the issue of coping with uncertainty in situations as complex as the one I was facing. I found two phrases in Bob’s post particularly thought-provoking:

  • Leaders “pursue their purpose by stepping into the crucible of anxiety,” and
  • Leaders “communicate the simplicity from the other side of complexity.”

The first phrase introduces the very descriptive and appropriate metaphor of a crucible: a container that can withstand severe conditions, usually high temperatures, which is often employed to conduct chemical reactions under harsh conditions. As I consider some of the most difficult leadership situations I have dealt with, many of which have involved personnel issues, I can picture stepping into such a crucible and standing there with a great “churn” in the pit of my stomach – and the sensation of being overwhelmed and even torn apart by the process.

The second phrase is derived from the wisdom of the early 20th century jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes who, in essence, said that he cares little about the simplicity on this side of complexity, but gives much value to the simplicity found on the other side of complexity. He is actually reported to have said it even more dramatically: “I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity; I would give my right arm for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.”

Bob’s post could not have come at a more appropriate time, as it so aptly characterized my state of mind at that moment. I knew I had to remain immersed in the crucible. If I were to act without my full emotional engagement and instead simply ponder the elements of the situation dispassionately, I would be making decisions from the simplicity on this side of complexity — comfortable but irresponsible. I could also, at that point, have just resigned from the Board and left the issue behind — in effect, finding the simplicity for me, without much further regard for the complexity with which the company was dealing.

This put into focus a harsh reality of life: If we are to be players in an important mission, we have to endure the churn of the crucible and hope a new understanding crystalizes – or not step into it at all. There is no halfway measure: Full exposure is needed to appreciate the totality of a problem and do justice to our commitments with integrity and honor.

Full immersion is, of course, the lot of the CEO. It comes with the office. As members of the Board, our immersion should be no less intense, but we are granted a different vantage point and perspective, whence comes the value of our role. But just like a CEO, we need to be willing to absorb the anxiety of immersion and thus be open to learning in real time. And, perhaps most importantly, we must be able to overcome two elements that may easily mislead us: our egos and our prejudices. In the heat of the chemical reaction, we may not even notice these reactive agents.

In this situation, my ego pestered me to find a solution in short order, consistent with my image of being a seasoned executive. Meanwhile, my “better nature” struggled to find a path that would allow us to resolve the situation without damaging the dignity of the key players, in particular the CEO. As I pondered these issues, and at moments felt the natural urge to “escape the situation,” something became clear through the insights of Bob Quinn’s post: While we are compelled to dwell in the cauldron of uncertainty, our equally important task is to find a way to get to the other side of the combustion so that we can discern the essence of the quandary and gain clarity. We need to find the simplicity on the other side of the complexity. Yet it also became clear to me that while I needed to step out of the furnace, I had to do it without detachment. I still owned the situation! I had to maintain my link to the complexity but not be overwhelmed by it. I was not just an observer; I continued to be a protagonist. The admonitions that some were giving me to “be objective” or “be professional” totally missed the point.

No. I was not going to quit the Board. The only viable alternative for me was to fully continue in the complexity: to continue to be totally immersed in the subsequent deluge of facts and unknowns, of pressures and opinions, of perceptions and vested interests, and of major disappointments.

Converting the Crucible

When, in the heat of the Board deliberations, I suggested elevating the CEO to Chair I took a chance. I had not talked to the sitting Chair who had led the Board well for a long time. The Board was about to commit to a decision, there was no time for procrastinate. The much simpler and expedient approach was actively being considered: Ask the current CEO to leave immediately, elevate the COO, redirect the company. This just did not sit well with me. Yet, I was just another Board member. I was not the founder, not the Chair, just a part of the group. I could have let the direction of the discussion continue and “go with the flow.” But I could not. I deeply felt the “rightness” of my approach, and had a deep, irresistible urge to express it. I was in what Bob Quinn calls “the state of authentic engagement.”[2] I spoke. It resonated. And I became the purveyor of the difficult news.

As I walked out of the Board room to fulfill my task one of the Board members, who is not known to be very “touchy feely,” turned to me and said: “Ric, I love you.” It was the leadership moment. It transcended me, it responded to the spoken and unspoken needs of everyone. I was just a conduit.

I followed through with the intense meetings with the CEO and the COO, but yet my head and heart were not totally clear. I was deeply immersed in the cauldron and feeling the constant heat of the reaction. I had trouble sleeping. At times, I was unable to think clearly. I was suffering. And it was compounded by the fact that the CEO then left and we were facing the disappointing clinical results. Something needed to change within me, if I was to continue to be a positive contributor.

The change occurred one morning, several weeks later and deeply influenced by my reflections regarding the crucible of anxiety: In my daily meditation, I suddenly moved the crucible from the interior of my gut to just in front of me. While this sounds illusory, it was very real to me. In a moment of incredible clarity, I was able to “see” all the elements churning in the crucible of anxiety in sharp focus, and actual shift them out of my tense interior.

My early morning meditation ritual is a very spiritual time. Everyday, I take twenty minutes of very private time to sit still, quiet my mind, and attempt to move beyond the noises and pressures that crowd my thinking and my psyche (including those that are conspiring to tighten my gut.) Once in a while, this practice allows me to reach a state of deep peace, which carries with it an empathy and caring for everything and everyone, near and far. That is just what I needed, in the current state of affairs, and suddenly, instead of a crucible, I found myself holding a different sort of receptacle in my arms, which contained all the churning elements. But it was now in front of me where I could see it, rather than ominously lurking inside me. Importantly, this vessel felt amicable, not antagonistic. I felt love (yes, love) pouring into it, and a strange new ability to attend to each part of the mix – people and situations – in a warm and caring way. This experience startled me: I had converted the crucible of anxiety into a chalice of change.

The moment was unbelievably liberating. My ego dissolved and I became focused only on the highest good. My purpose as a member of the Board clarified and became not just another job, but a sacred task. My fear turned into confidence, and the chalice enabled me to finally employ all of my leadership tools more effectively: my analytical capabilities, my sense of purpose and passion, my moral compass and my spiritual anchors. This would not have occurred had I not been practicing my daily mediation.

I use the word “chalice” advisedly. The crucible burns with intolerant heat, while the chalice refreshes and rejuvenates, bringing transformation when we drink from it. To me, the chalice connotes a vessel that purifies, transmuting the elements and giving us an ability to see the process with greater clarity.

The moment I embraced the chalice I was transformed. I had a much firmer view of the dynamic whole, and sensed the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Most importantly, I found the strength to be fully present while confronting the conflicts with gentleness. I recognized the best in each actor, and I felt that no matter what I had to do, I could perform my duties with respect for each party. And part of that feeling of compassion was toward myself.

This came as the Board made the wrenching decision to liquidate the company. Several of the other Board members chose to leave. I chose to continue. The chalice transformation made it clear to me that I had to see the situation through to the finish, regardless how painful it was to disassemble a company with which I had been associated for a dozen years. My goal, together with two other Board members, was to implement the wind-down in a manner that safeguarded the dignity of the employees who had worked so tirelessly in the pursuit of our dream of a medical breakthrough and, equally important, to find a home for the technology that would ensure the continued pursuit of the possibilities of a treatment that might save the lives of our children and grandchildren. I also dedicated myself to rebuilding my friendship with the CEO, which had been deeply frayed by the events that had unfolded. I could not have done this had I not converted the crucible into a chalice.

A Crucial Conversion Ingredient

I believe that this flow through complexity to simplicity has deep spiritual significance. It is therefore not surprising that the insight of the conversion from crucible to chalice came to me during meditation. It also indicates that there is a much deeper aspect of this that could have implications for our leadership – and life – journeys: our ability to hold opposites without feeling threatened.

A special passage from Father Richard Rohr’s book Eager to Love keeps coming back to me in this context[3]:

Paradox held and overcome is the beginning of training in non-dual thinking or contemplation, as opposed to paradox denied, which forces us to choose only one part of any mysterious truth. Such a choice will be false because we usually choose the one that serves our small purposes.”

This suggests that avoiding our “smaller purposes” becomes crucial when we need to transform the crucible to a chalice. This is also true when we face many of our leadership challenges. In my classes and in my book, I speak of the necessity for leaders to continuously move from the specific to the general, from the narrow to the broad. As leaders, we absorb the broad uncertainty of our venture so that others on the team can focus on more specific aspects of the mission, which they are often much more qualified to tackle. I liken this to our breath: When we breathe in, we expand our horizon, taking in the 360-degree vista. We are alert to opportunities and threats without blocking them with our prejudices and small purposes. Yet we cannot just breathe in; to survive we must also breathe out. When we do, we transmit energy, passion, direction and focus. It is a continuous flow. In the breathing-in phase, we must hold opposites. We need to be able to encompass paradox. We need the capacity to fully entertain conflicting positions. And we need to fully understand contrasting positions from those who advise us.

The Leadership Voice

To sense the “simplicity on the other side of complexity” is not enough. Our task is to permit our leadership capacity to manifest. We must therefore unshackle it. The transformation from crucible to chalice is a step in this “coming out” effort. I propose that true leadership springs from an inner well that sustains an inner flame. It is a delicate flame, protected by a lifetime of defense mechanisms that develop as we cope with our personal experience of living. To allow an opening in this armor without damaging the inner layers is subtle and delicate, yet that is the required effort.

The place that I am talking about is difficult to describe. A wonderful passage from Thomas Merton perhaps does so best[4].

“Again, that expression, le point vierge, comes in here. At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it, we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that makes all darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely. I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is everywhere.”

And, of course, the beauty in this is that as our leadership voice springs from a point of light linked to all lights, it speaks directly to the light in other individuals. They feel it. They do not have to go through the intellect to sense it fully: It is expressed from that deeper place. It prompts even the hardest of us to say, “I love you.”

An Opportunity for Reflection and Deep Learning

Bob Quinn, in his book Deep Change: Discovering the Leader Within,[5] looks at leadership not as behaviors and techniques, but as a “state of being.” As a guide and teacher, I echo Bob’s thoughts. The capacity for leadership is in all of us. As Bob’s book title suggests, we just have to discover it.

The challenge for us as teachers is to figure out how we can help others (and ourselves) with this discovery; what we can do to “free” ourselves to capture that capacity; what state of mind allows us to manifest it in the right moment. How do we train for it? How do we coach it?

Two words in Father Rohr’s quote are noteworthy, as he refers to paradox: “held” and “denied.” What are we constantly denying as we face situations? What makes us deny? Does therein lie the secret ingredient — the catalyst for a crucible to chalice transformation? How do we train to hold paradox?

Here are some recommended steps for making the most of the opportunity when we come face-to-face with uncertainty:

  • Recognize the complexity.
  • Know that our job as leader is to fully enter the crucible of anxiety.
  • Acknowledge that it will be uncomfortable.
  • Commit to remain in the crucible as long as you need to, resisting the temptations of “easy” solutions.
  • Allow the transformation of the crucible into a chalice (by the deep reflection and contemplation that allows a mindset change and converts the problem into a sacred task rather than a burden) thereby gaining the peace that enables the discernment needed to help you arrive at the eventual decision or action.
  • Then, step to the other side of complexity with the simplicity offered by clarity.
  • Act only when you have reached the simplicity on the other side of the complexity.
  • Enact your decision with conviction, confidence and respect. Capture the leadership moment. Speak from your “center.”

Consider the times when you have felt the crucible emerge. Were you able to transform it into a chalice, even if you may not have characterized it as such at the time? What did you learn from this? Examine how you might improve such situations and how, in the future, this might help you in better leading your organizations or teams.

And perhaps even more broadly: Might the crucible-to-chalice model help you in resolving your own personal affairs?



[2] Bob Quinn Post June 24, 2016

[3] Richard Rohr, Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi ( Cincinnati, OH: Franciscan Media, 2014)

[4] From Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, quoted in Lawrence S Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, Essential Writings (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press 1992) p 146

[5] Robert E Quinn Deep Change: Discover the Leader Within (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass 1996