All important business challenges involve complexity and significant uncertainty. While the most difficult ones often tax our capacity, they also offer us the opportunity to engage all of our training and preparedness as leaders. Such challenges may require us to not only contribute, but often to create something new and unanticipated, and each challenge that we overcome is a wonderful opportunity for us to learn. My purpose in this article is to share some of my more difficult experiences, and what they teach me about refining our leadership capabilities and qualities.
I was trained as a scientist and engineer. Science enhanced my inclination to imagine molecules in action; engineering made me a “systems thinker.” I learned to scope a problem, formulate possible solution paths, prioritize and dive in. I was taught to seek the full extent of possibilities and to examine all relevant variables, trying not to leave behind any critical issues that might trap me later.
This broad systems thinking served me well as I entered my PhD thesis work. I was comfortable with the technical complexity, and I welcomed the uncertainty as an opportunity to find pathways others might not have tried and could thus lead to novel discoveries. Anxiety did occasionally creep in as I faced difficult technical hurdles and, in particular, as time pressures (often self generated) bore down on me. But the excitement of scientific discovery kept these concerns in check.
And then I started a company.
The scientific challenges were still there as we tackled ever-more-complex problems, seeking new pathways that would give our company a “raison d’etre.” My colleagues and I handled this quite well, largely because we were fortunate in attracting superb talent. But this was only part of the challenge for me. The scope of the issues I faced increased well beyond my training: finance, legal, personnel, human dynamics… the list went on. We engaged experts in these various domains but, in the end, as a co-founding entrepreneur, I had to “hold it all together.” The analytical thinking that I was so accustomed to did not always adequately address all of the issues I faced, especially those dealing with human dynamics. These unfamiliar challenges created a fertile medium for my anxiety to swell. Most of the time I somehow managed, running more on intuition and momentum than through thoughtful reflection.
It is only recently that I have begun to more fully understand what was going on inside me, to recognize what worked (particularly in times of crisis), and to analyze what I might have done so much better. I’ve shared some of this understanding in two previous posts. (1)(2) Here, I want to offer a summary of what I now recognize as critical leadership capacities, in the hope that those of you who are still “in the trenches” will benefit from considering how you might improve your own leadership efficacy. I’ve distilled these capacities into three essential skills that I believe can make us all better leaders:
- Finding clarity in complexity
- Creating safe spaces
- Acknowledging the leadership covenant
FINDING CLARITY IN COMPLEXITY
In my April 2, 2017 post, I referred to a wonderful quote attributed to Chief Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes: (3)
“I wouldn’t give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the far side of complexity.”
The more I think about this statement, the more I come to appreciate my discernment process and the shortcuts I had taken, over the years, in my decision-making.
I boil it down to the following: In order to make fast decisions (and gain the accompanying sense of being in control of the situation), I had often minimized the time I was willing to spend in the limbo of the unknown. As a result, I would avoid dwelling long enough in this uncomfortable zone, failing to soak up the fullness of the complexity and thereby failing to give new pathways a chance to unfold. Perhaps, responding to pride in my engineering agility which made me capable of processing complex technical questions quickly, I would “skim the surface” of the problem and grab the first solution offered by my intellect. Having found a quick solution would make me feel good and decisive, even when the dimension of the issues far exceeded the scientific or technical hurdles and required much more intuition and heart. Fortunately, I often injected just enough intuition and heart so that the outcome was positive — but not always. And even when it worked, I wonder in retrospect if I achieved the best possible outcome or if I had chosen too quickly. Had I simply been settling for the comfort zone that had much less tension rather than the challenge zone where the issues would have lingered longer in an unresolved state?
Holmes articulated the importance of holding within us the fullness of the issues and problems, in all their glory and gore, whether they are technical, legal, financial or human. This requires withstanding anxiety and coping with discomfort in order to make way for the peace needed to allow all of our talents to come to bear in the quest for clarity.
How to cope with this anxiety?
I have previously described the metaphor of the crucible of anxiety, so well characterized by Bob Quinn. (4) Accepting the need to immerse oneself in complexity, with its potential to generate anxiety, is an important first step in subjugating the tendency to skim the surface. For me another step was required. I needed a mind-shift. The metaphor I successfully adopted was to transform the crucible to a chalice. This mental transmutation was, in effect, my way of creating within myself a safe space. I needed to give myself “permission” to hold all the issues in a benevolent domain where nothing was adversarial and nothing was prejudged. The only thing that mattered was to hold my greater purpose in mind: my role in and responsibility to the entrepreneurial endeavor. In this safe space, I was reminded that my task was one of service rather than a burden of office. In effect, I was converting an arduous task into a sacred mission, one that transcended my presumptions and served a higher calling, namely the mission I had signed up for on behalf of my company, a mission that was congruent with my life’s purpose. This safe space also shielded me from the over-intrusion of my ego.
There is an important additional shift that comes with the transformation of the crucible to the chalice: the change from anxiety to anticipation. Rather than dreading the next steps and fearing the next encounters, there is a wave of anticipation for what will unfold and my role in it. While anxiety does not fully disappear, it is softened by an expectation of change, of resolution, of service. Once our attitude of service takes over, we are well on the way to a positive resolution: We have found a safe and meaningful space.
Many years ago, when we suddenly lost a major partner and had to reduce the company significantly to survive, I was actually creating this safe space within myself without being aware of it. My sense of mission enabled me to survive this horrific episode with my integrity intact, my self esteem still more or less whole in spite of the trauma, and an ability to take actions that were consistent with my values. We reduced the company in a manner that everyone supported, both those who remained and those who moved on. It was a terrible experience that I would not wish on anyone — but it happened, and we had to survive. I created a safe space within myself and, without even being aware of it, I also created a safe space within our company for all to express their feelings and to help discover the solutions we had needed to sustain our mission and our company.
More recently, in dealing with a difficult business reality facing an organization for which I served as a Board Member, I much more consciously transformed a crucible into a chalice. This safe space allowed me to alleviate a state of mind so constraining that I had not been able to think straight. Unshackled from my anxiety, I became a positive contributor, able to help the company and the Board to arrive at a responsible resolution that was necessary, albeit disappointing.
CREATING SAFE SPACES
The same mindset that creates a safe space for coping with complexity and managing anxiety within oneself can also enrich the environment for our teams.
My friend and mentor Andre Delbeck often reminded me that the complex strategic decisions we face in business typically have 18 to 30 distinct variables, yet the human mind is capable of handling, at best, only 5 to 6 variables at any one time. This emphasizes that we should not go it alone when attempting to resolve complex situations. While I knew this, my impatience, my ego and my control syndrome often tended to push me to do it all myself, rationalizing that it would be faster, more expedient and more likely to be done “as I envisioned it.” Especially in the pressured rush of the moment, it’s wise to recall Andre’s admonition, lest we forget our human limitations and weaknesses.
Therefore, it’s just as vital to carve out safe spaces for our teams, as it is to create them within ourselves. This ensures that we allow others to contribute their best. A safe space minimizes ulterior motives, discourages criticism of out-of-the-norm ideas and supports brainstorming, free from repercussions either in performance appraisal or job security. The energy should all be directed to solving the problem, not to preserving our self-esteem or our status. Bob Quinn aptly describes this as a place where “the ego’s driven need to be right is replaced by the shared need to learn.” Again, this moves us from anxiety to anticipation.
I often call this safe space a “sacred space.” I don’t intend any religious connotation here. But a safe space embraced by all participants, which is free of ego-driven contamination and does not enable the petty, self-serving motivations of any participants, is sacred in that it honors a shared higher purpose.
Once created and embraced by the team, sustaining the safe space becomes the leader’s task: a responsibility that’s part of the leadership covenant I address below. This can often be challenging, and I have recently found it particularly daunting in several Board situations. At times, I have deeply felt the fraying of the safe space, yet I either did nothing about it or my efforts were weak. This has occurred primarily when the CEO or Chair has held too tight a grip on the Board. By the time the repercussions were felt, it was too late to do anything about it.
The one key factor most frayed in these situations is trust: trust in the leadership and trust in one another. Trust is a critical factor in all interactions. As leaders, we can provide a sort of “trust glue” that holds together the safe space needed to foster productive interactions.
So how do we gain trust?
My friend Steve King, who heads up the University of Wisconsin Business School Executive Program, pointed out to me that trust has two aspects: professional and personal. Professional trust embodies competence in our field and the rigor of our thinking. Personal trust is much more intangible and intimate, perhaps best described as a “warmth,” a sense of simpatico, a connectivity, an openness, a feeling of accessibility. Trust, both professional and personal, grows with time and familiarity: Professional trust grows with our track record; personal trust with our behavior. And both are needed for us to be effective leaders.
Personal trust is more difficult to attain, requiring that a connection be forged between individuals, a linkage that becomes stronger with time and the intensity of mutual experiences. A significant advantage is a trustworthy personality, characterized by a demeanor that invites a sense of ease. If we are comfortable with ourselves and at peace, we will stimulate trust. By contrast, if we tend to be suspicious by nature or overly protective of our personal space, it will be more difficult to generate the trust of those we need the most.
Each of us emanates a certain level of trustworthiness that comes from deep inside and manifests itself even in our facial expressions during interactions. The best advice I can offer, in this regard, is to attempt to be aware of our trustworthiness-emanations and to continue to sharpen that awareness as we pursue our own personal development.
In the end, fostering productive interactions comes down to connections between individuals, hence the need to establish close one-on-one relationships. I have often described these relationships as an exchange of “trust packets,” (5) and each such exchange establishes a “covenant.” This brings me to the last of the essential leadership qualities: the leadership covenant.
ACKNOWLEDGING THE LEADERSHIP COVENANT
When faced with complexity, we gain clarity either by ourselves or, more likely, through deliberations with our team — ideally in a “safe space.” This is the process of discernment. But wading through the quagmire of complexity to glean a clear solution is only part of the process. It reveals an opportunity, but we need to act on it: Discernment has shown us the path; decision steps us into action.
How do we know when to act? We need to feel that the moment is right. And once we do act, it places on us a heavy responsibility. It is what I call the “leadership covenant” and includes two obligations:
- The obligation to confirm a common understanding of the action path, and
- The obligation to shepherd the process to its conclusion.
The first ensures that there is congruence in everyone’s understanding of the chosen direction and approach. This requires a clear, concise and compelling articulation of the discernment, as well as confirmation that it appropriately resonates with everyone. This allows us to resolve any misunderstandings and improves the chance for a positive outcome. It also makes our job as leaders easier as we navigate the course out of complexity toward resolution, and it permits us to loop back for further help as we face the new challenges that inevitably arise. It ensures that every one of the participants in the process is fully vested in a positive outcome, rather than satisfying any selfish or petty elements that can slow the momentum toward a win for all.
The second is inherent in the trust placed in us by our team. As leaders, we essentially hold, in our hands, the team’s belief in our mission, and we make the commitment to take it the distance. This is part and parcel of the exchange of trust packets. This exchange builds, over time, rather imperceptibly, and pays enormous dividends when it counts. As I look back at the most difficult times in my entrepreneurial career, I am convinced that these trust packets were the only factor that enabled us to survive. I described a clear example of this earlier: When we had to drastically reduce the size of the company upon the abrupt termination of a key partnership, trust was surely what kept us going.
The obligations inherent in the leadership covenant are weighty, which is the reason I use the word covenant. My meaning is best described by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his acceptance speech for the American Enterprise Institute’s Irving Kristol Award. (6) He compares and contrasts the meanings of contract and covenant.
“In a contract, two or more people come together to make an exchange. And so you have the commercial contract that creates the market and the social contract that creates the state.
A covenant isn’t like that. It’s more like a marriage than an exchange. In a covenant, two or more parties each respecting the dignity and integrity of the other come together in a bond of loyalty and trust to do together what neither can do alone. A covenant isn’t about me. It’s about us. A covenant isn’t about interests. It’s about identity. A covenant isn’t about me, the voter, or me, the consumer, but about all of us together. Or in that lovely key phrase of American politics, it’s about “we, the people.”
The market is about the creation and distribution of wealth. The state is about the creation and distribution of power. But a covenant is about neither wealth nor power, but about the bonds of belonging and of collective responsibility. And to put it as simply as I can, the social contract creates a state but the social covenant creates a society. That is the difference. They’re different things. Now, what is more, every covenant comes with a story.”
I find Rabbi Sacks’ last point most interesting: every covenant comes with a story. As leaders, the story we live is the shared purpose of our organization. It provides the “bonds of belonging and of shared responsibility,” and is the story that continually recreates the raison d’etre for us to be together in the first place, justifying all the sacrifices we make to achieve our common goal.
- List the times in your life when anxiety has threatened to paralyze you.
- Examine how you overcame these crises, be they personal or professional. What do you learn from what worked for you?
- Have you experienced the liberating power of safe spaces in your personal life? List the times it has served you. What would it take to create such spaces in your professional life? Could you build it into all levels of leadership in your organization?
- Think about the times when you have entered into a personal covenant obligation in the sense we are using it here, perhaps even in a religious context. Could you see it applied to your relationships with your colleagues? Examine how it would influence your mutual trust.
(2) From Crucible to Chalice Part 2 https://ricardolevy.com/2017/07/27/from-crucible-to-chalice-part-2-unlocking-our-leadership-capacity-all-we-need-to-do-is-clear-the-path/
(3) As quoted by Professor James O’Toole in his book The Executive’s Compass, Business and the Good Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 5.
(5) Ricardo Levy, Letters to a Young Entrepreneur: Succeeding in Business Without losing at Life (San Francisco: Catalytic Publishers, 2015), 66