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:

  1. Finding clarity in complexity
  2. Creating safe spaces
  3. Acknowledging the leadership covenant


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.


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.


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:

  1. The obligation to confirm a common understanding of the action path, and
  2. 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.


(1) From Crucible to Chalice

(2) From Crucible to Chalice Part 2

(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.

(4) Bob Quinn

(5)  Ricardo Levy, Letters to a Young Entrepreneur: Succeeding in Business Without losing at Life (San Francisco: Catalytic Publishers, 2015), 66

(6) 2017 Kristol Award

MUST WE BE MUSK-ESQUE TO SUCCEED IN BREAKOUT ENTERPRISES? An entrepreneur’s reflections on Elon Musk’s creativity, capability and character

On December 2, 2011 I posted an article titled “The Steve Jobs Paradox.” (1) It was prompted by the passing of Jobs, an event that touched me profoundly and motivated me to read Walter Isaacson’s Jobs biography, which appeared shortly after Steve’s death.

I am now moved to write about another legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneur who is still alive and thriving: Elon Musk. I became particularly interested in Musk because my grandson, Brent Schroeter, a junior in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington, was taking a quarter off to intern at SpaceX. Since he first began his studies at UW, Brent had been involved with another Musk initiative, the Hyperloop Project. His decision to apply for an internship at SpaceX obviously signaled that he has been quite enthralled by his Hyperloop work and wanted to explore another Musk initiative more deeply. When I mentioned this to a friend, he suggested I read the 2015 book by Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future. (2)

I draw eight primary inferences common to both the Musk story as told by Vance and the Jobs story as told by Isaacson:

  1. Every entrepreneurial venture needs at least one individual who is absolutely consumed by a vision. That vision needs to be injected into others, who then catch the fire.
  2. The “injected” fire has the potential to completely engulf doubt. I have proposed in the past that one of the most vital roles of the entrepreneurial leader is to absorb uncertainty (3). Engulfing doubt is one path for doing so.
  3. I use the word “engulf” here judiciously; I did not say “consume”. There has to be enough room for different opinions and disagreement. It seems that Musk allows a limited amount of disagreement, but not much. Not clear how much Jobs did. This puts an enormous onus on the intellectual brilliance of the entrepreneur, something most of us do not have. Is this cult-of-personality sustainable? Scalable?
  4. The entrepreneurial leader needs to strike a difficult balance between transparency and the absorption of uncertainty. I am not sure that either Musk or Jobs accomplished this balance. Their transparency seems limited, yet their endeavors succeed. What does that teach us?
  5. I have long espoused that one of the important characteristics of an entrepreneurial leader is empathic capability, a key component of generating trust within the organization. Musk does not seem to have this empathic quality, yet he seems to be succeeding so far. What does this tell us?
  6. Musk and Jobs both have ground-breaking visions. This is coupled with a style that borders on despotic. Is it necessary to have a despotic edge to succeed in a vision as grand as placing a man on Mars?
  7. Musk and Jobs display an incredible capacity to envision the future and are reported to have a remarkable intellect. Are both ingredients necessary in one individual to accomplish extraordinary entrepreneurial achievements? Can this capacity be a shared characteristic among several people? How?
  8. Finally, both Jobs and Musk evidence an incredible eye for consumer-friendly style in their products: the iPhone and the Tesla. What is it in their own single-minded drive and their intellectual brilliance that enables such remarkable products? What can we learn from this?

This is not the first time I have been touched by Musk. I have witnessed and shared the anticipation of several friends who had patiently awaited delivery of the Tesla Model X, and their enthusiasm when they finally received their cars. And I have been awestruck at the successes of SpaceX launches. Watching the launch of Falcon Heavy on February 6th was, for me, one of the highlights of recent times — especially seeing those two booster rockets return to earth, deploy their legs at the last minute, and land effortlessly.

As I read Vance’s book, many thoughts swirled in my head. At times, I was maddened by Musk’s bizarre and impulsive behavior (spinning out and causing major damage to his million-dollar McLaren F1 sports car, for example). At other times, I was floored by his genius. And I often found myself pondering what Musk’s story told me about entrepreneurship and leadership. It has made me re-examine some of the characteristics that I hold dear in the entrepreneur and form the basis for my book and my teaching.

Perhaps what drew me most to Musk was his uniqueness in the Silicon Valley of today. The overwhelming majority of enterprises born and incubated in this valley over the past few decades have been software oriented — a world characterized by dramatic rises and falls, incredible turnover, and astounding advances possible only in a field fostering the testing of new ideas and their implementation at “warp speed.” Along comes an individual who started in that churning virtual environment and decides to embark on a very different entrepreneurial journey which I am much more familiar with: creating and manufacturing tangible products that require extensive science and engineering, must be produced to very strict quality standards, and have product life cycles measured in decades, not months. This is the entrepreneurial world in which I grew up in and made my minor mark, so it speaks to me.

One aspect particularly intrigues me (or better yet “bothers” me) as I think about what I learn from the Jobs and Musk stories. In many of my writings I place great importance in trust as the KEY ingredient for success in entrepreneurship as well as fulfillment in life. I believe when trust is absent or breaks down, it severely threatens all of our endeavors. Clearly, I only have a limited vantage point into the deeper inside stories of either the Jobs or Musk ventures. Yet on the surface I fail to see the trust element – except as it involves the overwhelming and dominating intellect of both Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, and, in the case of Musk, his financial power. I examine the trust question further below.

Here are some of the references and passages in Vance’s book that stood out for me, and some reflections on what they teach me:

  • Musk seems to be able to engulf doubt through two conditions: his total personal financial commitment and his incredible intellectual mastery of all aspects of his ventures. He proves this mastery by stepping in when his employees question the reasonableness of the goals he imposes. As relayed in Vance’s book:

…the absolute worst thing that someone can do is inform Musk that what he’s asking is impossible. An employee could be telling Musk that there’s no way to get the cost on something like that actuator down to where he wants it or that there is simply not enough time to build a part by Musk’s deadline. “Elon will say, ‘Fine. You’re off the project, and I am now the CEO of the project. I will do your job and be CEO of two companies at the same time. I will deliver it,’” Brogan [Kevin Brogan, one of the early engineers at SpaceX] said. “What’s crazy is that Elon actually does it. Every time he’s fired someone and taken their job, he’s delivered on whatever the project was. (4)

  • Most of us mortals cannot match the combination of business acumen and intellectual capability of Musk. So, for those of us in the “normal” range, what does this suggest? A possibility: If overwhelming intellect and financial dominance is necessary to succeed in monumental visions, it becomes even more important for us regular mortals to live and work in a trust environment since we depend so much more on the intellect and character of those we attract to join us in the adventure rather than just our own super-capabilities. The key is to make sure that these strengths exist among our senior executives and that they are harnessed as if they were one actor. For we need a common purpose and shared values, and deep mutual trust.
  • From the Vance book, I get the impression that Musk shows very little regard for the impact of his decisions and actions on his employees. His visionary fire seems so all consuming that it totally inhibits him from extending his sensitivities to the individual. His business goals, whether micro or macro, dominate his thinking and his actions. His employees seem to be merely his means to an end rather than fully vested co-journeyers.  I have always argued that an important characteristic of a good leader is the empathic capability to relate to his/her colleagues. It is not clear from the book whether Musk has that quality. This then raises a key question: To what extent, when we tackle enormously ambitious and groundbreaking dreams, must we have a hardness of execution that does not allow for empathy? Perhaps to invent and implement a new drug manufacturing technology or a pollution free gas turbine (my old worlds) you can be – and may have to be – empathic, but to shoot for Mars you cannot afford such softness.
  • I have also argued that transparency is a key element in building a resilient team and overcoming the hurdles we inevitably face when growing a company. This is another component of the trust equation. Musk seems to concentrate his “transparency” on one edict: If you are with me you do what I ask, even if you think the request is unreasonable; if you do not agree, “here is the door.” Does this allow for enough doubt to explore alternatives, advance knowledge, and prevent major errors? When I sought my grandson’s impression, he commented, “According to those I have talked with who work directly with Elon, the answer is ‘Yes’ — Musk always welcomes dissenting voices if and only if they are backed by rigorous evidence.”
  • I would argue that in the early creative process such rigorous evidence is rarely available, and the exploratory nature of breakthrough science requires openess to the ideas of others even in their formative stage. That is the secret of discovery, as so well expressed by Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the Hungarian biochemist recipient of the 1937 Nobel Prize in Physiologyand Medicine: “Discovery consists of looking at the same thing as everyone else and seeing something different.”
  • I pointed out earlier that Musk’s enterprises are different from the typical Silicon Valley companies’ in that his products take years to develop. Thus, the fast trial-and-error possible with software startups is not realistic. However, it seems that the intense, high-speed culture Musk has imposed on his enterprises does breed a spirit of fast trials and quick abandonment of ideas that do not show promise. The rapid timetable and cost-reduction demands in Musk’s playbook foster quick assessment of possibilities. As Vance writes, “Rarely did Tesla get hung up over analyzing a situation. The company would pick a plan of attack, and when it failed at something, it failed fast and tried a new approach.”(5)  We can all learn from this mindset. I will remember the “it failed fast and tried a new approach” description.
  • There seems to be another consequence of Musk’s intense and single-minded focus on the grand goal: He seems to quickly put past failures in context of the larger aim, rather than dwelling on them. This is actually remarkable in an individual who reportedly reacts so harshly to disagreement and failure. It indicates to me a remarkable, multiplex personality, which, when it counts, is able to acknowledge challenges even if they suggest imperfection in the design or execution. And more importantly, while he seems to be quick to criticize employees who do not toe the Musk line or flow with the Musk expectation, he is able to put setbacks in perspective for his teams and picks them back up when we more ordinary leaders might have been overwhelmed. That is suggested in Vance’s description of the failure of the first SpaceX launch in September 2008:

The failed launch left many SpaceX employees shattered. “It was so profound seeing the energy shift over the room in the course of thirty seconds,” said Dolly Singh, a recruiter at SpaceX. “It was like the worst fucking day ever. You don’t usually see grown-ups weeping, but there they were. We were tired and broken emotionally.” Musk addressed the workers right away and encouraged them to get back to work. “He said, ‘Look. We are going to do this. It’s going to be okay. Don’t freak out,’” Singh recalled. “It was like magic. Everyone chilled out immediately and started to focus on figuring out what just happened and how to fix it. It went from despair to hope and focus.”(6)

  • While Musk is the face of his companies, I get the impression that one key to his survival are a few colleagues who provide the approachable bridge between his hard and often uncaring demeanor and his employees. This seems to be the case at SpaceX, as embodied by Gwynne Shotwell. Recruited as the seventh employee, she is described in the Vance book as the “interpreter” of Musk’s edicts, the softener and smoother of the rough spots, and the reinforcer of the culture that Musk has imprinted. She is now President of SpaceX. To succeed, Gwynne has had to park her own ego at the company door. As Vance puts it: “Shotwell has been a consistent presence at SpaceX almost since day one, pushing the company forward and suppressing her ego to ensure that Musk gets all the attention he desires.”(7)
  • When I talked with my grandson about Shotwell, he commented, “I agree completely. Gwynne’s business and engineering instincts would make her an invaluable asset to any organization, and her emotional poise is so perfectly matched to Elon’s style that when one steps back, it is hard to imagine SpaceX enjoying its success today without her.”

The BIG question: Should we teach our students to be like Musk or Jobs?

My preliminary answer is, “Yes, but… not totally.” There are many elements in the Musk story that offer very important lessons for making us better entrepreneurs and better leaders. A total Musk is going to be rare. Not many of us have the prodigious brilliance of Musk’s mind, his ability to absorb and understand facts in so many fields, and his practically photographic memory. However, I contend that even if we did, Musk-ness needs to be tempered by a greater humanity and, in the end, such a combination would be more effective and powerful for the companies we are building.

Some of the other elements we should emulate are well-summarized at the end of Vance’s book:

Page [Larry Page, the founder of Google and a friend of Musk] holds Musk up as a model he wishes others would emulate — a figure that should be replicated during a time in which the businessmen and politicians have fixated on short-term, inconsequential goals. “I don’t think we’re doing a good job as a society deciding what things are really important to do,” Page said. “I think like we’re just not educating people in this kind of general way. You should have a pretty broad engineering and scientific background. You should have some leadership training and a bit of MBA training or knowledge of how to run things, organize stuff, and raise money. I don’t think most people are doing that, and it’s a big problem. Engineers are usually trained in a very fixed area. When you’re able to think about all of these disciplines together, you kind of think differently and can dream of much crazier things and how they might work. I think that’s really an important thing for the world. That’s how we make progress.”(8)

As I re-read my 2011 Jobs post, I am struck by how many of my points there also apply to the Musk story, as told by Vance. There is much for us to learn from both of these remarkable individuals, and, in Musk’s case, this is a continuing story.



2. Ashlee Vance Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (EPub Edition MAY 2015)

3. Ricardo Levy Letters to a Young Entrepreneur: Succeeding in Business Without losing at Life (San Francisco, Catalytic Publishers, 2015) Chapter 7

4. Vance, Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, EPub Edition page 240 of 392

5. Vance, Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, EPub Edition page 84 of 392

6. Vance, Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, EPub Edition page 57 of 392

(7) Vance, Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, EPub Edition page 146 of 392

(8) Vance, Elon Musk, Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, EPub Edition page 152 of 392

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. It was a sound recommendation that the Board accepted.

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. The Board felt that action needed to be taken immediately, which necessitated a drastically slimmed-down organization from top to bottom. In the course of the deliberations, I saw a clear – and to me obvious – path to reconcile the CEO’s desire for a measured 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. There was, for me, 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 regarding the CEO. Because of my close personal relationship with the CEO, I volunteered to join the Board Chair in conveying the decision. I just could not do otherwise, unpleasant as the news would be that the Board wanted to accelerate something the CEO thought should be done in a more systematic manner. I was feeling the emotions that everyone was experiencing and, in particular, anticipating the CEO’s likely emotional dilemma. 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 and the CEO could not agree on the steps forward, in spite of my recommendation to put in place the smooth executive transition that I had envisioned. The CEO left the company. 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 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 life 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. Many alternatives where considered; none of them sat well with me. I could have let the direction of the discussion continue and “go with the flow.” But 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 forcefully. It resonated with the other Board members. 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.” I do not believe he was talking about me per-se. He was talking about me as the carrier of the sense of the group at that moment. It was the leadership moment. It transcended me, it responded to the spoken and unspoken needs of everyone. I was just a conduit.

Many individual meetings followed. I was engaged, 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 to the company.

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



Over the last several years, while working with my students, I have developed a series of descriptors that profile the entrepreneur. They are based on my experience as a life-long creator of new ventures. Like all “lists,” this is an abbreviated articulation of what is a complex and multi-faceted whole. Yet it serves to highlight some elements of what all entrepreneurs need to consider, as we strive to become better leaders.

My list is split into three domains of the entrepreneurial character: Inner, Outer and Core. I am not attempting to be comprehensive; I mainly want to trigger an active conversation that deepens our understanding of what makes an entrepreneur. Here is the short list:

INNER: -Passionate -Positive -Risk Tolerant -Big Thinker -Visionary
OUTER: -Articulate -Clear -Enthusiastic -Inspiring -Nimble
CORE: -Consistent -Authentic -Persevering -Discerning -Grounded

Clearly, many other characteristics might be added. Here are a few that have been suggested in my class discussions: Salvager (I like this one!), Dreamer, Realist, Courageous, Charismatic, Tough, Resilient, Self-confident, Good Self-esteem, Integrity. I am sure that you can think of others, and I welcome any ideas. My main aim is to take these characteristics and examine what I call the three key habits that an entrepreneur needs to master if he or she is to become a good leader: To Balance, To Breathe and To Trust.


This may seem to be the easiest of the three, but yet is so often forgotten. The main reasons we entrepreneurs tend to neglect balance are:

1. We do not know ourselves well enough to identify our strengths and shortcomings (or if we do, we are unable to admit them, which amounts to the same thing), and

2. We are impatient. Often, for us, it is so much easier to just plow ahead, figuring that by the time we tell others what we want to do and how we want it done, we might as well do it ourselves. Yet the key to growing a venture is to engage others in the journey, and then deploy all constituents in the optimal way to reach our goal. To do this, we need to find balance, starting with ourselves.

Let’s take another look at the list of domains above, and consider where we sit in the optimist-realist scale. When I ask my students, most identify themselves as optimists. While that is fine (since a non-optimistic entrepreneur will find it hard to gain a following), we have to be very careful not to overlook the criticality of realists in our midst. In my book Letters to a Young Entrepreneur, I mention a number of instances in which having hard realists around me balanced my rose-colored glasses and saved our company.

Perhaps of more immediate relevance to all of us is the balance between leading and managing. For most of my entrepreneurial career, I never really tackled that question. I just did what I thought needed to be done, often resulting in micromanagement, and thus often limiting the creativity and contribution of others. Later, as an “entrepreneur emeritus” and teacher, my course preparation led me to a classic Harvard paper on the subject: John P. Kotter, What Leaders Really Do, HBR December 2001. I urge you to read it. It captures, in a wonderful way, a vital topic. I summarize Mr. Kotter’s concepts as follows:

Where a leader points, a manager plans.
Where a leader aligns, a manager organizes.
Where a leader inspires, a manager problem-solves.
Where a leader produces change, a manager produces predictability.

What each of us should examine is our propensity to lead or to manage. There is no value judgment in this question. Both are essential. The key lies in matching our skill with the need: achieving balance!


As we grow in responsibility, whether in our own entrepreneurial ventures or in our roles within larger organizations, we expand the breadth of the topics that fall within our purview. We gain an increasingly broad sense of the task at hand, and we take on an increasing span of responsibility and accountability. In Letters, I introduce the concept that a leader’s main job is to absorb uncertainty (Chapter 3.) Presumably, as leaders by definition we have a more comprehensive view of the venture than do others – or at least we should have. Think of what we do when we drive a car: as we approach a sharp curve, our eye is (or should be) ahead of the curve. This makes for better and smoother steering. Also, as we “see” more of the road, we feel more secure in our steering. In the concept of “absorbing uncertainty,” a leader takes on the larger burden, so that others on the team can focus on more defined parts of the task.

To do the leadership job right, we need to encompass as much of the “scenery” as possible. I equate this with taking a deeper breath, as we spread our arms (and our awareness) to a broader horizon. This also requires us to look to the very edges of our field of vision – for threats and opportunities that may be less obvious.

This is the breathing in part.

However, we also need to breathe out, exhaling our breath in a purposeful manner to help our team gain focus and direction. As we breathe out, we point the way.

And this is the toughest part, at least for me: we need to breathe in and breathe out, continuously. My tendency is to dwell in one mode or the other – spending too much time either scanning the horizon or burrowing toward the completion of a particular project. To keep our venture healthy and alive, as leaders, we must sustain a constant flow between the two: breathing in and breathing out.


Both in breathing in to absorb uncertainty and breathing out to provide focus, a key ingredient is the mutual trust between our venture companions and ourselves. That requires us to be vulnerable, so that people can truly feel the genuineness of our commitment. And it requires that others “surrender” their reservations and have faith. That faith is critical. Without it, what we do is just mechanical and lacks the directional vector — the deeper purpose that is so important in providing energy to move toward our goals, whether we are leading or following. In Letters, I speak of trust packets as the vehicles in the exchange of commitments between leader and team member. I also speak of commitment as a mutual covenant, not policed by an outside document or a quality control officer. It is an internal act, upheld only and solely by our inner character.

This trust factor is the essence of the core within each of us. It raises the very fundamental question: can one learn to trust? Look at the adjectives I chose for the Core group above: Consistent, Authentic, Discerning, Persevering, Grounded. Are these innate? Or can they be trained?

The reason that this is an important issue in my course is my desire to leave my students with the tools to expand their leadership capacity. So I ask them to examine all the characteristics outlined at the beginning of this article (Inner, Outer, Core), in terms of whether they are shareable, learnable or innate — a topic of very rich and important dialogue, which touches on all three of the vital habits considered in this article: Balance, Breathing and Trust.

In all of these discussions with my students, something has bothered me: the prevalence of the designation “innate.” It implies that we either have “it” or we do not. It implies finality. Core is, by its nature, deeply internal — you cannot have others “cover for you.” If you do not have it, you are “done-in.”

I have begun to take a different view. I have come to believe that everyone of us has the capacity for integrity, honesty and authenticity. Each of us has a deeply seated spark of goodness. But as we fend off the challenges of living, we tend to develop coping mechanisms that “shield” this spark of light. We grow a “shell” around our spark — a shell of varying thickness, depending on our own personal life journey. Our task in learning to be good leaders and, for that matter, happy people, is to learn to shed — or at least crack — this shell, so that the inner spark can shine through. As others see our light, it becomes easier for them to trust us to lead our entrepreneurial ventures to success.


Recently I was asked to speak to a Stanford class. Since I teach a course at Stanford, that request was not unusual. Often professors seek guest lectures from the faculty; I do it myself for my Fall Quarter Entrepreneurship course. However, this request was unusual in that the course is on “The Pursuit of Happiness and Health.” At Stanford? A graduate course attended by mostly MBA and PhD students? In the many years I spent as a student at Stanford in the 60s and early 70s, I never encountered a course like this. And probably the only reason I was asked was because a student who had attended my course last Fall is a Teaching Assistant in the class. Her question: Had I been happy throughout my entrepreneurial journey of many decades, with all its severe challenges and obvious moments of great stress and distress? And, if so, what lessons could I convey to her students? A rather daunting request.

I have never even bothered to define “happiness” before, or for that matter, to ponder the question overmuch. Perhaps that is because I was never truly “unhappy.” Yes, I have had many, many distraught moments in my life, especially as a business executive. But I weathered those moments, and in the integral of my life’s journey I have been happy and grateful. How to convey this in a way that speaks to these students, many just getting started with life’s journey and under the pressures of high financial and career expectations at this elite university?

Mindful of the mystique that entrepreneurs engender, especially in financial-success driven Silicon Valley, I decided to start the lecture with a simple graph: the valuation history of Catalytica, the company I co-founded, grew and sold. It shows an impressive hockey stick: an early, slightly sloping line that suddenly took off on a vertical axis towards a very satisfying end-value — the type of curve so typical of hundreds of business plans entrepreneurs show prospective investors. I even showed the vertical valuation axis: starting with an original investment of $30,000 from the three founders and ending with the sale of the company for almost $1 billion. At first, I did not show the horizontal time axis. I let the students “absorb” this impressive story of entrepreneurial success. Then I showed the time line: it took almost three decades! The upward swing occurred only in the final 4 years. The rest was a very gradual rising line that on the scale of the graph hid the long, tortuous, agonizing and, at points, despairing reality. It hid the struggles that truly tell the story, including the fact that to get to the end point we had to raise almost $300 million in financing, diluting the three founders to a very modest percentage. And it hid that we faced many moments where our lifeline was measured in months and we did not know if we would survive.

Was I happy along that long arduous trek? Yes. Why? Because my daily metric was not financial success. My daily metric was a deep underlying purpose, a purpose that transcended any and all of the vicissitudes that were thrown at us: the arrows, the sudden gulleys and walls, the storms, the misunderstandings and the disappointments that beset us over the years.

In my Stanford Fall course, I speak repeatedly of the power of the dream and the importance of passion as a core inner characteristic of the entrepreneurial leader. I use Catalytica as a case study, conveying the mission that helped galvanize and focus us: to use our scientific skills to create manufacturing technology that was efficient and environmentally sound, that would marry economics with environmental responsibility to create a significant company.

Yet it was not until asked to deliver this “happiness” lecture that I examined more deeply my own true personal purpose in founding and growing a company. While the concept of environmentally sound and economically viable technology definitely connected with me, and was also probably a deep personal driver for many of my colleagues, for me what made my heart really “sing” was a little simpler: the desire to use my love of science and engineering to create breakthrough innovation in a work environment of deep cooperation, trust and support, an environment where we would not only be allowed to maximize our gifts and skills, but also accept and recognize our shortcomings and flaws. A depth of innovation and a supportive environment that would make us eager to come to work every day.

Why is this relevant? Because I believe that the key to my happiness was the congruence between my deepest drives and my everyday environment. And through the ups and downs of a three-decade entrepreneurial journey, this deeper purpose informed my actions – often unconsciously – and insured that these actions were in harmony with my core values.

We hear a lot about “core values.” The term is bantered about in groups, for teams, and at companies which, through elaborate exercises, come up with value statements that can be written on plastic-encased 3 x 4 cards to be toted in pockets or posted on walls, websites or in an annual reports. But I have always wondered what it really meant, this set of core values we were expected to recite at the drop of a hat (or at least, when the topic came up, make others believe we could by nodding our heads in agreement). I finally realized that our values are not really a list, not even a set of articulated beliefs or a formulaic set of codes. Our values are our response to events, and our behavior in the face of what life throws at us. It is in this response that we show our humanity, our character, our timbre as leaders. It flows from deep inside, and is framed by our deepest purpose.

That is why pondering our deepest purpose is so important. My message: find your true inner purpose, articulate it, massage it, feel it. Then let it be the conscious template of all your actions.

It also means that to embody our values we need the capacity to match issues and actions to that purpose, and the capacity to let events be digested in the crucible of our inner being for sufficient time to frame our response. This needs quiet space; it needs moments of inner peace. And it is one reason why I include in my Stanford course an entire session on spiritual anchor and meditation.

Another revelation: For a long time I have felt a power in reflecting on what I would like to see in my epitaph. I have talked about this with my wife, expressing to her that when I die I would like my tombstone to have a very simple statement: He touched and he cared. As I look at the statement of deep purpose I shared above, it really comes down to two words: impact and harmony. I see now how parallel these two principles are to my proposed epitaph… And how embodying my values and my purpose in life have been inexorably linked to my happiness.


Technical innovation is often at the heart of an entrepreneurial venture. The leader’s role is to create the right environment to facilitate and foster such innovation. This requires bringing together people of different skills and specializations, ideally individuals more competent than the leader in their areas of expertise, very comfortable pushing the boundaries of the unknown in their particular domain. Their domain risk tolerance is likely to be very high.

What the leader needs to recognize is that the risk tolerance of the expert in his or her area of specialization may not apply to their tolerance of the uncertainties in other aspects of the entrepreneurial venture. For example, a scientist who may be one of the best in the world at creating new photovoltaic materials and be very at ease with the inherent uncertainty of the discovery of new PV compounds may be very un-easy with the challenges of financing or selling. Just think of the un-ease that scientist may feel when confronted with only a six-month cash runway. The role of the leader is to absorb any extraneous uncertainty that may get in the way of the expert team member, freeing that individual to do the best job possible, to do the job unbridled 

Taking responsibility for the full uncertainty of the company is the logical task of the leader in an entrepreneurial organization. After all, the senior executive has the whole company in his or her hands, and is the one person most aware of all the known factors affecting the destiny of the company. That is the nature of the office. But how does a leader cope with such a large burden?

Two “capacities” make this possible:

  1. The capacity to “see” the whole picture, and
  2. The capacity to access a compass that will point in the appropriate direction.

By seeing the whole picture, I mean the ability to see beyond the obvious and immediate, to cast a wider vista and recognize all the forces and all the opportunities. As an engineer, I am particularly sensitive to the importance of drawing the full perimeter around a problem. We are trained as systems thinkers. We learn to scope an issue, define the relevant influencing parameters, gather data, and then establish some criteria that will permit prioritization of potential solutions. Then we go into action – until either we find the right solution or find out that we chose the wrong path. So we go to the next one. The key in this process is to make sure that we are smart in outlining the envelope of the issue, in defining the frame of the decision-making canvas. Make it too narrow, and we miss some key elements. Make it too broad and the task becomes too unwieldy and will take too much time. Yet someone needs to have the bigger picture, even while the team is tackling the narrower problems. That is the leadership job.

But it is not the only job. At the same time as “holding” the big picture, the entrepreneurial leader must be capable of reducing the scope of the issue, shrinking the canvas so as to concentrate the attention of the team on the most critical issues of the moment. This skill to breathe with the canvas, to maintain flexibility of the frame’s shape and size, is what distinguishes the brilliant leaders. This “canvas breathing” permits the leader to maintain visual acuity, often threatened by constant external disturbances and frequent surprises. It can reveal the silver lining in unforeseen problems, and permits the leader to discover alternative pathways around roadblocks.

To breathe with the canvas, the entrepreneurial leader needs to distinguish between the forces that are important and those that are distracting, to filter the noise, deflect the arrows, prioritize the demands that are constantly calling. This requires stepping back, and finding quiet zones within. For me, the best way to find such quiet zones is through meditation.

Meditation also helps with the second capacity that allows the leader to absorb uncertainty: access to his or her decision making compass. The need for a compass is perhaps best illustrated by a suggestion made in a fascinating book I just read and highly recommend: Incognito by David Eagleman. I found it to be a brilliantly written overview of the functioning of the brain, by a knowledgeable and very eloquent neuroscientist. His thesis is that the overwhelming majority of our actions are determined by the millions of chemical and electrochemical events in our body, and they are deeply influenced by our lifetime experiences. We may believe that we are making “conscious decisions,” when in reality the sequence of signals that leads to our decisions have already taken place before we are aware that we are taking action. And he talks about how to access this unconscious part of us, how we tap into our vast unconscious reservoir:

 “If you cannot always elicit straight answers from your unconscious brain, how can you access its knowledge? Sometimes the trick is merely to probe what your gut is telling you. So the next time a friend laments that she cannot decide between two options, tell her the easiest way to solve her problem: flip a coin. She should specify which option belongs to heads and which to tails, and then let the coin fly. The important part is to assess her gut feeling after the coin lands. If she feels a subtle sense of relief at being ‘told’ what to do by the coin, that’s the right choice for her. If, instead, she concludes that it’s ludicrous for her to make a decision based on a coin toss, that will cue her to choose the other option.”

Meditation has allowed me, at critical times, to “probe what my gut is telling me.” It allows me to withdraw from the mundane hum and the many “demand arrows” that are constantly pointing at me yelling for my attention, arrows that tend to freeze the frame of the picture I am confronting, freezing the size of my canvas. It takes me to a quiet zone within myself that allows the canvas to expand and permits me to “see” problems differently, to hear my perhaps previously undetected inner voice, and to understand the best direction to pursue.

This very important “internal work” of leadership moves to a much broader topic, which I will tackle in a future post. It deals with the ability to expand the canvas to its extreme dimension, to the infinite, where we have a chance to reach a place where everything is one. It is the place the pre-eminent Christina mystic of the last century, Thomas Merton, calls “le pointe vierge,” the place Jesuits are taught in the Ignatian exercises to assess their feelings of “desolation and consolation” as they face difficult moral dilemmas. The seeking of this convergence point, this point of oneness, is my definition of spirituality, and is also closely connected with what I believe should be a holistic vision of the raison d’etre of one’s business or, for that matter, one’s life adventure. This is nicely explored by my good friend Jim Cusumano in his upcoming book, Balance, the Business Life-Connection, to be published this April by Select Books, Inc. 


My conversations with groups of MBA and Engineering students are proving to be a rich source of topics and reflection for me. At a recent meeting with University of California Haas Business School students, I was asked about my leadership style. I was unable to answer. This bothered me, and the more I thought about it the more I felt something was fundamentally wrong with the question itself.

I have reached a tentative conclusion: The moment we try to talk about leadership styles, we are missing the essence of what leadership is all about.

We can talk about personal styles, behavioral traits, or management styles. But when it comes to leadership, because the range of behaviors and actions we need to access and apply at any particular moment is vast, it is unlikely to fit neatly into a simple classification. Which behavior we use is a function of the nature of our team, the nature of the dialogue, and the circumstances we face in each situation.

I actually envision the leadership process as an “energy vector.” The leader injects his or her energy and “purpose” into the vector, stimulates the team to add their own energy, insures that the vector is pointing in the desired direction, and foresees some of the hurdles that the vector needs to overcome to reach its destination. I know this sounds amorphous, but that is what leadership is: a continual course adjustment as we move towards the goal, a continuous dance in the face of changing circumstances. And in the end, it is all about people, which means that the leader needs to be ultra-sensitive to human dynamics, sharply tuned into each team member’s strengths and weaknesses, strains and stresses and, in particular, anything that may be blocking them from doing their best.

It also means that leadership is not just the purview of a select few, born with all the “equipment” to lead. In fact, it is in all of us, if we could only “unbottle it.” Barry Posner and James M. Kouzes say it well in the Preface to their very well known book on leadership The Leadership Challenge (James M. Kouzes, Barry Posner, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2008, xii): “What we have discovered, and re-discovered, is that leadership is not the private reserve of a few charismatic men and women. It is a process ordinary people use when they are bringing forth the best from themselves and others. When the leader in everyone is liberated extraordinary things happen.” This is exactly what I heard recently at a talk given by Sully Sullenberger, the pilot who landed the US Airways plane on the Hudson on January 15, 2009. He defined heroes as “ordinary people doing extraordinary things.” He certainly displayed leadership in that extraordinary 240 seconds from engine failure to landing.

In his book Build The Bridge As You Walk On It (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004,) Bob Quinn of the University of Michigan raises an interesting view of leadership: Quinn considers leadership to be a “state” into which a person enters (or leaves), rather than a predetermined characteristic of an individual. As circumstances demand, the individual may rise to the leadership need, the leadership occasion, tapping into a wide range of personal traits. In the process, the leader is always balancing between contrasting behaviors, his own and that of his team. Too much of the extremes can be detrimental. Thus, someone who is too visionary, without the right balancing influence, can be unquestioning, ungrounded or deluded. Someone who is too practical can be pessimistic, destructive, hopeless. It is the leader’s job to navigate these extremes and to insure all actions harmonize in pursuit of the goal.

Key to all of these views of leadership is that the leader needs to display passion, using the energy that comes with his or her convictions and commitment to sweep others into the “leadership vector.” In doing so, one of the main roles of the leader is to absorb uncertainty, balancing the different risk tolerances of the team members. As the individual with the greatest understanding of the full picture (limited as that picture may be), the leader unburdens team members from worries that will get in their way, permitting them to concentrate on applying their unique skills in the execution of their tasks. Which brings me back to the Sully Sullenberger situation… From his description of that incredible day, his team had total trust in him and he in them. What is startling is that he had met his copilot only a few days before. Granted, his reputation preceded him, yet I find it fascinating that in spite of this prior lack of personal interaction, the two individuals were totally tuned into each other. They were completely vested in the moment; the dramatic circumstance removing any barriers of ego or self-interest, which so often artificially get in the way of what we are capable of accomplishing.