Are Your Ambitions Helping or Hurting Your Business?

Can you imagine starting a company without ambition? Impossible. Whatever your vehicle, ambition is the fuel; it’s what you dream about and what gets you up before the alarm every morning. Ambition takes you places.

Except when it doesn’t.

Conventional management theory construes ambition as goal-oriented: You’re aiming for objective X  excellence, recognition, profits, power, changing the world. The common assumption is that satisfying ambition is directly tied to reaching your goal. All you really need to focus on is how  the metrics and strategies to smart, bold, effective business-building.

But goal-attainment is only one piece of the puzzle.

Ambitions are generated by lots of other psychological factors  not just the fire to aim and go. What they’re actually made of strongly determines the route you’ll ultimately take and how you feel on the way.

From the outside, it might appear that all ambitious people are moving forward in pursuit of their respective brass rings, be it an expansion or acquisition, fulfillment and contentment, or making meaningful contributions to marketplaces and society (making a good living doesn’t hurt either).

Under the surface, however, not everybody’s traveling in the same direction. In fact, some people are going backwards.

Some ambitions are propelled by guilt, fear, hate, an intense need to seem impressive or not to be a failure. What else? To redress wrongs, overcome deprivations, or disprove, destroy, or defend. That’s a short list. For those in this group, chances are, no matter how many candles are burned at both ends, even if they reach some version of success, real, sustainable satisfaction is gonna be tough.

Why? One reason is that the objective goal isn’t the actual goal. The engine of ambition is powered by those underpinning imperatives and obstacles, which remain untouched and unsatisfied by the actual achievements.

Consider Joel M., 40, founder, owner, and chief visionary of an East Coast multimedia production company (I’ve changed a few details to disguise his identity). After years of dreaming, sweating, and struggling, Joel is now standing with both feet planted in paradise. Armed with talent, charisma, a stellar track record, and a fluorescent business plan, he landed ample VC funding with nominal startup or operating restrictions. Joel shot out of the gate with economic, creative, and administrative freedom. He’s working out of a dream shop with state-of-the-art equipment, a gonzo sweet budget for marketing, development, and Slurpee-sized Lattes. Be careful what you wish for; you might get it. He’s miserable. And it’s making him f@*# up. Not cool.

What’s going on? Joel started dreaming this dream long ago. Its superstructure developed over the years and got polished to further his professional pursuits. But it’s a gleaming Santiago Calatrava tower with a decrepit old barn for a lobby. His early life involved parents who were fundamentally uninvolved and disinterested in him. He grew up longing for a magical switcheroo: his real life for one where people truly cared and he got what he asked for.

It looks like his wish was granted, sort of, but it’s definitely not the solution he hoped it’d be. Sitting in his Hermann Miller chair in his super-duper studio, he’s still holding the same bag of rocks.

What to do? One of the first steps when I’m engaged as an advisor to any entrepreneur, executive, or business owner in this situation, is to start parsing the operational factors from the psychological ones. Each impacts the other. Are you unhappy because the ingredients for happiness are objectively absent or deficient, i.e. you’re disenchanted with the business you’ve built or the people you work with? Are there are organizational problems, such as staffing, marketing, production issues, cash flow difficulties, or other mechanical hiccups? Or is it that there’s something inside you causing an obstruction to feeling fulfilled?

For Joel, this means helping him understand where his dissatisfaction is actually coming from so he can start to value what he has, not what he doesn’t. The lament for his unfortunate childhood may ache into old age. But it’d be tragedy compounded to wreck his new business on account of it.

You’re not going to find a global formula for success, and emulating the 7 habits of successful people will probably only guarantee that you can succeed in emulating seven of their habits.

What you can do is identify and unhook your personal psychological Bungee cords that may be thwarting your ambitions.

My Business Has Completely Stalled. What’s My Problem?

Expectations are the fulcrum of business. Customers and clients will come or go on their expectation that you will, or won’t, satisfy certain requirements. Likewise, your expectations of your staff and yourself can propel you forward in common purpose or drive you apart in dissatisfaction.

Expectations are there to be met, dashed, or exceeded.

But what are they? Expectations are outcomes considered most likely to happen. They can be based on experience or they can be speculative – meaning the desired outcome rides on an unsubstantiated prediction or not necessarily realistic hope. As in, I like that company’s logo. I’m sure they make superior widgets. I’ll buy some. Or, this strategy tanked the last seven times we tried it, but I’m confident it’ll fly this time. Let’s go all-in.

While there’s no shortage of simple-minded articles intended to help business owners develop so-called best practices for managing customer and employee expectations, it’s really not so simple. Actually, expectations are more like theSupreme Court’s definition of pornography – hard to define but you know it when you see it. They’re personal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations after I got this email from a reader who was responding to my last BNET post, “What’s Really Holding You Back From Getting Things Done?” (it has been edited for clarity):

I started my online business 4 years back … After our initial launch, the plan was to create more websites dedicated to other services in this space. Since then I’ve just been stuck with the one website and one relatively recent launch. I keep getting stuck with issues, feature requests, etc. How a couple of years went by like that, I’m not sure.

I guess part of the problem was that I just didn’t know how to hire for and delegate the work I was doing myself. I’ve tried delegating and I’m not very successful at it. I just want to do a lot of things myself because I don’t trust my team will do it well (they’ve made big mistakes in the past) and I just like to be in total control. This trait of mine unfortunately has led me into a situation where I’ve landed myself with such a huge to-do list that I don’t really end up completing. Plus, I’ve been so involved in solving issues as they come up that I haven’t really been supervising the team of people under me enough. Things just don’t seem to be progressing anymore. What should I do?

A cornerstone of my work as a business adviser is first understanding as much as possible about a situation and its causes before prescribing remedies. So without knowing a lot more, I can’t definitively answer the question of what this guy should do.

But this is what I hear at the surface: inadequate start-up planning and meager development strategy, indecisive leadership – including poor staffing choices, difficulties delegating, and ineffective management – and flat-footedness in identifying and addressing the myriad hurdles and set-backs most new businesses are bound to face in some form or another.

All important to correct. But they’re by-products. The real culprit: everything encompassed by what he calls “this trait of mine” – the underlying issues causing his self-defeating decision making, mis-calibrated expectations of what’s probable, and paralysis to effect necessary course changes.

I’d recommend a two-pronged approach to jump-starting this stalled venture.

  1. The first entails making a host of smart and solid business choices:
    • Staff: Cut the chaff and bring on some wheat.
    • Leadership: Consider engaging a sharp, seasoned co-helmsman.
    • Systems and Operations: Get competent assistance to analyze the administrative and procedural back-log and implement appropriately prioritized solutions.
  2. The second has to examine why these problems arose and then were left to fester:
    • Understand your strengths and weaknesses.
    • Enlist help for both.
    • Scale and align your expectations with your actual capabilities and circumstances, not the ones you wish you had.

Remember that expectations are about future events. And the key to advantageously managing expectations is correctly interpreting patterns from previous events.

So don’t just look ahead; look back too.

What’s Really Holding You Back From Getting Things Done

Business doesn’t get done if you can’t get things done. Simple as that. Every business owner knows that good time management is a corner-stone of profit and productivity. And that ineffective or inefficient use of time accounts for a substantial drain

Sure, your schedule’s already tighter than a NASA mission, and your to-do list is longer than the Health Care Bill. But still, there are only 24 hours in a day. Do you suffer from GMTD (general multi-taskcrinating disorder), meaning you can’t do everything because you’re trying to do everything?

There’s no shortage of apparently helpful resources to boost your time management IQ: blog posts, coaching advice, productivity experts, even tips from the Ãœber-guru of Getting Things Done.

But the most popular strategies espoused by the experts above mainly look at the first three inches of why productivity falls into a gully – too many distractions and interruptions, poor prioritizing, disorganized to-do lists, tech glitches. The fixes and work-arounds they typically offer are just as superficial.

Beyond all of those surface issues, there is much more to the problems of chronic procrastination, edge-of-the-minute task completion, and behind-the-8-ball management. My advice: Look deeper to learn what’s really holding you back, and how to get – and keep – you and your business ticking.

Start by realizing that it’s not about time; it’s about your relationship to the goal. What do I mean? Consider these feet-dragging business owners (I’ve disguised some identifying details here):

Theo: He recently brought a thoroughbred creative director into his design firm. His new superstar is attracting buzz and blue-chip projects. Now, to leverage this and really take his business to the next level he needs to streamline operations and show a few duds to the door. But he keeps putting it off.

James: Following a dazzling attention-grabbing product launch, a new client he’d been courting for months presented him with a game-changing opportunity. To make this fly, James has to put himself and his staff in hyper gear. He knows exactly what needs to be done. But he’s deferring all the preliminary activities.

These successful, high-performing CEOs can manage their inboxes, wrangle their to-do lists, and say “no” to low-priority tasks until they’re as sleek and efficient as Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly. But here’s why none of that will unhook them from their critical sticking points.

Theo is ambivalent about growing his business. He’ll tell you he’s ambitious and his success to-date is proof of that. But now that he’s actually positioned to kick things up a notch or three, part of him isn’t so sure he’s ready-or willing-to run a hot-shot shop handling high-profile work.

The Fix: Theo’s business issues are playing out in staffing and time management but to run his business better, he needs to first resolve his conflict about where he wants to go.

James is by every objective measure an admired and successful 44-year-old businessman with plenty of entrepreneurial drive. He knows how to plan and execute. Being the best is what gets him up in the morning. But privately, he sees himself as a teenage prodigy with a lifetime of potential still to realize. He’s unable to relinquish the feeling that his best is yet to come. So, however irrationally, he wears gravity boots, struggling harder than necessary to reach every new brass ring, unknowingly holding himself back in the past.

The Fix: James’ apprehension feels real enough. But it’s an old impediment (which surfaces at crux moments) that needs to be quarantined and resolved separately from business. In my experience, problems with time management are rarely only about the management of time. For many business leaders, procrastination and other similar struggles are usually a symptom – visible evidence, as with Theo and James, of some personal friction or restriction about moving forward.

Bottom line: Getting things done is a completely learnable and improvable set of skills. But to really optimize your use of time, don’t just grease the clock. First understand why it’s off.

Entrepreneurs, what are you putting off? Email me your situation (here’s my contact page) and I’ll analyze it in a future blog post.

Alexander Stein, Ph.D., business psychoanalyst, is a principal in the Boswell Group, a consulting firm focusing on the psychology of business.

The Secret to Building a Stronger Business

What are the key factors that make or break your business? Your product or service? Your customers? Capital? Just plain luck?

Sure, those are all important. But I’d argue that ultimately it comes down to people, and more specifically: you. As chief executive, you impact every aspect of your business. Even when you delegate, your personality and decisions influence everything. It stands to reason that leaders who are psychologically in tune – meaning resilient, agile, and aware – are not only more effective, they also bring an unmatchable competitive advantage to their businesses.

How can you make that happen?

Many leaders – even those who run businesses with people-centric cultures – tend to prefer a straight-ahead, hit-the-ground-running, just-make-it-go approach to managing people. The alternative I recommend is an inside-out – rather than outside-in – view of managing people. When an employee makes a mistake or a bad decision, your first question should be “Why did he do that?” not “What can we do about it?” In the long run, this more psychologically savvy management tactic pays dividends. If you want to motivate someone, you better understand first what motivates her.

To me, this is common sense, but, of course not everyone in the business world agrees. A recent article in The Economist would have managers believe that trying to understand a worker’s psychology amounts to meddling. Worried about an employee’s emotional state or stress level? Careful, that may very well cross a privacy boundary! In fact, the article refers to the business world’s “new-found interest in promoting mental health” as if that were a bad thing. It questions the assumption that “promoting psychological wellness is as axiomatically good as encouraging the physical sort,” and worries that a “mental-wellness movement” will inevitably attract “charlatans and snake-oil salesmen.”

I can’t post the word that captures my true opinion of all that; “bunk” will have to do. Think of the issue this way: If your copy machine is broken, you fix it; if your delivery system is gunked, you grease it; if your shop is dark, you light it. Why treat the human factor less responsibly?\

Obviously, understanding and changing people is more complex than copiers and light bulbs. But the same principles hold: If, say, your sales team’s performance needs your attention, you attend to it; and the right procedure follows a good diagnosis.

And by the way, dysfunction shouldn’t be your first clue to pay attention. Like world-class athletes, top business leaders improve on excellence by understanding what already works well. The more you know about yourself and the underlying forces that push and pull you, the better equipped you’ll be to make even better decisions going forward.

What to Do: Strengthening your business by investing in “psychological capital,” as I call it, doesn’t happen overnight. But here are two key pointers to get you started, culled from my experience advising entrepreneurs and senior executives navigating complex circumstances and looking to refine their leadership capabilities:

1. Understand that we all naturally assert the vexing tendency to try to keep things the same, notwithstanding good intentions and recognized imperatives to make things different. Have you ever resolved to lose weight, quit smoking, be more patient, or otherwise try to change yourself? How did it work out? My point exactly. So long as this potent streak of irrationality is left unchecked, your magnificently designed and deployed blueprints for business success are in constant danger of becoming irrelevant.

First step: Identify the issue – say, become a better listener, feel more confident at board meetings, get your SVP to micro-manage less, understand why morale is low.

Next: Start thinking about what the issue is made of, not how to change it. Talk about your ideas with a spouse or trusted colleague, confidante, or consultant.

And remember, dismantling and reconfiguring entrenched systems requires time, thoughtful attention, and heavy lifting.

2. Change isn’t about finding easily opened doors. Whatever your desired outcome, what’s most crucial to geting there is identifying and unraveling the tangle of ingredients, understanding how and why they got there, and then putting something new in motion.

Consider the co-founders of a music production and distribution business. The partners, Frank and Darryl, thought they were on the same page about all the important things. Business was good, and they were good friends. But when I first met them, I found two guys at loggerheads over nearly every decision. Already behind schedule on several high-value projects, they felt pressured and wanted me to help them resolve things yesterday.

The deadlines were real enough. But the pressure was synthetic; they’d deferred addressing their conflict until it was nearly too late. Now they were making instant resolution my responsibility.

Here’s what we did: With me and then together, they aired out their simmering frustrations and resentments so that eventually, the temperature lowered enough for them to actually move ahead on time.

The job wasn’t done once I’d helped them achieve on-time completion. That was only a temporary flight back into the good working stasis they already knew.

Getting Frank and Darryl’s partnership, and their business, truly solid required navigating through the substance of their discord, learning why it was there, why things had finally gone south after years of apparent harmony, and helping them know how to unstick themselves in the future.

How to Be an Above-Average Decider

We’ve all been there: the crossroads between one decision and another: Go or stay? Now or later? This or that? What’s right? Sometimes, the answer’s easy  the choice seems obvious and you just know what to do; sometimes, it’s not. And sometimes you make decisions you don’t even realize you’re making.

So what goes into a high-stakes decision? And how can you improve your stats on making advantageous choices?

Being a consistently above-average decider is about more than devising a roster of binary options  do vs. don’t, this vs. that, now vs. then, here vs. there  and then pulling each trigger with optimal timing such that intention and outcome are aligned. All important, to be sure. But it’s only what you’re deciding, the external metrics of goals and actions.

The DNA of how and why you make decisions is different. It’s fundamentally about who you are, and what happens to you in x, y, or z circumstance.

Consider Ed Clooney (not his real name), 55, who heads a 60-employee East Coast advertising firm. In our first meeting, Ed fired off criticisms of his senior managers  middling project execution, waffling on client matters, mishandling staff and operations issues, squabbling between themselves. My task: “Figure out why my boys are off track and get them back on it,” he implored.

I’ve heard this from the corner office before; the story is inevitably more complicated. Far from being ineffectual, I eventually learned that Ed’s management team was holstering its collective skills and talents in response to Ed. Though he was completely unaware of it, turned out Ed used a bait and switch: He thought he was encouraging Alpha decisiveness  and so felt justified in his annoyance at his lieutenants’ failures to follow his leadership. But what he unwittingly communicated was that he didn’t really want anybody else in the driver’s seat. Even if you drove well, he’d criticize you for taking the wheel. Ed’s a smart, creative entrepreneur who’d hired top-shelf people and built a successful company. He could make great decisions. And he hadn’t always behaved this way. What was going on now?

Ed’s super-charged imperative to call the shots, I came to understand, was originally shaped by his growing up with a sick father and having to care for his younger brothers while their mother was off working. It’s not all bad; that history played its part in propelling him to work hard, build his business, stay healthy, and take care of his boys. But it also generated a need to never feel incompetent or weak.

After a time, Ed confided to me that he was privately considering stepping back from the helm, and was assessing his senior team for a potential successor.

The possibility of relinquishing command  an unspoken and undecided decision  was the spark for Ed’s seemingly inexplicable down shift in leadership. Though a potentially positive move for him and his company, it called-up a dire backward-looking vision unrelated to business: his being the absent father and letting his family/company collapse.

What to do? Ed’s recognizing there was something he couldn’t figure out  which actually went beyond what he thought it was  and then reaching for assistance was its own difficult decision. Looking ahead, Ed need not reveal his intentions regarding stewardship before he’s ready to. But he has to understand that the mere idea of it is causing reactions in him that are already adversely impacting his senior staff and their work together. Reconciling his ambivalence about what he’s planning will enable Ed to devise ways of redistributing power and authority so his managers can play to their strengths. Likewise, they need to stop passively ceding their assets to keep Ed from unraveling, and get back to business.

So what can you think about when facing important decisions?

Every decision is situationally distinct, with its own unique sets of ingredients, parameters, and ramifications. There’s no shortage of pundits bloviating on the golden rules of being (or appearing) decisive and vivisecting leaders who are not. But static generalized guidelines about how to be a leader who makes excellent decisions are usually situationally useless. Good decision-making is a learned, entirely individualistic process. Knowing more about how you operate is part of every successful business owner’s job.

Timing and context can change everything. Ed was treating his executive activities as if his life literally depended on it. At one time in his life, that was true in its own way. But no longer. Even supremely unflappable people can become psychologically disoriented in highly charged moments, and your usual capabilities can slip. So take your time. Agility and decisiveness aren’t in opposition to being thoughtful and deliberative.

Sometimes, the most important part of a good decision is understanding what’s driving you to make it.

Leadership Lessons from the McChrystal Meltdown

Much ink and few tears have been spilled about President Obama’s firing of Army General Stanley McChrystal, following his insubordinate remarks in Rolling Stone. Most political commentators and management experts seem to believe that, while it was a setback for the war effort in Afghanistan, Obama ultimately had no choice and did the right thing. I agree. But what to make of McChrystal’s underlying motivations? And what can we learn, beyond the obvious canard that “it’s a bad idea to trash your boss in public”?

The question “What was he thinking?” is often asked after public figures do something stupid that topples them from grace. But it’s the wrong question. What they’re thinking often has little connection to what they’re feeling, and it’s those subterranean feelings  existing outside of conscious awareness  that motivate so much of human behavior, particularly those actions that on the surface appear irrational. I suspect that if you asked McChrystal what he was thinking, after the obligatory hair-shirt explanations he might say that he thought his comments to the Rolling Stone reporter were off the record. Of course a media-savvy military leader like McChrystal knows that nothing is really “off the record” in public life  although I suspect he might have been much more careful and deliberate with a reporter from the New York Times. But that begs the question: why did he do it?

As a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who advises CEOs, boards and investors, I’d like to offer a few speculations on McChrystal, at a distance. Clearly his behavior was self-destructive, as it effectively ended a proud and distinguished military career in one fell swoop. In this case, he may have let his guard down in part because of the reporter’s skill in making him feel comfortable, and in part because he was  deep down  dying to unburden himself of what was weighing on his mind. In this regard, good journalists are like good psychoanalysts.

Military officers sublimate their fundamental aggressiveness in the most socially acceptable of ways: by making a career of it. It’s no wonder then, that they tend to lean Republican, the more militaristic party, and that they are naturally critical or even contemptuous of those who are more cerebral and diplomatic. There must be an inherent tension for McChystal and others warriors working for Obama. At times of great stress  like now, with the disastrous state of the war in Afghanistan  the pressure to express themselves (rather than bottling it up as is politically necessary in the service of one’s country and of one’s own job security) is serious. McChrystal was undoubtedly expressing his true feelings about Obama and the members of his White House staff, but he may also have been expressing his unconscious need to share internal emotional tension that had become unbearable.

Presumably his feelings were already known to his close associates, but that’s preaching to the choir and does little to relieve his inner state of tension. Which leads to the tragedy of the McChrystal affair: that in the hierarchy of government, there was no place for him to safely open up about what it was like to work for a White House he did not respect. In the absence of real communication about that, the emotions have no place to go but underground  until the pressure builds and the opportunity presents itself for those feelings to explode self-destructively. What if McChrystal had had an outlet to discuss his views directly yet privately with Obama? What if some of his opinions about the White House were valid? And what if Obama could have opened McChrystal’s mind to an alternate point of view? Such an avenue, I contend, could have saved a career now in ruins and  even more importantly  led to real progress in Afghanistan

Would You Survive Without Your Business?

What would happen to your business if you were diagnosed with cancer?

Meet Javier de la Uz. In August 2009, while on vacation in Vail, Colorado, with his wife Angela and their four young daughters, Javier suddenly had difficulty breathing. He chalked it up to high altitude, and continued to enjoy his family holiday.

Back home in Rockford, Illinois, elevation 715 feet, Javier dove back into his businesses, ADV Enterprises (which adds value to real estate by urban planning and design and build services), and its subsidiaries, ADV Partners and ADV Real Estate Investments.

The labored breathing continued. Maybe it was asthma, he thought. He was too busy for distractions. But Javier’s chest still wheezed and crackled; Angela insisted he see a doctor.

He finally went on September 8. “I’ll never forget the look on my doc’s face when she returned with the test results,” he told me. “It’s severe,” she said. The diagnosis: Lymphoma. “You’re in for a battle,” the oncologist said. Immediate surgery was required.

Javier barely slept that night. “I had three major concerns: my health, my family’s financial well-being, and the stability of my businesses. My bottom line: If I’m dead, nothing else matters. I decided then and there to focus on fighting my cancer. Other people would have to focus on my businesses for me.”

Planning for the worst 
Javier called an early morning meeting in his hospital room. In attendance: ADV’s senior management team, his twin brother José (ADV’s Field Operations Manager at the time), his lawyer, and his wife. Javier surgically dissected his businesses, indefinitely removed himself as President, and redistributed authority and responsibilities among them.

“When the surgeon walked in, he couldn’t believe I was holding a business meeting.”

That procedure achieved its aim, but additional biopsies brought a clarified diagnosis: Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma Diffuse large B-Cell (NHL-DLBCL). Treatment required a 6-cycle course of chemotherapy followed by radiation.

Once home he suffered multiple side effects of the chemo  constant profound exhaustion, nausea, headaches  the psychological whiplash of being abruptly unhinged from work, the specter of mortality, and a visceral fear of infection.

Catapulted from leadership of ADV, Javier took the helm of combating his NHL. He re-directed his entrepreneurial skill-set  being ultra organized, forward-thinking, and purposeful  to navigating the quagmire of insurance procedures and studying his cancer.

A turning point came when his Oncologist’s office offered a stack of pamphlets instead of answering his questions. “I immediately decided to switch hospitals and doctors,” Javier told me.

He located Dr. Andrew M. Evens, an oncologist at The Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, a 2-hour drive from Rockford. “I have 4 daughters, a wife, and my businesses. I want to live,” Javier told Dr. Evens; they met 48 hours later.

New tests showed markers for Burkitt’s, a more aggressive and lethal form of lymphoma. Javier’s new treatment, Hyper C-VAD, amped the nastiest side effects off the charts. He was a dish rag.

A new perspective 
Where are Javier and his businesses now? He’s responded well to the chemo, and his long-range prognosis looks good. While ADV’s overall profits modestly declined just after Javier disbursed management authority from his hospital bed, the businesses rebounded and stabilized.

How is ADV holding its own without him? Among many factors, I think these are the most important:

1. Great staffing: Javier already had key people in place capable of responding to the psychological and procedural challenges of being prematurely thrust into new positions

2. Solid customer and vendor relations

3. Well-constructed and defined business development plans

4. Excellent company values  be honest, responsive, do what you say you’ll do, work hard  which match its people, culture, and market

5. A strong, smart leader who had the good sense to take himself out of the picture so his businesses could take care of business

“It’s been overwhelming but also moving,” Javier said. “My brother José’s not only had to deal with having his twin brother fighting for his life, but has stepped up on no notice to many of my responsibilities in the businesses.”

He continued, “I’d never considered it before, but I wouldn’t have predicted the business could operate so well without me. My cancer has given me an opportunity for a new perspective on organizing my business. I can see the benefit of standing back, and once I’m able to return I’ll think about how I might run things differently.”

Many executives have more than just a deep personal investment in their business; work can be a proxy for their identity and a barometer of self-valuation, with their sense of self-worth yo-yoing with the business’ ups and downs. By contrast, Javier doesn’t feel threatened or marginalized by his managers’ success.

This could just be a healthy but transitory survival response  cancer is the beast to fight now; all others can wait  which will shift once Javier recovers and returns to work. Even if so, he embodies an important psychological characteristic of success: the ability to convert adversity to sustainable achievement.

Javier’s advice to other business owners: “Have a plan, on the business and the personal side, in the event you become ill or die. Have insurance and understand your policies. Don’t wait.”

Leadership in the Gulf: What’s Needed Now

The political crisis emerging from the Deepwater Horizon disaster now threatens to eclipse the environmental calamity itself. Between the handling of the situation, our collective response to it, and the leadership challenges to come, there’s a lot here to psychoanalyze. Let’s take a look.

What are the underlying psychological forces at play? Deep down, the massive spill makes us feel profoundly helpless, and there are few human emotions as intolerable as that. While we’re not entirely helpless, of course, the magnitude of the spill  combined with the technological challenges of stanching the flow of oil and cleaning up afterward  feels overwhelming.

The environmental impact is often compared, unfavorably, to the Exxon Valdez incident. Destructive as the Valdez spill was, there was a finite amount of oil contained in the doomed vessel, as opposed to the undersea oil reserve in the Gulf, which feels bottomless. The political right has also characterized the disaster as President Obama’s Katrina. While he and his administration appear to be taking all the appropriate actions, the linkage to Katrina implies that his response was callously inadequate. Calling it a Katrina also suggests that the spill is a natural, as opposed to man-made, disaster. Deepwater Horizon was decidedly not natural, but it is precisely the sense that man has messed with Mother Nature  that we’ve poked a big hole in the Earth  that makes it feel so apocalyptic.

As the investigation into the causes of the disaster and the handling of its aftermath proceed, we will continue to see the predictable human tendency to cast blame. Pointing the finger at Obama is absurd (though not surprising), but exclusive culpability can’t be laid on BP’s hapless CEO Tony Hayward, either. Such scapegoating is natural, even emotionally satisfying at times, but no more valid than trying to pin the blame for the Great Recession on a single authority figure. Creating and then blaming a villain is ultimately a dangerous way of dealing with uncertainty, serving more to bind the anxiety that arises from helplessness rather than trying to accurately understand root causes and assign responsibility.

Only a more holistic, systemic view gets at the complexity of such problems. We need to consider multiple simultaneous causes, which could include: a lack of role clarity or proper authority among senior executives and regulatory officials; rapid chains of action and inaction before and after the blowout; broken lines of communication; cultural factors within the oil industry and in our society at large that permit dangerous policies and decisions to go unchecked; failures of leadership that reinforce maladaptive behaviors; and so on. This has been true of the financial crisis, of Katrina, and of the space shuttle disasters  not to mention the everyday problems of hospital errors, product failures, and other systemic breakdowns.

So what should leaders do in the face of such complexity, and how are ours doing? The best leaders in times of disaster are straight with us, communicating clearly and frequently about the nature of the situation and the efforts to fix it. Obama is doing that part well. But leaders also need to mirror the emotions of the day, without going overboard, and this is where Obama is falling short. His cool, cerebral approach may be reassuring to some (it works for me), but to others he feels distressingly distant and devoid of the nurturing reassurance that so many seem to need, despite the fact that there isn’t much to be reassuring about yet. Exhortations for Obama to show more emotion are futile, though, as the expression of feelings isn’t something that can be turned on and off at will. I suspect he’s one of those leaders who gets even more calm and focused during a crisis, showing even less spontaneous emotion than he might otherwise. We want our leaders to make us believe things are under control, even when they’re not, in the same way that we want our parents to make us feel everything will be all right, even when they’re not so sure.

Obama’s increasingly punitive, angry attitude towards the oil industry is also an understandable but unfortunate response to the public’s demands for heads to roll. It may make us feel better to see such demonstrations of punitive authority, but it doesn’t do much good. Punishment has its role, but it’s rarely the best way to teach a lesson about behavior or change a flawed system. Punishing a kid too much just teaches him to fear and hate his parents, and punishing the oil industry in the middle of this crisis probably complicates its ability to cooperate. There’s plenty of time for punishment after the crisis ends and all the facts are in.

Similarly, while some say that BP’s Hayward should be fired, this strikes me as a terrible idea right now. A leaderless BP, followed by the inevitable transition period before a new CEO could get up to speed and take charge, would be even worse for the bleeding Gulf of Mexico than a team led by Mr. Hayward. A bumbling leader, he apparently was as caught off guard by the disaster as the rest of us, and in the end he may not survive the withering criticism about his repeated gaffes and missteps. But for now, let him try his best to do his job.

Complex problems often require complex thinking and multifaceted solutions. They demand emotionally attuned leaders who can tolerate high degrees of ambiguity and uncertainty. We need that kind of leadership to plug the hole and clean up the mess, especially if we want to learn from the experience and prevent another Deepwater Horizon  or at least respond better next time.

The Most Common Mistake CEOs Make — and How to Fix It

As an advisor to CEOs, I’m often asked what’s the most frequent mistake they make. While there are many  after all, they’re human  I’d say the most common one is not acting quickly enough on “people problems.”

The consequences can be disastrous. Keeping bad apples too long, especially in key roles, breeds all kinds of difficulties including dysfunctional teams, poor morale, and various liability risks. Ultimately, failing to address the problem of an under-performing or misbehaving senior executive undermines the credibility and authority of the CEO, and that sort of damage is hard to repair. In an interview in the the New York Times Magazine, Alan Greenberg, the former Chairman of Bear Stearns, was asked why he didn’t fire James Cayne, his successor as CEO, who famously played bridge and golf during the week the company was going under and reportedly smoked pot in his office. Greenberg’s responses are classic rationalization: Cayne “owned about 5 percent of the company”; “it was hard to complain when things looked so rosy.” Owning 5 percent of nothing turns out not to be such a big deal, and everyone knows that things can look rosy but be rotten underneath.

It’s worth thinking about why CEOs often have so much trouble pulling the trigger. Some of the most decisive, visionary, principled business leaders I know still have trouble with this one issue. Here are a few reasons I’ve encountered, offered not as excuses but as explanations:

  1. The CEO is too far removed from the executive in question and doesn’t quite see the extent of the problem. This can be compounded by a failure of talent management, in which the CEO doesn’t get the full scoop on problem people.
  2. The CEO is too close to the executive in question. Either he or she is blinded by personal feelings of affection or loyalty, or others in the organization believe the executive is “protected” and are afraid to offer critical feedback about the CEO’s friend.
  3. The CEO is aware of the problem, and showers the executive with all kinds of resources like 360 feedback, coaching, leadership development training, reassignment to another role, reading the latest bestseller on leadership, etc., all of which turn out to be exercises in wishful thinking and a big waste of time, because most people really don’t change very much.
  4. The executive is high performing. The CEO makes the calculated decision that the benefits of keeping the person outweigh, or at least justify, the risks. This can be an exercise in self-delusion, because the benefits of the high producer are often eventually overtaken by the harm to the organization  and to the CEO’s reputation.

So what’s to be done? Perhaps most important is the need for CEOs to be more realistic about the malleability of human behavior. Our personalities are largely set by the time we’re adolescents or young adults. It’s not like you can send a problematic executive off for five years of psychoanalysis  which is what it really might take to make a dent in their behavior  and say “Come back and see me when you’re done.” My clinical background often comes in handy when assessing an executive’s capacity for change, and it allows me to tell CEOs that, in some cases, what they see is what they’re gonna get.

CEOs also need to recognize that their own emotions  their guilt about letting someone go, or their desire for financial performance at all costs, or their desire to be liked, or their fear of mustering the courage to be proactive and assertive  are major factors in this common conundrum. But what I also remind my CEO clients is that, as hard as these decisions are, people are usually tremendously relieved after they’ve made them and wish they’d acted sooner.

Kaczinski Plane Crash: Pilot Error or Deadly Leadership?

The recent tragic death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others in a plane crash in Russia was an unprecedented disaster for Poland. But some of the facts emerging from the investigation raise important, and alarming, questions about the dangers of leadership. The investigation is focusing on “pilot error” as the likely cause of the crash. But early news reports suggested that Kaczinski might have ordered the pilots to land in heavy fog, despite the horrible weather and an aborted first attempt at bringing the plane down safely. We may never know exactly what happened: what, if anything, was said between the pilot and his powerful passengers, and even (in the absence of a misguided order to land the plane) what the pilot might have been thinking about the consequences for his career if he chose to displease the president by not landing the plane under those conditions.

What is clear from my work with powerful chief executives, especially those who rule by fear, is that variations on this dynamic can result in disastrous consequences. The fear of a punitive authority figure can lead to the stifling of independent thinking and sound judgment. If the pilot of the doomed Polish jet indeed felt he had no choice but to submit to desires of his powerful boss, then it was not so much “pilot error” (which suggests that the pilot was acting alone is his fatal mistake) as it was a case of a pilot acting under the influence of deadly group dynamics.

Non-lethal versions of this situation play out every day in the corporate setting. Managers who are terrified of being punished if they question the status quo or raise unpopular points of view will usually just clam up, even if their ideas could do tremendous good. While some may say that people should have the courage to voice their views regardless, it is psychologically naive to place all the responsibility on the employee. Never underestimate the greater power of group dynamics  and of the inhibiting effects of powerful authority figures. It is up to leaders to have enough self-awareness to recognize that they may be inadvertently stifling free speech and dissent, and to alter their leadership style before it’s too late. They rule by fear at their own  and everyone else’s  peril.

Next time you’re afraid to disagree with your boss’s wrongheaded idea, remember what happened to the Polish pilot. And if you’re in a position of authority, ask yourself if you are really creating an atmosphere in which your pilot can comfortably and directly tell you that he knows better than you.