Are You Dealing with Complexity, Ambiguity and Failure? Congratulations. And Welcome to the Real World.

Are You Dealing with Complexity, Ambiguity and Failure? Congratulations. And Welcome to the Real World. September 2, 2015


We have a saying here at my company: we like to see managers get “bloodied up a bit” before moving them into more prominent leadership roles. If we believe someone has management potential, we will intentionally put them in a situation where they will encounter extreme conflict, opposition, or just plain ambiguity (which in and of itself can be very stressful).

Then we will watch closely to see how the manager candidate responds. How will they handle an impossible situation where there is no right or wrong answer, but a decision has to be made? How will they manage conflict and difficult personalities? How will they weather through a thorny issue that may take a year or two to work its way through to resolution? Our hope is that the painful, difficult experiences will help mature the person in question, and that through the experience they will gain wisdom, as well as a measure of trust and respect from both the executives and their peers.
If you haven’t picked up on it by now, the reality of most business situations is that they are extremely complicated. Kind of like real life. There are rarely cut and dry textbook answers to the dilemmas we face. None of us can predict the future or be precisely confident that every decision we make is the right one. Usually, you don’t know if you’ve made the right decision until weeks or months later.

Once we took two young, strapping guys who were newly minted MBA’s, and threw them into the ring to see what they were made of. It was clear that these young men had strong leadership potential. But how best to make it shine? Then the perfect opportunity came up. It was almost providential. We had a small business that had been an utter mess over the past three years due to a combination of some bad decision-making on the part of the previous manager, along with some just plain ol’ bad luck: regulatory issues, commodity market swings, equipment failures, that sort of thing.

“Well,” said I one day to the Chairman, rubbing my fingers together briskly with an evil glint in my eye, “Why don’t we throw Don and Gary into this stinkhole? It would be a great experience for them, and we can see if they learned anything in business school.’” At this point we throw our heads back and break into such a laughing fit that we can barely continue the conversation. After we calm down, I say. “Seriously. I wonder if they would be able to manage their way through a turnaround?” The Chairman leans back in his chair and gazes up at the ceiling for moment. A sly grin also appears on his face. “Yes,” he says, slowly, calculating. “Let’s see how they do when they actually have to live inside a case study rather than talking about it in a classroom.” Brilliant.

Sometimes the best thing to help you grow and mature is to be put into a really difficult, challenging situation. God does this to me all the time. He doesn’t care what I think, because he knows better. He knows what’s best for me. He sees my potential, way beyond what I think I’m capable of myself. I picture Him rubbing his hands together, saying “Oh, just look at him. J.B.’s had it far too easy lately. He’s getting too comfortable. Let’s beat the crap out of him for a while. He’ll thank me later.”

If these experiences don’t do you in, they usually provide an excellent opportunity to grow in maturity and stamina. In my company’s case, it also allows the prospective manager to experience the practical realities of leadership, with all the messy employee issues and market chaos and unexpected crap hitting the fan. And we can’t really trust a manager to make major decisions or handle significant responsibilities without having observed them live through some of these situations, and eventually coming out the other side in tact.

Some people have the stomach for it, and others don’t. You find out fairly quickly. I don’t know why the difficult, gut-wrenching experiences are so crucial, other than they somehow test us – our will, our strength – and humble us at the same time. And that’s how we grow in wisdom and confidence, I guess. Now, there’s a great combination for leaders: wisdom, confidence, and humility.

There’s a huge gap between those who can, and those who can not make that leap. We have plenty of people in our organization who are capable doers, skilled at many areas of business, but who can not seem to cross the line over into this vaguely defined level of maturity. One reason is their lack of willingness to simply take on responsibility for more and more things. Maybe they are scared. Or maybe they are just lazy. Decision-making in business involves risk, and not everyone has the personal wherewithal for combining personal responsibility with risk. Yet this is how we grow.

Don and Gary did a great job. It was hard at first, but I stayed close to them for the first few months, making sure they knew there was someone to lean on in case things got too hairy. Which they did. But gradually, as they saw the dynamics of navigating the failures and successes and all the in-between stuff, these guys gained confidence in their decision-making. They took more and more personal ownership over the business. Before long, the calls they made to me were not to ask my opinion on what to do, but to inform me of some bold decisions that they needed to make to ensure the turnaround. It was great to watch this transformation. Eighteen months after they started, the business is now solid, stable and more profitable than it has ever been. And I had very little to do with it.

The other day Don thanked me. He said this was the best experience of his career and he wouldn’t have traded anything for it. Did these guys feel like they got a little beat up along the way? Sure they did.

Join the club.

Image: Pixabay.

"Always look on the positive side and if you can’t take it anymore, you can ..."

Does Your Boss Make You Feel ..."
"I am so sorry that you were going through this! I hope that things are ..."

Are You Feeling Stupid At Work? ..."
"I wish my parent acknowledged that I have such right instead of making the bad ..."

You Have the Right to Make ..."
"I feel so ashamed that I often contemplate suicide. High stress politically driven job combined ..."

Are You Feeling Stupid At Work? ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!