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Are You Dealing with Ambiguity, Complexity and Uncertainty? Welcome to the Real World.

October 30, 2009

It’s my end-of-month re-post time, and here is one from last Spring that later got picked up by the Conference Board Review magazine. My first published magazine article! Enjoy!


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.

Last year 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  (I wrote about firing this manager in “Who Would Jesus Fire“), 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. Bradley’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.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2009 7:12 am

    A very long time ago, when I was a very young speechwriter, I was talking with a vice president of HR for a speech I was writing for him. He wanted to talk about the “sandwich theory” of management — identify a potential leader, give him (or her) a strong boss and a strong staff (the sandwich) and watch them develop and perform.

    He must have seen a perplexed look on my face. “You have a question?” he asked. I nodded and said, “If they have a strong boss and a strong staff, they’ll never make mistakes. How do they learn?” He told me I didn’t understand. He called later and changed the subject of the speech.

    Your method is better.

  2. October 30, 2009 7:40 am

    Huh. Well then, my childhood must’ve been manager-training ground. 🙂

  3. October 30, 2009 11:12 am

    Here I thought the crap that happens in life was because it’s just life…. suck it up… here all this time I’ve been on trial!
    business is business, in our world and the next, I guess!

    I’m sure your company is great and you do share valid points… I’ve been through it too… I’m just a ‘Grace’ junkie.

    Thank you for sharing this.

  4. October 30, 2009 12:19 pm

    For almost 25 years I edited publications for business and conducted interviews with leaders and HR professionals and lawyers. I often found it eye-opening to see how businesses operate on the inside, to see how employees get to be managers–or not, to see how managers become leaders, or are put in leadership positions only to be miserable failures. What I came to understand early on is how important it is to have the support of those who are doing the “testing”–people who are not just willing to let you take a risk and make a mistake and learn from it, but also to let you go against the grain when necessary and, fundamentally, still stand behind you. You can be thrown in the dens with lions and do everything right but if the people who threw you in the dens aren’t also willing to rescue you until you’re able to stand on your own, you’re going to get awfully bloodied. Leadership isn’t just a blood sport.

  5. October 30, 2009 1:55 pm

    Outstanding leadership model, and a wonderful depiction of how our Father works in our lives. WELL worth the repeat for those of us who missed it first time around!

  6. October 30, 2009 7:57 pm

    Maureen, you put into words what I didn’t. But was thinking.

  7. shrinkingthecamel permalink*
    November 1, 2009 1:14 pm

    MAureen – “Leadership isn’t just a blood sport” Wow – can I steal that? Good twist on this subject. Unfortunately, it sometimes does become the blood sport – We need to learn how to navigate through those events, too.

    LL- Now we all want to hear about your childhood. Is there a memoir in there?

    Thanks guys for your sharing. I always love hearing your comments and reactions to my stuff. You are all great friends.

  8. November 2, 2009 12:31 pm


    Thanks for the trip down the dark alley of memory lane! I am wondering now how many times during my career this was done FOR me when I thought it was done TO me. It never ceases to amaze me how much difference perspective makes in every situation.

    I think many people miss these type of opportunities because they fail to see the bigger picture. I must admit that I have fallen into this trap way too many times. Like the fire drills we had during school, we always want to know up front that “this is only a test.”

    I was going to point out that it is nice to have people that back you up during such trials, and that this hasn’t been the case for me in many situations. I was quickly reminded of Joseph though and how terrible the people were that put him in his situations. It doesn’t really matter what the intentions are of those who put us in the situation. God uses it for out good.

    Thanks for providing a different perspective.


  9. November 2, 2009 1:00 pm

    “At this point we throw our heads back and break into such a laughing fit that we can barely continue the conversation..”

    Dude, I’m so glad I never worked for you… j/k! 🙂

    Thnx for the repost, Bradley. I know I can look to your blog for something original and thought provoking!

    … Reading this post, I thought of Christ getting bloodied up for for us. He got thrown into the ring, so that we can have His comfort when the world spits us out and we crack under the pressure.

  10. November 2, 2009 7:27 pm

    Missed this one the first time around, Bradley. Glad I didn’t make that mistake again. Those were sweet words to me.

  11. November 2, 2009 7:42 pm

    Bradley, you make me smile with that great leading question about Stone Crossings. (It was a leading question wasn’t it? 🙂

  12. November 2, 2009 8:32 pm

    I came back to read the comments. Re-reading my own, I see how I was sounding off and wonder if my use of “just” in that line you want to steal (please, do) should be there. I reallly don’t much care for “leaders” who like to hunt. It gets kind of messy.

    I often got thrown into the den and–abandoned. Once I was told, before I became a manager, that everyone always loved when I’d speak up and say what needed to be said, because they couldn’t. I continued to say what was on my mind after I was brought into management. It wasn’t appreciated in the same way. I still spoke up. That was my occupational hazard.

  13. shrinkingthecamel permalink*
    November 5, 2009 6:43 pm

    Maureen – It is an art to know when and how to speak up as a manager in the right way, in front of the right people, to generate influence. There are always crafty politics at work that also must be managed.

    Billy – “sweet words?” Yes, sometimes laying out the harsh reality can be encouraging, if as Brad says, we can see the Big Picture. And Bonnie summed it up nicely about Jesus being the Big Picture himself. Even if we don’t have a sponsor backing us up, God works it out for good.

    LL- yes, it is now officially a leading question. Has everyone bought a copy of LL’s book “Seedlings in Stone” yet? I am shopping for it right now!


  1. Don’t Panic: Business Leaders Aren’t Supposed to Have all the Answers » Humility, Leadership, Reality Check, Uncertainty » InsideWork
  2. Three Leadership Priniciples That Have Guided My Career « Shrinking the Camel
  3. When “Uncertainty” Is In the Job Description « Catholic Exchange

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