The Small Business Owner’s Worst Nightmare

Starting and running a small business can be a blessing and a curse. The dream can become a nightmare. Yet there can be great rewards too.

There are so many things that can get in the way of running and owning a successful business. You hear people talk about “cash is king” or growing the sales pipeline, closing more deals, making payroll, and creating satisfied customers.

While these are all very significant issues for a business owner there is one thing that is even bigger than all of these put together. Do you have any idea what it may be?

Wait for it…..

Your ego. Yep. Good old fashioned pride.

Let me get straight to the point.

Small Business Owner’s Fear

small business owner

Letting your pride or ego get in the way can be the exit ramp to disaster. On one hand, entrepreneurs must be fearless. They have to start with a whole lot of courage. For that, I applaud you.

Think about it. You hear stories of people quitting their day job to start a business. That takes guts and sheer willpower.

However, that same dogged determination can become the owner’s death sentence too.

The Paradox of Success

Many years ago I wrote a piece I call the “Paradox of Success.” I got this idea after watching dozens of my banking clients go through similar situations. It goes like this.

For those of you who have actually ventured out to start your own company, you understand the intense effort and tremendous satisfaction you achieve by watching the company grow.

Those first few profit dollars start to roll in. Real profit, free and clear. No debt, no more obligations to pay off, pure, real profit. For all the planning, sweat equity, real equity investment, and down-right hard work, you eventually arrive at the threshold of the very thing you set out to accomplish…. SUCCESS!

Ah, but beware. The very thing you strive so hard to achieve, that is your company’s success, can start the downward spiral to eventual destruction. Perhaps even the infamous “implosion” of the company. That is the phenomenon called the Paradox of Success. In other words, success brings failure. How can that be? Let’s explore the full timeline.

First the Beginnings

As was described, the founder sets out to open his or her own business. Perhaps it is a sole proprietor, maybe “Mom and Pop”. It can even be a couple of good friends who decide to start something together. The actual legal structure does not particularly matter at this point.

The focus is on getting going and having that first order come through the door. Days and weeks go by. The founder(s) perform all the daily chores….everything! Sales, marketing, bookkeeping, systems, purchasing, supplies, advertising, contracts, payables, receivables, answering phones, sweeping floors, cleaning the bathrooms…everything!

Next, business starts to grow. The word is out. Your business has something people want and need. Your service ideas are working very well. Customers like what you have. Word of mouth even starts to grow. You are getting business from sources you had not really thought about at the start.

Finally, the business becomes more than you and your partner can handle. You decide to hire your first employees. This becomes turning point number one. New employees do not bring the same levels of dedication, commitment, and energy you had when you started the business. Your ideas are not their ideas. You must start to train and coach to be sure the new guys on the bus are fully on board.

Moving Further Toward Success

The service levels you created and nurtured must be sustained. The principles on which you founded the business must be reinforced. There needs to be a feedback process and a monitoring mechanism to be sure your values and principles are being followed.

Almost daily you feel the tug of contention for your time. The time spent to make the direct business contacts you enjoyed making at the start must now be juggled with the effort to resolve internal issues. Perhaps you add a few more hours to the week. Certain tensions become more frequent.

With employees present, interpersonal matters start to creep in. Sally doesn’t like Susie. Bob and Ted argue over sports teams and their preference in cars they drive. None of this is contributing the business. The founders become referees. Hostilities can even boil over when customers are present. A lack of leadership or even a momentary lapse of leadership can become significant. Who can handle these things?

Phase Two Begins – Leadership

Then, mid-managers are hired or appointed. Surely the owners can rely upon other seasoned professionals to handle the staff issues and keep the ship sailing. Now a new layer is created.

For all the potential good that can be accomplished here, there comes a trade-off. Again, the founders’ values have to be enforced, promoted, espoused, heralded, and cheered about.

Can the mid-manages carry the same flag? All the while the growth in volume creates a strain on the original infrastructure. Are the same tools and equipment that were used to open the business still effective? Have systems started to suffer? This can include everything from the high end network servers to the staplers.

And more importantly, who is truly watching over these areas. Have the partners brought the right skills on their own to address all the issues? Accountability for all aspects of business growth becomes more meaningful. If cash and checks are being handled, controls must be implemented. Growth across state lines adds to the compliance and regulatory burden. Specialists have to be added to the mix like legal counsel, accountants, IT professionals, etc.

The False Security

The very essentials that can help grow and expand the business become challenges to the owners. Volumes and profits continue to rise. A false sense of security here can be deadly. A failure to admit the changes that are happening underneath and any inability to properly respond to those changes can, at any point hereafter, start the spin downward.

Really this stage represents the first major turning point for the founders. The biggest and most honest question that can be asked is “Am I capable of keeping this going or do I need senior management help?”

All too often ego may enter in and prevent the good hard look at the man (or woman) in the mirror. True Leaders with a solid track record behind them have been the first to ask this question and work with the right answer. And they do it with almost perfect timing.

Yet for the owner suffering a big ego, the right questions never get asked. The talk with the person in the mirror sounds more like this…

“Wow, things seem to be ramping up. You really did it.”

“Yes, I did.”

“It feels different now, but that’s nothing to worry about.”

“Just keep it going. We’ll be fine.”

Then one day the wheels fall off. The big accounts start to go elsewhere. Your pricing gets squeezed and you have no answer. The market shifts out from under you and you missed the warning signs.

Or worse yet, your team abandons you because they hate working with you. The few customers you have left eventually leave because the service is terrible.

It happens in all kinds of business. Every day. The tipping point is where the owner’s ego gets bigger than even the greatest of success.

A Cautionary Tale for Small Business?

Maybe so. But it doesn’t have to be. You can get help. You should get help. Is today the day? Business advisors or coaches can help you make sense of the new levels of growth and prosperity. They can help you see you way to even higher levels of success.

But you have to make the call. Don’t let ego stop you.

call a coach

Is Your Life a Happy Accident?

happy accident

You might be offended by that question. Yet if you think about it, so many of us are living just that way.

What do I mean? I mean going through your life and career without a purpose. You might be riding the wave of circumstances. Some things were great experiences, others not so much.

You might have built a successful career, but are you feeling fulfilled? Will your legacy matter to anyone?

I meet a lot of professionals who went the route of working for big corporate giants. They made it through 5, 10, 15, or even 20 years then something happens. A merger or a market crash causes the company to downsize. They land on the shortlist of people heading out the door.

As they face the uncertainty of job hunting, they are bewildered, even empty. They don’t know what they want to do.

But how did you let that happen? More importantly, how can you change it now or avoid it entirely?

That Sense of Purpose

It all starts with finding a sense of purpose. As Mark Twain so eloquently wrote:

The two most important days in your life are – famous American writer Mark Twain quote printed on vintage grunge paper

If you have never figured out the why question, then you have some work to do. The best advice I could ever give you is to figure out your why.

A good friend and fellow Silver Fox Advisor, Monte Pendleton introduced me to his work on finding personal purpose. He calls it the PPP, Personal Purpose Process. Monte allowed me to publish it in my book STRIVE for Job Search Success”.

The PPP guides you on a journey exploring key areas in your life. It challenges you to evaluate what is important and what is not. More importantly it makes you decide on outcomes you want to create in each of the important areas.

Having this sense of purpose will shape and mold the choices you make. Instead of living the usual life of wage, page, and sage, you could live a more rewarding and purposeful life.

Wage, Page, Sage Stages of Life

The wage, page, and sage version of life goes something like this. Your early years are all about the wage. What can I get paid? Yes, you might be choosing a specialty, but you still focus on getting the best pay for the work you do.

Then you start turning pages. Getting married, having kids, buying a house, etc. You’re flipping the pages of life.

Finally, you reach the sage role. Your years of experience naturally set you up for people to look to you because of your seniority. You can either share it freely or be bitter about life not turning the way you hoped (whatever that was).

Either way, the messages you share will influence those around you; bringing them closer because of your wisdom, or pushing them away because you’ve turned into a curmudgeon.


However, living ‘on purpose’ creates a certain intentionality in the things you do, the choices you make, and the people you hang out with.

Once you decide on a purpose, you won’t settle for less. You won’t take a job just to get a paycheck. Oh sure there may be desperate times due to outside forces, but in the long run, you will stay on course.

You will look for the right fit in a job and the right direction to move you on the journey to fulfill your purpose.

The people you choose to associate with will also change depending on the focus you create. I’m not saying all relationships are bad, but many are less than helpful for keeping you on track. It is easy to get distracted by friendships that don’t encourage you and keep you centered on your chosen path.

Finding your personal purpose is not as hard as some people make it out to be. There are simple yet profound ways you can discover exactly what your were meant to be doing.

If you need help uncovering and discovering your purpose, call a coach. Call me. Stop living your happy accident. Get intentional. Live ‘on purpose.’

call a coach

Moving Toward Something, Not Away From It

This season of COVID-19 in our lives has brought change at all levels of humanity. It is clear our interactions may never be the same again. There likely will never be a return to “normal” as we once knew it.

Is that OK?

For an organized unit of any kind (a family, a small business, a non-profit, a school, church, synagogue or even the Fortune 500), your survival as an entity requires you to embrace the change. Otherwise, your very existence may be in jeopardy.

Successful achievement of this kind of change takes vision and leadership. The ability to see the new horizon, then direct efforts to get there takes courage.

Leaders must help their people see the possibilities rather than the loss from the past. Move toward something not away from it.

Some Things Are Favorable

I for one, am encouraged as I travel (virtually) the landscape in my surroundings. My clients have shared with me their decisions on ways to plot a new course in the way they do business. The professional networks I belong to have, for the most part, gracefully yet firmly embraced the change and made serious decisions about ways to grow and prosper.

The delivery of goods and services have shifted for everyone, yet the desire to stay true to a brand identity has been strengthened. Smart companies have mobilized their leadership teams to think of new ways to work, ways to communicate, and ways to maintain a virtual workforce.

Are we there yet?

Heck no. We still have a long way to go to shape the future of our businesses.

There are some organizations who have suffered at the hands of weak, undecisive leaders. I know of one story locally, where the CEO announced his retirement one week before the lockdown was directed by government officials.

The organization erupted into chaos. People who were in direct line of succession stalled, abdicating their duties.

Junior staffers rose up to take control but were unequipped to manage the bigger issues. The final outcome is yet to be determined, but for now, the business’s financial condition and its following have deteriorated, possibly to the point of no return.

confused minds say NO

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Small business can survive this. But as I said earlier, it takes strong decisive leadership to do it. Pride and ego have no place here.

A leader’s metal must be tested and proven durable.

There are key actions that can help mitigate the sense of loss and set the stage for moving forward.

Pick List

Lead yourself first. As a leader, you must strengthen your own resolve to steer through the crisis. Reconnect with the vision for the organization. Adjust what needs to be adjusted, then lock in on core values; both your personal values and those of the business. Seek your own personal advisory help to shape the action you want to follow. If you’ve never had a coach, mentor, or advisor at your side, now is the time.

Work on your communication style and effectiveness. As the changes around us are happening, leadership communication is at a premium. Clear, concise messaging is critical. If you confuse, you lose. People no longer have the opportunity for those ‘quick moments in the hallway’ to seek clarity from the boss. You have to manage the messaging.

Conduct 30-minute discussions with staff daily. One on one meetings may not be doable but small group calls can be. Ask how are they doing at home. How’s the spouse and kids? Is there anything impeding their work that you could help with?

Proactively identify those at risk. If you already have a personality assessment on employees, dust them off. If not, consider getting one. Look for things like their Social Energy scores, or Restlessness, or Organizational needs. Tools like Hogan Assessments can reveal key strengths and areas of sensitivity.

Employee Surveys– Do a formal and confidential survey and get a pulse. Results may not be specific, but it can be a good starting point.

Professional Counseling – Many insurance companies offer some form of counseling for mental or emotional challenges. Inquire about eligibility through the Employment Assistance Option or consider purchasing an option for the employees. Whatever you do, make sure the employees know it is confidential.

If these are values and solutions you desire but are not sure how to do them or where to start, I can provide help. Set up a call or visit the rest of my site.

Getting the Most from Small Changes

Good vs bad

For anyone trying to achieve new goals, you likely know about the idea of taking small steps. Yet when you want to improve your leadership effectiveness, those steps are hard to identify, much less work on.

Almost every client I have had the opportunity to work with has found value in a simple concept I landed on many years ago. You see, leadership development is all about behavioral change. Want to be a better leader? Make some changes in the way you show up.

How do you do that?

It goes without saying you have to identify the behavioral change that is desired. Once you get a firm grasp on the significance of the change, then you can break it down into actionable steps.

Here’s where the rub happens. Actionable steps aren’t always easy to define. You know you want to change the behavior you identified, but grasping ways to do it can be hard.

My mystery method involves locking into a word picture. Shift the idea from deep inside your head to something that can be seen as more tangible.

Here’s a real example. One client confessed to struggling with managing conflict. Whenever it became evident that conflict might arise, they would get physically ill thinking about it. We had spent several sessions talking about the need for their approach to conflict to change, yet we came up with no tangible way to get there until I suggested the following solution.

I asked one more time if they really wanted to change. The answer was a resounding yes.

Next I suggested a fresh mental image. I asked if they recalled the cartoons with the two figures standing on each shoulder. In the classic cartoon, one character was a devil, the other an angel. The struggle between good and evil.

In this case I suggested the two characters stood for the old behavior versus the new, more desirable behavior. I asked my client which character should get more attention and energy. The answer was the new behavior.

Upon thinking about the word picture, my client said “Wow, all of a sudden this is not an emotional issue for me. It seems like something where I have a choice.” I agreed.

They went on further to say, “It’s odd you suggested that picture to me. I use those characters for other things. The one with better behavior is all buff. I don’t know why I hadn’t thought about allowing them to help me with this too.”


The Examples Go On

I once used the idea of a switch to demonstrate a behavior change. Sensing a situation was brewing, the client agreed to think consciously about a switch (like a light switch). On or off was good or bad in terms of the desired behavior they were working on.

There have been many others. But one point I want to stress is this. You have to find tangible ways to impact effect change in your behavior. Leaving your goals to fuzzy visions and ideas won’t work. Get a picture in your mind, name a thing to remind you, carry a rabbits foot, whatever it takes to make change tangible.

Whenever the moment arises that the new behavior is needed, use the thing to remind you about the change you want to make.

Executive Leadership and Woodworking

My wife said she wanted a new kitchen pantry for her birthday. I like doing what my wife asks. Fortunately for me, ripping out the old pantry and building a new one was something I enjoy doing.

When I was growing up, a neighbor friend was a master craftsman. He had an amazing woodshop that made me get so excited everytime he opened the doors. George was his name.

George took me under his wing and let me apprentice for him for several years. His specialty was building gorgeous custom cabinets that suited just about anything the buyer wanted to do.

Big Projects

Back then, music systems came in huge component pieces. Turntables, tape decks, amplifiers and tuners all needed a cabinet to fit into. Great speakers came in big boxes. George made amazing cabinets out of mahogany, maple and other exotic woods. The custom cabinets George built were features in various celebrity homes in the area; golfers, singers and other entertainers.

It was so much fun to go with George on a delivery. I never knew who I might meet.

He taught me how to work with all of the tools and build solid, dependable joints for cabinets. I learned his ways of measuring and designing very nice cabinets.

All of my adult life I’ve treasured the special tools I have found. I love having a project to do. It serves as my outlet for decompressing and restoring my spirit.

Every time I start a project and as I am working through it, I think of ‘George-isms’. While his teachings were specific to woodworking, they also represented great learning for leaders.


Under George’s tutoring he taught many many concepts. As I’ve gotten older and wiser (I hope), it strikes me that these sayings have a broader fit for life lessons and leadership theory too.

Here are some of the ones I like best.

Use the right tool for the right job. Per George, if you don’t you will either hurt the tool, hurt the material, or hurt yourself.

If you’ve ever tried home fix-it projects, it’s tempting to grab the screwdriver to pry something apart. Screwdrivers aren’t made to be pry bars. Usually, they bend first.

The pressure of the prying can warp the shaft of the screwdriver, making your next attempt to actually drive a screw next to impossible.

Leaders make mistakes by assigning tasks to the wrong people. Use the wrong person for a job and you will either hurt the project or hurt the person, maybe both.

You can set people up to fail. A leader needs to watch for moments when an unintentional decision can lead to unexpected damage.

Measure twice, cut once. This may be the most famous of all carpentry sayings. It was not a George original, but nonetheless one very important lesson. If the two measurements aren’t the same, you need a third one to verify.

In the woodshop, materials can be expensive. One wrong cut and you’ve ruined a piece of wood. There is no making a piece longer once it gets cut. On the other hand, cutting too long creates a waste of time.

Delivery of finished projects always had time constraints. Wasting time on extra cuts burned the schedule.

As a leader, you need to check your facts before making a decision. Get extra data just like the second or third measurement.

Save time in the long run by being more accurate with your information. Don’t waste people’s time and resources re-doing a process.

Don’t work tired. George had a day job. So his cabinetry happened during off-hours, nights, and weekends. On occasion, he would go into the shop to unwind. But if he was too tired or mentally fatigued from his day, it was not a good idea.

The inability to focus and pay good attention could cause problems like messing up materials or hurting yourself. Not to be too morose, but George was missing the last digit on one pinky finger. Years prior he admitted losing focus and allowing his hand to get too close to a saw blade.

He claimed to be thankful it wasn’t a more severe injury. But he used it to remind me of potential dangers if you don’t respect the work area.

Leaders getting too tired can lose focus also. Take care of yourself. Find rest. Stay healthy. You can hurt someone or hurt yourself.

Lastly, mind your temper. I saw George ‘lose it’ a few times. As much as I loved the man, he had his occasional moments of throwing his temper. Never at me mind you, but if something didn’t go right, he could have a fit.

A wood shop with a larger array of power-tools is not a good place to have a temper. (Not that anyplace is good to have a temper). Things have sharp edges and heavy weights. Slamming, throwing, or flinging things is just not cool.

George was remorseful at my witnessing such outbursts. And we would talk about the circumstances.

Leaders and business owners need to mind their temper at all times. Nothing is more demoralizing to a staff than seeing the boss lose it. In most business settings I’ve ever known, there is no clawing it back once it is unleashed.


Think about these 4 basic ideas. See how they fit into your leadership framework. If you’ve never considered one of them, try it out.

Oh, and here’s a bonus message I learned later. Not a George-ism but could be.

Think about it.

hammer and nails

Managerial Courage

bathroom remodel

We are remodeling a bathroom and are in search of the holy grail—a certain rug that we saw somewhere that we should have bought when we saw it but didn’t. Our bad. 

We were unable to find the thing online as it is so hard to judge textured items on a website, forcing us on a store-by-store quest last weekend. Our eighteen-month-old grandson joined the adventure.

We arrived at a the mall that had three potential targets, all relatively close to each other- Pier 1, Home Goods, and Ross. Yes, we had already been to an actual Target. 

We loaded the 30-pound toddler into the first cart we could find and strapped him in. Home Goods had some cool rugs but not the one we were looking for. We left Home Goods to hit the next store in line, Ross. And please get over yourself. Like you’ve never been into a Ross?

When we attempted to enter the store, a security guard in full uniform, carrying a gun, (OK, she may not have had an actual weapon but remembering it that way improves the story) stops me. 

“Sir, you are not allowed to bring a Home Goods cart into our store,” she said. I reacted calmly. OK, maybe not so calmly. I guess it was the shock of being hassled by “the man” when we were right in the middle of a pretty enjoyable afternoon. 

I asked why and was told that it was their policy. I asked why the policy and didn’t get any discernible response.  Apparently, the end game was to get me to transfer my already-strapped-in-and-content grandson from a Home Goods cart to a Ross cart. I declined and we went our way down to Pier 1.

Being the process improvement and customer service instructor that I am, I sent Ross an online, customer service message, explaining what happened, asking them to please fix this silly policy, and I told them that there was no need to contact me.

So, bright and early on Monday morning, the store manager at that store calls me to explain their policy. He says it is a liability issue. Really? 

Worried that some rouge cart is going to break loose and crash into the display of Easter clearance items? The discussion went back and forth, ending with him saying that “He doesn’t make the rules.” And there you have it.

If this guy, supposedly the highest-ranking manager at the store, did not make the rule then who did?  The policy is clearly dumb, but who makes up this stuff?

Policies like this usually appear in one of three ways.

Single Violator/One Time Incidents

Remember that time that Fred (every office has one) started coming in late? It was only five minutes at first but seemed to escalate over time. By the end of the month the tardiness grew to the point where 8:30 arrivals were not uncommon.

Everyone wondered why no one had said anything to Fred? Management finally noticed but dealing with Fred was always difficult. It is also possible that Fred’s manager had waited so long that he was now hesitant or even embarrassed to have to confront the issue. 

The solution? A new policy! 

That’s right. Every employee is notified that they must attend a lunch-and-learn training session on the new punctuality policy. Everyone also knows that this is really about Fred. They call it the “Fred Policy” when the boss (and Fred) are not around.

Risk Aversion

Trying to anticipate every possible event that could possibly go wrong is not a bad idea. Still, the process can escalate into silliness. It is a cultural disease. It starts small but grows and if not checked can create huge, cancerous, policy manuals. 

The challenge here is to find the balance between what must be decided by policy and what should be left to the empowered employee.   I suspect that this is what has happened in the Ross cart story. 

Someone, somewhere, read a story about a shopping cart mishap and decided that a policy was needed. If your organization is really good at policy writing and enforcement, be careful. Any strength, when over used, becomes a weakness.

Emotionally Immature Managers

I have some experience in managing traffic flow as I have volunteered to help direct traffic at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo and at my almost-mega church. You learn a lot when you are standing on the tarmac wearing a fluorescent colored vest holding a flashlight.  

One of the things that constantly amazes me is the change in demeanor when you give a guy a walkie-talkie. The nice, even-tempered, well-mannered person you knew ten minutes ago can quickly transform into regimented, command barking, taskmaster. 

Let’s face it. Some of us just can’t handle being put in charge. We sometimes overreact by installing rules and regulations that fit our needs and are not necessarily beneficial for the team.

The Call

When’s the last time you managed-by-policy rather than deal with issues?

Please have the managerial courage to deal directly with Fred, the strength to empower your employees to make decisions locally, and the emotional intelligence to keep your own “rules” reasonable.  

Doing so will mean that people will line-up to be on your team.  See for another tool to help you be a hero in your organization.

This article was contributed by friend and colleague, Roger Ferguson, creator of the Big 5 Performance Management system.

Leadership, Ownership, and Vision

person having a vision

This week’s meeting with a client reminded me of something so fundamental in running any size of business.

Don’t forget your vision.

John Maxwell says the best definition of a leader is “A leader sees more than the people around them and they see it before the people around them.” That, my friend, is vision.

First the Entrepreneur

If you are an entrepreneur and small business owner, the vision can get lost in the details. Especially if you’ve begun to scale your company.

Time and growth have ways of distracting from the vision.

As your baby begins to grow, you may lose sight of the original vision that got you started. Daily responsibilities, putting out fires, and keeping your head down in the details frequently leads to loosing touch with the original design and inspiration you had.

On one hand, it sounds too obvious. Well of course I know my vision. Do you? Or has the collection of all the noise drown it out?

As decisions compound with company growth, the vision needs to get updated and at least refreshed to reflect what has happened.

It Happens in Bigger Business Too

For managers and executives in larger businesses, too often you never created your vision goal for your team. Sure you have objectives and deliverables but does that line up with a bigger picture vision of your part of the company.

When I meet new clients inside the bigger corporate settings, I always ask whether they have a vision for their unit. It is surprising how many say “Well, no. I’m here to do what the company tells me to do.”

I encourage them to formulate their own vision for their slice of the pie. Get it approved/aligned with their boss. But then run with that vision.

For some, vision sounds too fluffy. It’s not tangible enough. OK fine, make it tangible. Set metrics, KPI, and expectations.

Part of having a successful vision is letting your team know what you think a ‘win’ looks like. Let them share in the vision.

Then spend time teaching and sharing the vision so your team can rally around it.

Periodically you will need to revisit the vision, make adjustments based on real facts and circumstances. Don’t forget about doing that.

Set your course, cast the vision and never lose sight of it.

If you’ve done something lately with your vision, leave a comment.

#Vision #Leadershipcoaching #smallbusinessadvisor

"A leader sees more than the people around them and they see it before the people around them." ~John Maxwell Click To Tweet

Leading in a VUCA World

leadership in a vuca world

What is a VUCA World?

The word VUCA is really an acronym that stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. You would think this is a new term describing the recent events we have all faced.

Considering the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic downturn it created, and the social unrest, one would think VUCA describes it perfectly. Yet it’s really an old word.

Where does the term VUCA come from?

VUCA was first used in 1987 and based on the leadership theories of Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus. It was the response of the US Army War College to the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s. Suddenly, there was no longer only one enemy threatening Western civilization.

Oddly, not having a common enemy would seem a calming effect. Instead, it created an unsettling sense of dread, as in ‘where do I look next?’

The World of Today

The COVID pandemic did not spawn VUCA thinking, but it reminds us just how hard things can be. It was felt long before we were subjected to massive shift changes in business and social circles caused by pandemic lockdowns and social distancing.

Neither an organization’s leadership nor its strategies are spared in today’s VUCA world. Experiences, dogmas, and paradigms must all come under scrutiny; it is no longer a case of finding the one way or the management tool: standards give way to individuality.

What got you here won’t get you there. This is a theme I’ve heard inside companies of all sizes. Leaders feel it, but are struggling to manage it.

You as a Leader

As a manager, you are responsible for the lion’s share of the decisions about the parameters that define how your organization can operate.

The increase in volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity means that you and your business must seek new orientations and take a fresh approach to management. Only then can you guarantee positive results in changing circumstances.

The VUCA world challenges you to find your own way. You will need to understand the far-reaching psycho-logic and emotional impacts on your people.

How Should a Leader Respond?

First, and I would argue foremost, leaders in today’s VUCA world need to upgrade their leadership toolkit with empathy. Develop more empathic behavior – in short, be more concerned with humans and their needs. Under VUCA, meaning and purpose take a central role in business activities.

Dealing with your employees has added layers with VUCA.

If you think you are under pressure, what about your employees who may not have as much information as you? They are looking to you as their leader to provide clarity and certainty.

That’s not always an easy fix. Which brings us to clarity. The more clear you can make messages and instructions, the better. Remember, if you confuse you lose.

Crafting and delivering a clear message helps to reduce the VUCA for your team.

Communication must be highlighted as well. The days of hiding behind a desk just won’t cut it in any circumstance. You have to be out in front with specific, meaningful communication for your team, your peers, and your customers.

Solid and clear communication helps to cut through the complexity and eliminate ambiguity. The more you can do to define what a “win” looks like, helps your team focus and drive to success.

VUCA will test your Leadership

If you’ve been wondering what feels ‘off’ about running a team these days, it’s likely due to VUCA. The degrees of severity may depend on your situation, but we all have it.

I’m reminded of the frog in the pot story.

The story says if you put a frog in hot water, he’ll jump right out. But if you put him in cool water and slowly turn up the heat, he’ll boil to death.

Don’t let VUCA be your boiling pot. Diagnose the situation and design your response to it.

If you’d like more ideas, visit my blog or join the conversation.

Are You Coachable?

In my consulting and coaching business, I often ask potential clients the question “are you coachable?”

It is amazing how many times the prospect says “well, yes I believe I am.” After a few sessions with input and feedback, it becomes apparent they really are not coachable.

How do I know? It manifests itself in many ways.

The Athlete’s Edge

To find good examples of being coachable we can look directly at athletics where the concept of coach and student are most notable.

When you explore the story of the truly great athletes (think Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant), you will find stories of tireless pursuit of perfection. Regardless of the season they just had, these guys worked relentlessly to improve their stamina, skills, and techniques.

Jerry Rice, football great and now, NFL Hall of Famer was being interviewed. He was on the driving range at a celebrity golf outing. Rather than merely slap some golf balls around, he was on the range with both his caddy and a coach. When shots were not going the right place he was asking for guidance and advice.

Golf isn’t even his game, yet the discipline of looking to perfect a skill was at work. His desire to do well at whatever endeavor was before him drove his will to be better. That’s being coachable.

The Test

Here are a few thoughts about deciding if you are truly coachable.

First, do you routinely seek advice and counsel to improve some aspect of your professional or personal life? Or have you learned it all and know it all?

Next, when you get advice do you act on it, following through with using the information to achieve more? Or do you discount the information and talk yourself out of action?

Lastly, do you seek follow-up from the coaching source to be sure you understood the coaching and that you are properly performing the actions that were recommended? Or do you move on without ever doubling back for refining advice?

If your current professional or personal situation is not producing the results you expect, then perhaps some coaching is needed. But before you simply engage a coach, ask yourself whether you are truly coachable.

Manager vs Leader

When I taught Strategic Leadership, the students had to read John Kotter’s 1990 article on “What Leaders Really Do.”  Kotter was very effective in setting out different functions for leaders and managers such as leaders align people as opposed to managers who organize and staff.

Over the years, there has been debate on whether one can perform both roles as though they are two distinct types of people.  According to Kotter, the essence of the difference is managers deal with complexity whereas leaders focus on change.

On this basis, one might think leaders and managers are different.   Over time, managers seem to have lost their gravitas as we deal in a world of accelerating change.

Recently, the New Cambridge Advanced Dictionary defines a leader as “a person in control of a group, country, or situation”.  

Control is a rather funny word to use for leaders. Control is really more of a managerial notion on controlling resources including staff and not per se the foundation of leadership.

We seem to be running amok on intermingling the concept of managers and leaders without a clear understanding of their similarities and differences.

In my opinion, the concept of management and leaders are clearly different, but there is opportunity for significant overlap. This overlap corresponds to  some of the basic thinking of John Gardner outlined in his article 1990 “The Nature and Tasks of Leadership.” 

He has a very thoughtful delineation of leaders and managers and truly worth a read with rather sophisticated analysis that I largely agree with.

For me, the key is that managers are derived from organizations.  They are given a distinct role with certain responsibility and authority. 

Leaders have followers.  People follow because they are inspired by the leader’s vision and direction, which supports their needs in some meaningful way.

senior leaders

Managers are given the authority and responsibility to achieve organizational objectives.  Likewise, people follow leaders to achieve envisioned results.  A manager can be a leader and vice versa a leader can be a manager.  If a manager in an organization has people following them because they are inspired by the direction, leadership is being demonstrated. 

Likewise, if a leader exists in an organization, by definition followers have been inspired to pursue a course of action. Of course, a leader does not have to be part of an organization’s hierarchy to have followers.  And a manager in an organization may not be exhibiting leadership skills.

In today’s dynamically changing world, to achieve great results, it is critical that managers be great leaders.  It is also critical that those not in positions with managerial authority also exhibit leadership.  Thus, I think focusing on leadership is a strong agenda for organizations seeking high performance.

In previous blogs, I have outlined the construct of a leader’s outer world with the 3 Ps of Leadership: People, Planning, and Performance.  Traditional leadership characteristics play a significant role on the People and Planning side.  A leader must understand the needs of potential followers and set out a direction and vision that reaches critical needs. 

Of course, management functions also play a role in people and planning, but a real key to management is the execution of the plan that leads to achieving the vision.  Thus, leadership and management occur simultaneously in these different phases with emphasis varying depending on the phase. 

While there are meaningful differences in functions, activities, and perspectives between the manager and leader role, achieving great results requires an orchestrated intermingling in a business setting. 

The 3 Ps provide a highly useful framework that facilitates understanding of this interaction of leader and manager roles.  Much more could be described on how on this interaction, but let’s leave some of that for you to explore.

Contributed by Lane Sloan, former Shell CFO and Silver Fox Advisor.