It’s Not About Experts – It’s about Nerve, Endurance and a Commitment to Learning

Convenient Misconceptions
The conversations started over a year ago when an executive in one of my clients approached me, “You are the leadership guru,” he began, “how will you get the CEO to become a leader?” I was a little surprised by the intensity of the statement especially because the scope of my assignment had little to do with directly working with the executive team.  However, this was not the first time a COO has approached me with this level of frustration.

“I won’t,” I responded.

He looked me up and down for a moment.

“What do you mean?” he continued.

“How long have you been with this CEO?” I queried.

“About 15 years,” he answered.

“Hmm, over that time how has the rest of the team, yourself included, adjusted to the CEO’s poor leadership?  What changes in your own leadership perspectives have to occur if the CEO did become the leader you want him to be?  What has changed now that makes the CEO, you and the rest of the team open to change that was not in play before now? What makes you think I can bring change you have either been unable or unwilling to initiate in the last 15 years?” I had more questions but I could see that I had already more than amply primed the pump.

It is not uncommon in a consultation to be viewed as the answer to all an organization’s most troubling problems.  In fact it is a little heady to be viewed as one possessing such power…that is until reality pops back up. In my younger days I would have jumped into the middle of this discussion and outlined a change project that failed to take into account the systems, organizational culture and long-term relationships that had authenticated the leadership of the CEO (warts and all) for so long. In my earlier days I often failed to appreciate that pushing on a system to change only meant having the system snap back with the same force to expel me.  The simple fact is knowledge is only a small part of a transformative process.  It opens the door to new perspectives and may inform future decisions.  But it cannot make people travel a path they don’t want to pursue.

The COO sat across the table from me silent. When the conversation started back up we talked about the questions I raised. “One thing that is different,” he began, “is that you have challenged the CEO in a way none of us ever have before. He is talking about change now where before he acknowledged that he was the limiting factor to the organization but he would not step away from his role.”

“What will you do with the observation you just made,” I asked.  “In what ways have I challenged the CEO that you have not? What makes this challenge so effective? What step will you take next since you are in a place to do far more change organizationally than I am?”

At this the conversation shifted to talk about how to define leadership and how leaders develop.  Over the course of the next several months the COO and I met periodically to continue the discussion and to talk about communication and where the company needed to go in his view.  The COO talked about his conversations with the CEO and how they had changed to be more transparent or open.

The COO’s opening statement about guru’s was a convenient misconception.  In his frustration and resignation with how things were it seemed far easier to assume a holding pattern that waited for some outside force to start the changes he felt were needed. Convenient misconceptions are simply ways to avoid the stress of upsetting the status quo. All of us weigh the cost to change.  We understand that in some cases acting like a turtle under duress seems safer – withdraw, pull down a paycheck and try to reduce the impact living at odds with either core values or sense of purpose. But, convenient misconceptions ultimately show up for what they are – denial.

The Change – it begins internally

Month’s passed and the COO invited me to lunch. “I want to talk about a different future,” he said in his call, “this is strictly confidential.”

“I understand, I will keep the conversation confidential and I would love to go to lunch” I replied.

At lunch the COO laid out his plan to either take over the role of the CEO or step down from his role as COO.  “I cannot continue in either the scope of my role as now defined or the tension of this role knowing that without significant change we may be in trouble in just a few years.  I want to do something significant. I can do it here or somewhere else,” he told me at lunch.

The problem in all interpersonal relationships is the challenge of preserving self in a close relationship.  Somewhere along the way the COO had lost his sense of self.  He now began to reclaim it and to decide how he would stay a differentiated person while simultaneously maintaining a healthy interaction with the CEO and the rest of the company’s leadership team.  This requires maturity that Friedman defines as, “…the willingness to take responsibility for one’s own emotional being and destiny.”[1]

Leadership is an emotional process and not only a process of analysis and data. The significance of this shows up in how a leader deals with resistance. In this case resistance from the CEO was not something to avoid.  Instead the CEO’s resistance was a reality associated with the shifting balances in the emotional processes of a relationship system of the company. Resistance was inherent in change the COO wanted to pursue and was not caused by the company’s “…specific issues, makeup, or goals….”[2]  The capacity of the COO to identify and manage this emotional process began a road to change.  This kind of self-management that addresses and not avoids emotional issues is paramount to success in leadership.

Now what?

The COO invited me to help with the changes he mapped out. I reviewed his plan and provided feedback.  When he presented his plan to the CEO and to the board the plan was enthusiastically received. We met again after the board meeting and the COO outlined his next steps.

“Your job is changing pretty dramatically,” I offered.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” he stated.

“May I suggest that the transition you are now entering, and that your entire team is entering, is the same as though you were moving to a new company altogether?” I asked. He agreed with this assessment and we talked about how he would approach his first 90 days. I recommended the book by Watkins, The First Ninety Days.  In his book Watkins points out that,

… transitions are critical times when small differences in your actions can have disproportionate impacts on results. Leaders, regardless of their level, are most vulnerable in their first few months in a new position because they lack detailed knowledge of challenges they will face and what it will take to succeed in meeting them: they also have not developed a network of relationships too sustain them.[3]

In the transition the COO has entered he has to manage the shifting balances of the emotional processes in the company and do this while matching his strategy to the situation. Understanding the situation of the company is the first step in outlining a strategy that has the potential to succeed.  It is now imperative that the COO find the right formula for success especially now that he secured the changes he wanted.  So what does it mean to match strategy to situation?

Match Strategy to Situation

Understanding the developmental stage of the organization provides a basis for engaging the right kind of leadership approach. If the business situation of the company is not understood then it is easy to set the wrong goals and then fail to meet them. In the first 90 days of a transition it is important to establish credibility and knowing the business situation is critical. Watson’s STARS model (i.e., is the business a start-up, turnaround, realignment or sustained success?) is a simple diagnostic tool that can guide critical leadership/management decisions.[4]

Figure 1: STARS model[5]


The goal in a transition is to focus energy on the actions that set up the greatest chance of success in a new environment. Figure 2 below summarizes the choices. Focusing energy in a new assignment is a function of three core questions:[6]

  1. How much emphasis will you place on learning as opposed to doing?
  2. How much emphasis will you place on offense as opposed to defense?
  3. What should you do to get some early wins?

Figure 2: Focus Energy on the Right Approach

By offense Watkins means activities such as identifying new markets, developing new products/technologies and building new alliances.

By defense he means protecting current market share positions, strengthening products and realigning relationships. In turnarounds a good defensive position includes pairing things back to the most valuable core and identifying the most valuable employees.  New relationships are important to forge with the right people so that the team that results is ready to work in a new direction. Friedman’s work around systems in leadership relationships is an important addition to Watkins at this point.[7]

Friedman defines the difference between healthy (differentiated) and unhealthy (non-differentiated) people and the dynamics involved in various relational triangles. His point that all relationships are three-sided versus two-sided is an important insight to a leader stepping into any new situation particularly in the case of the COO who has a team made up of new and existing members all of whom must now redefine themselves in light of the shifts in reporting structure.   The COO must decide the situation of his own company.  Consider your situation.  What challenges and opportunities do you face?

See the Challenges and Opportunities of Transition Times[8]

In a start-up people are excited and hopeful. The challenges include:

  • Building structures and system from scratch without a clear framework or boundaries.
  • Welding together a cohesive high-performing team
  • Making do with limited resources

The opportunities in a start-up include:

  • You can do things right from the beginning
  • People are energized by the possibilities
  • There is no preexisting rigidity in people’s thinking.

Clearly a leader has much more flexibility in a start-up.  Remember however that flexibility also means the leader’s own strengths and weaknesses will mark the company. Diversifying leadership by acquiring good mentors and choosing the right employees helps prevent adopting fatal flaws.

In a turnaround the focus stays on key issues like vision, strategy, structures and systems. The challenges include:

  • Re-energizing demoralized employees and other stakeholders
  • Handling time pressure and having a quick and decisive impact
  • Going deep enough with painful cuts and difficult people choices

The opportunities of a turnaround are:

  • Everyone recognizes that change is necessary
  • Affected constituencies (such as suppliers who want the company to stay in business) may offer significant external support
  • A little success goes a long way.

In realignment the goal is to pierce the veil of denial that has allowed the organization to get too close to irrelevance. The challenges a person faces in realignment include:

  • Dealing with deeply ingrained cultural norms that no longer contribute to high performance.
  • Convincing employees that change is necessary.
  • Restructuring the top team and refocusing the organization.

The opportunities a person faces when leading realignment include:

  • The organization  has significant pockets of strength
  • People want to continue to see themselves as successful.

When leaders find themselves in successful organizations where the assignment is to sustain success the objective is to invent a challenge the organization can rally behind.  The challenges faced by leaders in successful organizations include:

  • Playing good defense by avoiding decisions that cause problems
  • Living in the shadow of a revered leader and dealing with the team he or she created
  • Finding ways to take the business to the next level

Successful organizations present great opportunities as well:

  • A strong team may already be in place
  • People are motivated to succeed
  • Foundations to continued success (such as the product pipeline) may be in place


The COO’s journey has changed from tedious boredom plodding toward retirement to enthusiastic purpose striding to a new future. I appreciate the invitation to work alongside this team as they pursue a different future. The road ahead is not without deep challenges. Even though the team agrees on the need for change not all of them anticipate how the changing relational structures and strategic emphasis impacts their relationships, skill development and leadership capacity.  Those who are weakest in their self-differentiation will have the hardest time adjusting – if they do adjust.

Remember, it’s not about experts – it’s about nerve, endurance and a commitment to learning. So how do you assess your own sense of purpose and your role in the organization in which you work? Do you have the courage or nerve to be an agent of excellence and/or change?  The COO’s own change and self-differentiation ran parallel to his willingness to step away from a good paying job to pursue his sense of purpose and a more meaningful relationship. The CEO could easily have agreed to his departure. I suspect however that the COO would have found the pursuit of purpose a far greater force than the temporary loss of revenue. In your situation ask yourself the following questions and see where they lead you.[9]

  1. Which of the four STARS situations are you facing?
  2. What are the implications for the challenges and opportunities you are likely to confront?
  3. What are the implications for your learning agenda? Do you only need to understand the technical side of the business, or is it critical that you understand culture and politics as well?
  4. Which of your skills and strengths are likely to be most valuable in your situation and which have the potential to get you into trouble?
  5. What is the prevailing frame of mind? What psychological transformation do you need to make and how will you bring it about?
  6. Should your focus be on offense or defense?
  7. When you dig deeper, what is the mix of types of situation that you are managing? Which portions of your unit are in start-up, turnaround, realignment, and sustaining success modes?  What are the implications for how you should manage and reward the people who work for you?

[1] Edwin Friedman. Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, Margaret M. Treadwell and Edward W. Beal eds. (New York, NY: Church Publishing. [Kindle Version downloaded from], 2007), 235 of 5400.

[2] Friedman 292 of 5400.

[3] Michael Watkins. The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at all Levels (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press, 2003), iv.

[4] This is another way to describe where a corporation or company is at in its life cycle. Compare Ichak Adizes. Corporate Lifecycles: How and Why Corporations Grow and Die and What to Do About It (Englewood Cliffs, NJ:  Prentice Hall, 1988).  The model also takes into account the insights from Ken Blanchard in his work on innovation/revitalization showing how revitalization must occur as an organization approaches its prime.  See Ken Blanchard and Terry Waghorn.  Mission Possible: Becoming a World-Class Organization While there’s Still Time (New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 1997).

[5] Watkins, 63.

[6] Watkins, 69.

[7] Edwin Friedman. Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix Margaret Treadwell and Edward Beal eds. (New York, NY: Church Publishing, 2007).

[8] Watkins, 66.

[9] Watkins 77-78.

One Reply to “It’s Not About Experts – It’s about Nerve, Endurance and a Commitment to Learning”

  1. Wow… I wish I had known some of this when we entered into leadership a few years ago. I believe we were in a “realignment” situation, hoping that we could make it work with “sustained success” actions. Needless to say, we made a lot of mistakes. Thankfully, God gives a opportunities to learn and grow!

Leave a Reply