Viktor Frankl

In the arena

by | Feb 10, 2020

I was in conversation with a very experienced CEO recently, now leading a high-stakes, complex and multidimensional company.

It is the type of organisation that will never meet the mostly unrealistic expectations of its customers nor satisfy the demands of their conflicted and self-interested stakeholders, more likely to point fingers and shift blame than to take responsibility.
Adding to the complexity, when things go wrong, which they surely will, the CEO can expect to wake up to news leading proclamations questioning the capability of the organisation they lead, including varying opinions on the competency of the CEO.
While I would never put running football clubs in the same category or status of this leader’s role, this was a familiar context.
As CEOs, we did not lack for advice.
During our discussion, the CEO made a comment that has stayed with me.
“You know, the only stuff that should land on my desk are the 49/51 decisions. All other issues should be dealt with before they get to me, otherwise there is something wrong in the organisation, and with my leadership. If I’m dealing with the 80/20 decisions, either I’ve become a control freak, and who wants to work for a control freak, or I have someone not prepared to make the call they are reasonably expected to make. Either way, it reflects on my leadership and it’s my problem to fix”.
As a follow up to this conversation, we began discussing, perhaps bemoaning, a leadership narrative that seems to be growing, in what we considered a most unrealistic and self-defeating way. We were talking about conversations that go something like this:
“I need clarity”, the leader says.
“Good luck then”, I would respond.
“What do you mean good luck? Surely that’s a reasonable expectation?” the leader counters.
If given the opportunity, I would respond with a diatribe something like:
“It is a reasonable expectation to find it for yourself and help create it for others as best you can. Then you must question it. Rethink it. Invite different perspectives. Learn. Test it. Experiment. Act. Learn. Admit you got it wrong. What’s not working? Change it. Teach. Get feedback. Learn. Do it again tomorrow, the next day and the day after and however long you are in the role”. 
“Why? Because no one can find your clarity for you, and you can never be sure you’ve got it, and if you feel as though you do, warning bells should be sounding. It is easy to rationalise our ignorance”. 
“Complexity, complicatedness and vagueness are the reasonable expectations for leaders. If you are not up for this challenge, you are not up for leadership. You will soon be dishonouring the role”.
“By becoming a leader, you have put yourself inside the arena. You are no longer the spectator, proffering opinions from the sidelines. You will take a few hits, it is part of the deal, and in time, the best part”.
“Real leaders are those who can make sense of the ambiguity, take responsibility, understanding what is expected of them in the context of this challenge”.
“I speak with certainty in this regard, because I stuffed it up often, normally some combination of ego, fear or anger”.
“Yes, leadership is hard. It has very high expectations of you, but this is what you have signed up for”.
So what did I learn?
Firstly, as James Clear of Atomic Habits fame says “We do not rise to the level of our goals, we fall to the level of our systems’
Therefore I am going to recommend a system, familiar to those I have worked with:
Every three months, set aside three hours to answer three questions, undertaken in the Cal Newport “Deep Work”, non-distracted and fully focused way. 
The three questions are:
  • What does the role expect of me?
  • What do I expect of the role?
  • What do I expect of myself?
The skill we are seeking to develop is one of attaining deep knowledge, building personal wisdom. The leadership role needs a lot from you, but you need a lot from it, but it must never be such, that it is exacting too high a personal price, an insight that often comes too late.
By undertaking this process, you will be developing ‘reflective competency’.
I cannot promise clarity, but you will find the confidence and belief so important for leaders. Significantly, it will also provide the means to bounce back from the inevitable setbacks, and remind you of why you committed to the role in the first place. You will be honouring the role.
Like so many, I have been heavily influenced by the Viktor Frankl book “Man’s search for meaning”.
Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for other people), and in courage (during difficult times).
In many ways, leadership provides us with the opportunity of achieving all three.
That is powerful.
Time to honour the role.

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Cameron Schwab
CEO & Founder


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