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Posted: June 01, 2011

Neurosis in the C-Suite

No stomach for ambiguity

Todd Ordal

"Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity." - Sigmund Freud

Years ago, I was a Kinko's executive in charge of a large part of the country. This was during our rah-rah growth period, and we were opening stores like mad. In preparation for the new year, I put together an expansion plan to open, move and remodel many stores as that was our plan. As you can imagine, this required lots of preparation, resources and time. We ramped up hiring, had our real estate team scurrying like rats on amphetamines, reconfigured operating regions and developed detailed capex plans. The train was in motion. Growth was fun and I was pumped up!

One day our founder, Paul Orfalea, called and out of the blue said something like, "Hey Man, um, we decided not to open all of those stores." What?! I came unglued. Didn't he understand how much work had gone into this planning process? Didn't he understand how many disappointed and pissed off people I was going to have to deal with? Didn't he understand how foolish I was going to look?

Our culture was creative, freewheeling, fun and expressive. It was also full of conflict - some healthy and some not. After I blew off some steam - and Paul was not particularly good at listening to it - the son of a gun chuckled and said, "Toddy Boy, you're just going to have to deal with the ambiguity!" I can still hear him laughing as he hung up the phone. (He even had the nerve to tell this story in his book "Copy This!")

At the time, I was young and full of myself, so I was pretty confident that I was a genius and he was a dope. Now, I'm sure I mixed up the "I" and "he" in that sentence. It was a great lesson to learn. Stuff happens and you can't always eat your alphabet soup A, B, C ... Z.

I recently worked with a young executive who was tapped by his CEO as "capable with flaws." As we worked on filling in the gaps, it became evident that he was no better at dealing with ambiguity than I was on that phone call. "Life isn't black and white," I suggested to him. "You need to learn to think in shades of gray." It was so apparent that he'd self-destruct if he couldn't start to identify middle ground and not react with dismay when potholes popped up on his well-planned travel route.

I had to keep this in mind the other night. I called my wife from a business trip and suggested dinner at a specific restaurant at a specific time. I got home that night and we drove to dinner. I skipped a meal on the plane (admittedly just a snack box) and raced home from the airport as my stomach growled. We drove into town and as we approached the restaurant - by this time I'd already mentally ordered a bottle of wine and devoured my main course - she says, "I don't want to go there. I want to go to that new restaurant we talked about." I'm about to blow a fuse when I hear this voice in my head laughing at me and saying, "Toddy Boy, you're just going to have to deal with the ambiguity!" We ended up having a great meal at the restaurant of her choice.

Senior executives must provide clarity for their people yet also deal with ambiguity without going mad. Isn't that ambiguous?!
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Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at,  303-527-0417 or

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Readers Respond

Hi Jeannette, Thanks! Yes, there are 2 sides to this coin...the ability to plan (create blueprints) and the ability to deal with change on the fly. While juxtaposed, they're both required! (Darn, that's ambiguous!) I agree that creating alignment requires a plan. Cheers Todd By Todd Ordal on 2011 06 01
Aimee- My experience is that the more entrepreneurial the environment, the more ambiguous so I'm sure that you have some wide ranging dinner conversations with your spouse!! Cheers Todd By Todd Ordal on 2011 06 01
Great piece, Todd. As a small business owner who is married to a serial entrepreneur, I can relate to the content of the article and your poignant examples. In any corporate environment, especially in times like these, we need to remember to make room for flexibility, fresh ideas and inevitable change, while keeping our eyes on the long-range vision and standing by our core values. By Aimee Miller on 2011 06 01
Great article! Too true. Sadly, many C-Suite's are unable to take strategy and create an effective blueprint to execute and implement it. If they are unable to take the lead, it's hard for the nay-sayers and others to get on board, and stay there through the inevitable ups and downs. By Jeannette Seibly on 2011 06 01

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