Neurosis in the C-Suite

“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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Categories: Management & Leadership