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A Tale of Two CEOs: How Leaders Unwittingly Cause Complexity


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This excerpt is taken from “Get Unstuck, Stay Unstuck, and do What you are”

The Tale of Two CEOs – Jimmy and Jenna

How Leaders Unwittingly Cause Complexity

“When all you have in your hand is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.”

Abraham Maslow


Self Inflicted Wounds



Human nature is basically instinctual.

It is helpful and important to know that organizations are also fundamentally “instinctual institutions”.

And most leaders tend to be unwittingly instinctual in how they run their companies, that is to say, they (unwittingly) lead and behave in ways that are most natural and comfortable for them.

But in so doing they often make things more complicated than they need to or should be.

The way most businesses run is that once strategies and budgets are created (Football), no matter how much complexity is involved, managers need to translate them into specific goals for departments, units, and teams (Basketball) and then make sure that people actually carry them out (Baseball).

All three systems (games) depending on the task at hand, at some point will come into play.

We need to be good at managing all three organizational games, often in the face of our natural inclinations and instincts.

This is not an easy thing to do.

The point of this article is that the failure of a leader to be aware of what is needed by her company at any given moment and to adapt to the systemic demands and the requisite leadership style embedded in that moment, actually creates more complexity than otherwise would be the case.

In other words, leaders trying to do their best, sometimes actually make things worse; they actually cause more complexity simply by being who they are.


Two CEOs: Jimmy and Jenna

Jimmy and Jenna are CEOs of two young but progressive companies.

Both of them have very different styles.

Each of their organizations is still small enough to need direct involvement/management from their respective CEOs.

Each is facing complexities that are very frustrating but neither realizes how they (their personal and management style) are the primary cause of their concerns.

Jimmy (he owns and runs a software firm) does little to foster team play in his organization.

He does not hold regular staff meetings and in fact has little patience for meetings in general, preferring one-on-one sessions, phone calls, and e-mail.

And of course, Jimmy thinks this is quite fine.

But as a result of his style, his managers often find themselves bumping into one another when their goals and priorities conflict, for example, when a number of his brand managers wound up competing with each other for the same trade spending funds.




The Two Primary Times That Being Directive, Autocratic Etc. is Necessary and Mandatory

This is to suggest at at all that being prescriptive and direct is not good and healthy thing for a leader to do.

In fact, it is a very good way to be; just not all the time.

The times to be task oriented and directive, Jimmy’s preferred style is:

1)  When the systemic game you are playing (given the task at hand) is football, “Jerry, this decision is not about you, it is about the organization, and this is where I want this company to go. End of story.”

2)  When you are teaching a skill, clarifying a task; “Jerry, you need to push this button on the computer…?

3)  Then there are situations that we advocate (are directive) and enquire at the same time.

I read an article several years ago in the New York Times about a CEO in a large municipal hydro company in North Carolina who was fired for being too autocratic.

The (sadly misinformed) Times writer leapt to the conclusion that this showed that being autocratic had become passe, dated.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

This fired CEO simply needed to know how and when to calibrate his style according to the task at hand.

Try running a large company and not know what you want and thus be collaborative all the time.

You will end up in the loony bin, and your company will be rudderless, to be sure.

So Jimmy is fine; he just needs to know how to be different (when it is necessary) but not change.

He nonetheless is causing a lot more complications than he needs to.

What about Jenna?

Jenna (she owns and runs a food packaging company) has a very different style.

With her emphasis on strategic thinking, Jenna feels that bringing her team together is critical so that everyone understands the overall picture and contributes to the decisions about how to move forward.

She holds a quarterly offsite meeting for her team to review progress and refresh the strategic plans, and she also holds weekly staff meetings and numerous ad hoc meetings to share information and solve problems.


She Believes Strongly in Collaboration and Getting Everyone on the Same Page

Her focus on alignment and teamwork means that all the people in her organization have a clear and simple framework for the company’s strategic goals and a clear sense of engagement in their respective roles to the team’s objectives.

What Jenna doesn’t realize is that her participatory leadership style causes many of her people to feel that the strategy is a moving target and that they don’t have sufficient time to actually implement it.

So much time is spent sitting in meetings, analyzing data, and hearing the latest consultant study about market and consumer trends that little is left for tactical planning and execution.


 So While the Big Strategic Picture Is Relatively Clear, Short-Term Tactical Responses are Iffy

Every time one of Jenna’s manager’s wants to put together a program, for example, a trade spending plan designed to promote particular brands, it’s necessary to:

  1. Walk the ideas around to other managers,
  2. Make iterative adjustments to get everyone into alignment,
  3. Connect the plan to the strategy,
  4. And then present the final product to the entire team.

The result is that many tactical plans get to the market late, don’t work as advertised, and need to be redone.


Jimmy and Jenna are like a Lot of CEOs

Some aspects of each of their leadership styles create simplicity and make it easier for people to get results.

Some elements of their style create the exact opposite effect.

They both “simplify” and “complicate” at the same time, despite having management styles that are polar opposites of each other.

And if you told them that their style of leadership was causing complexity, they would be surprised, if not appalled.

Neither feels like they are the one causing complexity.

Whatever complexity they generate is unintentional and largely unconscious.


The Complexity Blind Spot: Too Much of a Good Thing


It is curious that both Jimmy and Jenna, pretty bright and successful people, are generally unaware of the complexity they create in their organizations.

Even more puzzling is that they each can see (at their monthly TEC meeting) how the other causes complexity, but can’t see the consequences of their own behavior.

For example, Jimmy thinks that Jenna spends too much time in meetings with her people.

He calls them “Kumbaya sessions and group gropes” and has suggested to her that she be more directive with her managers.

Jenna, on the other hand, is convinced that Jimmy is so directive and autocratic that his people have to depend on him to resolve conflicts and issues; they don’t have the relationships and trust needed to work things out on their own.

The reality, of course, is that both Jimmy and Jenna are right, and wrong.


Even CEOs Have Blind Spots


 We all have blind spots

Things others can see but that we don’t see about ourselves.

Because of these blind spots, managers need self awareness and/or feedback from others to get a more comprehensive picture of their own behavior and its consequences.

Unfortunately, just giving feedback to managers is too simplistic an answer.

If that’s all it took, then most organizations would be paragons of simplicity and efficiency.

Beyond the lack of feedback, a deeper and more subtle dynamic is at work:

Most CEOs and managers run their organizations or their units in ways that they honestly and deeply believe are already simple, straightforward, logical, and right (for everybody, especially them).


In Other Words, What Works for Them Might not Necessarily Work for the Organization

And they have no idea that they are unintentionally becoming the primary cause of that complexity, that they are part of the problem.

Others may be to blame, but not them.

So what’s going on?

Two natural human tendencies keep many managers firmly on the wrong track:

Overdoing strengths, and avoiding areas of discomfort.


Overdoing Strengths


The shortcoming of most CEOs and managers often is not in what they do, but in what they “over-do.”

They succeed by applying certain behaviors and skills that tend to work for them, both in their personal lives and in business.

Over time, a leader can become reliant on these behaviors as a core skill set so that when things become difficult or challenging, the manager engages in these behaviors more and more, since this is what has worked in the past.

The problem is that in many cases, doing more of the same doesn’t get the same results.

What is that saying that we so glibly recite about the definition of “insanity”; if you keep doing the same thing and keep expecting a different result….?


A Self Fulfilling and Self Reinforcing Process

Jimmy always had success in the past with individual goal setting and an emphasis on individual accountability.

In his current situation, however, he overdoes the focus on individual performance (Baseball), which causes him to under-emphasize team alignment (Basketball).

Jenna does just the opposite.

She overdoes team building and collaboration (Basketball), which causes her to unintentionally under-emphasize individual performance and initiative (Baseball).


Avoiding Areas of Discomfort

Further exacerbating this lopsidedness is the natural anxiety that most people have about doing things outside their comfort zone.

Jimmy is comfortable in one-on-one settings but is less skillful about working in groups and teams.

As a result, he gravitates to individual work and unconsciously avoids team situations.


Jenna Naturally Does The Opposite

And then both of them rationalize their choice by calling it “the best way to get things done.”

Both Jimmy and Jenna are sadly a prime example of the primary paradox of human nature, that so often when conflicted, people will do anything to make their lives (situation) better, except the very thing they need to do.

I once had a client who ran a travel agency.

She was like Jenna, very affiliative and team focused.

Unfortunately, her sales representatives were simply not producing the numbers or revenues she needed them to.

Only when she realized that she was overdoing her strengths did she see what her company needed her to do.

She had been treating her sales group as a Basketball team; one for all and all for one.

And she of course did that because that, being collaborative and team oriented was her natural inclination and style.

Only when she realized that these agents needed to be a baseball team who actually “Competed” with each other as individual “stars” was she able to break the logjam.

She rejigged the system and began to measure and reward each representative’s individual performance because that is what the task at hand required.

Her personal discomfort notwithstanding, her company’s sales took off.


 Human Nature and Being a Manager

All managers, in fact, all human beings, unconsciously and unintentionally avoid doing things that make them anxious or uncomfortable, and instead fill their time with activities that they know how to do and that make them feel competent.

About 20 percent of most CEOs time is regularly taken up with things that keep us busy and comfortable, but that don’t add the value we think it does.

Not good.


The Double Whammy


From a psychological standpoint most managers, like Jimmy and Jenna, overdo their strengths and simultaneously avoid the areas that make them uncomfortable and anxious, areas that are often the opposite of the their strengths.

This is the dirty little secret of management inefficiency and a major source of complexity in organizations.

It’s often difficult to uncover and discuss.

But it’s there and at work nonetheless.

But managers rarely recognize their own complicity in making communications complex, as it’s easier and more comfortable to attribute communications problems to their employees’ inability to grasp the point.

Notice in the two diagrams of the brain below, with its ‘four quadrants and how we are more comfortable with one or two more than the others.

These preferences are not psychological, the are biological.

A smart CEO will be keenly aware of how his/her brain works (his team and especially his protagonists) and compensate for his (and their) proclivities and biases accordingly.

Take a good long look at the diagram of the human brain below, simplified to be sure, and it’s four quadrants; get to know your brain and what it loves to do often at our own peril.


 The Brain Has Four Cognitive Functions



 The Brain’s Four Thinking Styles: Pros and Cons


In “Get Unstuck, Stay Unstuck and do What you are”, leaders need to take a long look at their instinctual styles.

Then they need to ask themselves, “Am I, my personal style, the one unwittingly causing some of the complexity that bedevils and afflicts my company?”

Please do pardon the shameless plug, but I have developed nineteen ways that leaders like Jimmy and Jenna (and the rest of us) can develop the self mastery we need to know how be and do what our company needs, even when we don’t want to.

Good luck.

For more on this topic, we recommend the following


Get Unstuck, Stay Unstuck
and do What you are

Why People Do What They Do (In Your Organization)
and What You Can Do About It

Click Here For Video and Full Description


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