How to Lead Even When You Don’t Know Where You Are Going

By far the most difficult skill to learn is the ability to manage your own psychology. The first problem is that everybody learns to be a CEO by being a CEO. No training as a manager, general manager or in any other job actually prepares you to run a company.

Even if you know what you are doing, things go wrong. Things go wrong because building a multifaceted human organization to compete and win in a dynamic, highly competitive market turns out to be really hard. If you manage a team of 10 people, it’s quite possible to do so with very few mistakes or bad behaviors. If you manage an organization of 1,000 people, it is quite impossible. At a certain size, your company will do things that are so bad that you never imagined that you’d be associated with that kind of incompetence. Seeing people fritter away money, waste each other’s time and do sloppy work can make you feel bad. If you are the CEO, it may well make you sick.

And to rub salt into the wound and make matters worse, it’s your fault. Given this stress, CEOs often make one of the following two mistakes: They take every issue incredibly seriously and personally and urgently move to fix it. Or, they do not take things personally enough and take the attitude of “It’s not so bad.”

Ideally, the CEO will be urgent yet not insane. She will move aggressively and decisively without feeling emotionally culpable. If she can separate the importance of the issues from how she feels about them, she will avoid demonizing her employees or herself.

Techniques to Calm Your Nerves

The problem with psychology is that everybody’s is different. With that as a caveat, here are a few techniques that may be useful:

  • Make some friends. Although it’s nearly impossible to get high-quality advice on the tough decisions that you make, it is extremely useful from a psychological perspective to talk to people who have been through similarly challenging decisions.
  • Get it out of your head and onto paper. The process of writing a document can separate you from your own psychology and enable you to make a decision swiftly.
  • Focus on the road, not the wall. If you focus on the road, you will follow the road. There are always a thousand things that can go wrong and sink the ship. If you focus too much on them, you will drive yourself nuts and likely crash your company. Focus on where you are going rather than on what you hope to avoid.

As CEO, there will be many times when you feel like quitting. Great CEOs face the pain. They deal with the sleepless nights, the cold sweats, and Alfred Chuang (legendary cofounder and CEO of BEA Systems) calls this “the torture.” Whenever I meet a successful CEO, I ask them how they did it. Mediocre CEOs point to their brilliant strategic moves or their initiative, business sense or a variety of other self-congratulatory explanations. The great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent in their answers. They all say, “I didn’t quit.”

In life, everybody faces choices between doing what’s popular, easy and wrong versus doing what’s lonely, difficult and right. These decisions intensify when you run a company, because the consequences get magnified a thousand-fold. Every time you make the hard, correct decision you become a bit more courageous, and every time you make the easy, wrong decision you become a bit more cowardly. If you are CEO, these choices will lead to a courageous or cowardly company. Over the past 10 years, technological advances have dramatically lowered the financial bar for starting a new company, but the courage bar for building a great company remains as high as it has ever been.

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