Jul 222017

Earl R. Smith II, PhD


When you awake each morning, the day presents you with literally thousands of possibilities. Human existence is chocked full of possibilities. But the important questions is, what is probable? And the more important question is, how can you make the right possible things probable – how can you select the right probabilities from all those possibilities? This is one of those areas when more education can be a real liability.


Mentoring often gives me opportunities to work with highly educated and literate people. Most of my clients have a Master’s degree. In some ways, working with these people is a joy. For example, they have been trained to understand and work with complex ideas. Their grasp of the language is such that conversations about complex ideas are possible.

However, every coin has a reverse side. Facility with language and its subtleties brings an increased skill in self-deception and denial of the obvious. Some things are better said – and understood – in plain language. An example might help you understand what I am getting at.

I was asked by the Chairman of a Board of Directors to work with the CEO. The company was a start-up that had made it through the initial stages and was pushing towards twenty million in annual revenue. The CEO had lead his team through several growth-generated reorganizations similar to the ones I described in Battle at the Cottage Gate. In the process, he had to reinvent himself a couple of times – as his role in the company changed in response to the new dynamics.

Recently the Chairman had become concerned. The company had reached a plateau of sorts and growth had started to level off. It wasn’t so much the leveling off that bothered him – he had seen too much of business to expect that growth would continue without interruption – but the reaction of the CEO to the development caused him concern.

The CEO had begun to withdraw into himself. He had become less communicative. When he did brief the board, his presentations were halting and poorly focused – quite out of character and not at all what the board had come to expect. The situation had caused some board members to begin to talk about succession. An informal succession committee had been formed and was talking about a search for a new CEO. Perhaps, the reasoning went, our present CEO had risen to the limit of his capabilities.

I took the engagement on the condition that nothing would be done by the board – either overtly or covertly – on the issue of succession for at least ninety days. The Chairman readily agreed but I pushed for a unanimous undertaking by all members of the board. Once that was in place, I was introduced to the CEO – let’s call him John.

My first meeting with John lasted almost three hours. He was clearly frustrated by the resistance he was encountering. As he saw it, the resistance was coming from the team. John had laid down the challenge – break the twenty million dollar barrier – and the team, although they appeared to be trying, were not making real progress.

One problem became clear during this initial session. John was a very literate person who could weave plausible descriptions and explanations around complex issues. He was mentally agile enough to quickly respond to any topic I would bring up and managed to talk with an authoritative air. Language was getting in the way of communication.

I noticed a tendency in John’s behavior. He quickly occupied the intellectual ‘high ground’ as a strategy for controlling and dominating – channeling – the discussion. Talking to him about this tendency created a very interesting situation. His occupation of the high ground occurred more quickly and his defense of his position was more strident. Those of you with an interest in logical argument will probably see the problem – self-referencing discussions tend to be circular.

The difference in his reaction to this topic gave me a clue to the best way forward. I focused the discussion on the question of the necessary evolution of a leadership style as a company grows. At first, John took the initiative and began to pontificate on leadership theory. But I doggedly turned the conversations back to the question of the evolution of John as a leader. It wasn’t an easy maneuver but my persistence eventually overcame John’s tendency to intellectualize the discussion.

Actually there were three entities in the room during our discussions – John, me and the company. My approach was that the company was growing up and its needs were changing as that occurred. John was clearly not fulfilling the needs of this new phase.

At first, John tried to turn the discussion to focus on the team and its inadequacies. But I would have none of it. The question on the table was leadership and the need for leadership to evolve to meet the evolving needs of the company. Things got a bit heated a couple of times but eventually we settled down to a discussion of John’s leadership.

I was then that the core of the problem first raised its head. “I used to understand the challenges that came my way – I was always able to come up with solutions that I could pass along to the team – but now these new challenges are beyond me.” Those of you who have lived through the growth of a child from toddler through adolescence then on to adulthood – particularly in the current environment of rapidly advancing technologies – will probably find more meaning in John’s statement. He was feeling inadequate.

In ancient, traditional societies there was a rule about the integration of a young man or woman into the broader society – ‘the rite of passage required a guide and neither the mother nor father could serve that role”. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell put it this way, “a boy’s father cannot be his initiator because they are both interested in the same woman”. The point here is that a ‘responsible and experienced stranger’ is required to lead the youth to adulthood.

Did that mean that the members of the board who had begun to talk of succession were right? This possibility clearly occurred to John. But that would be like suggesting that, once a youth was initiated into the adult part of a society, his father would have no relationship with him at all. The father’s responsibility is to begin to see his son in a different light – as an adult – and to treat him that way. If John could make that journey, there would be no need for him to leave the tribe.

I’ll tell the rest of the story – of the ‘leap’ the company took into an entirely new paradigm – in a later article but, for now, I want to finish the story of John’s journey. Our sessions got more and more tense as the discussion turned from the intellectualized vision of leadership to John’s leadership. Overcoming the tendency to keep the conversation ‘out there’ – at arm’s length – was very difficult for John. But, to his credit, John kept on even when things were very uncomfortable for him.

By the end of our sixth or seventh session, John began to realize that his vision of leadership was not evolving. His idea of what a leader had to be was adequate to the early-stage challenges. But these new challenges were far more complex. The tool was not up to the task. Central to this realization was the idea that complex tasks required coordinated efforts if solutions were going to be found. His tendency to quickly occupy the intellectual high ground frustrated that possibility almost from the beginning. John’s reflex actions were dooming the team’s efforts almost from each beginning.

Along with that realization came a far more fundamental one. John came to realize that he really did not understand who he was. The echoes of childhood and the vision of his parents were dominating his self image. We began to work on introducing John to John. Once he got on the path his attitude totally changed. Our sessions were far less confrontational and more a joyous journey. Leadership became a side issue as he came to understand himself. Leadership flowed out of the self understanding.


There was one very funny things that came out of our work, We developed a system of flags that would warn John when he was behaving in an unproductive or destructive manner. If I was monitoring a meeting and he started down that road, I would take off my tie and toss it into the middle of the table. What was funnier – others quickly decoded the action and began the same behavior. One team member – who had never been known to wear a tie – actually began to wear one to the meetings. When asked about it he replied, “I have as much of a right to have my voice heard as anybody else.”

You Block You

My point here is that sometimes the possible never becomes probable because it is blocked by a vision of reality that is more synthetic than real. John could generate results in the early years because circumstances allowed him to. The stories that he told himself – and the world as he found it – worked. At first he was living in the future and was anxious all the time but confident that he could adapt and overcome. Then he was living in the past, longing for the time that his self-understanding was up to the challenges. He became depressed and resentful  when the ‘old magic’ didn’t seem to be working anymore. The solution we found together was to get him living in the present.


Think of it this way, when you were a child most of your stories worked because there was no testing of them. But things changed when you grew up a bit and the world challenged you. The challenges changed faster than your self-understanding evolved. Then came the time when you began to question. First you probably questioned the world – it was unfair and inconsiderate. But eventually you came to think about your stories and how they came about – why you believed them at all – why anyone should believe them. That thought brings you to the great door that leads to self-understanding – to the summer of your life. That’s where John came to and still is.

© Earl R. Smith II, PhD

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