A Dialogue on Leadership in Uncertain Times

Three months ago I was fired from my position as President of a medium-sized company, in an industry that had employed me for 20 years. When I received this news I left the office completely numb. How could this have happened to me?

18 months earlier, when I took this position, I realized that the business that I had been charged with was deeply challenged. The most pressing issue was that this business, the size of a Mini-Cooper, was barreling along with a cash burn rate of a Mac truck. Our monthly expenses were through the roof, while sales were creeping along. The business was far from break-even. On a monthly basis during our board calls, I felt that I might be the one to break, before the business became truly viable.

I am a willful person, charging forward in life, and I approached this job no differently. I worked six days a week, repeatedly revisiting expenses, creating strategies, marketing initiatives, sales projections and steps to reach them. I was going to figure this out. I was sure that if I thought hard enough, worked hard enough, inspired my team deeply enough we would break through, and bring the company to profitability.

Two years ago at a leadership conference I met Jan Birchfield, and upon hearing her speak I approached her about taking me on as a client in her executive coaching practice. When I was fired, Jan was one of the first people that I called. I was at sea, and I needed a map and a compass. And so we began to work together while I tried to figure out my next step.

What follows is an opportunity to eavesdrop and participate in our conversation on leadership, which we recognized was relevant in this moment, whether a leader is employed or not.

We are sitting in Jan's office in Princeton, and as I explain my resistance to sending out my resume and calling on my extensive network of connection, my first question takes form:

JFM: I know I should be taking action -- getting on the phone, sending emails and resumes, making connections at a much more furious pace than what I'm doing. But I feel this strong pull to not take immediate action, to sit, do nothing, go for long walks, walks that last hours at a time. I feel pulled towards a quieter, more reflective stance, but my brain is telling me to get busy...and fast. What is going on here?

Jan: There is an unrelenting emphasis in our culture on action, decision making, and constant movement, with little understanding of the potency of stillness, downtime and receptivity. We tend to not trust that anything is happening when we aren't taking action. At work, many leaders are expected to climb Mt. Everest again and again, without pause. This relentless push can be effective for short term gain. But it is difficult, if not impossible, to lead this way, or to live this way without paying a price -- the price of health, morale, integrity, clear sight, and long-term vision.

It is interesting to think about the way that the 'crash and burn' that you have just experienced in having been fired, mirrors the crash that just occurred in your industry. Much to everyone's surprise, the "titans," the cornerstones within your industry, have crumbled. With this comes a fundamental change in the playing field, and tremendous disorientation. In truth, the old model of doing business was never sustainable. And yet, for many, the knee-jerk reaction in the face of this level of disorientation is to prop the old model back up and hope for the best. And yet, as you said earlier today, "everything that was known was not going to be the right solution in this particular meltdown."

Many leaders will approach the present crisis by pushing harder and faster, amping up ambition, and analyzing and reanalyzing "data." The inner landscape stays the same, with a vague hope that somehow something new will arise anyway.

You are describing the temptation to do the same thing in your personal life, to approach this situation as you normally would, which is through immediately taking action; this is your version of "propping up the old model." You said that you know how to recreate the life that you just lost. At the same time, you feel a distinct pull towards a different approach - stepping back and quieting the mind, so that you might hear what the future is calling you to do differently. You said that although this option is much less "known," you are intrigued by its call.

JFM: How do I revisit an industry that I have known for 20 years, with fresh eyes? How do I transform the fact of having been fired from a major setback, to an opportunity to live my life with greater balance and sense of purpose?

Jan: First and foremost, it is difficult, if not impossible, to think creatively and expansively when driven by fear. To see the world with fresh eyes begins with examining the interface between our inner world -- the ground from which action actually arises -- and the outer world of decision and manifestation.

Having been fired from your job, you have a chance to align your future even more deeply with a sense of purpose, living with greater authenticity. This same opportunity exists for business leaders; for many, this crisis provides a chance to revamp business practices and values that were never sustainable in the first place. It is difficult to have a breakthrough in vision without examining our habits of perception. The chattering, anxious mind can only recreate what it knows. Your draw towards reflection is an invitation to shift your relationship to your inner world, to the core of the creative process itself, and ultimately to how you "take action," accessing a different voice than the one that comes through the busy mind. Ultimately this shift has the potential to not only inform your personal life, but also to be the basis of a much more integrated, dynamic and creative leadership.