In my work, I have a front-row seat to a good bit of carnage. It is a reality that I have come to appreciate, a gravity I feel with acute awareness, and a welcome reminder that not long ago I was the primary driver of my fair share of dysfunction. Most weeks I speak with someone desperate to find a new employment opportunity. Usually, they have lost their job or are worn down from years in a toxic environment. Just as often I sit across the table from a leader of a business who is fraying at the seams. Either overwhelmed by inordinate business challenges, or strained personal relationships, or both. In their voices, I can hear the hope fading.

Inevitably, and without prompting, they will offer some glimmer of optimism. If we could just get rid of so and so. If we can land this one client. Sometimes these scenarios aren’t too far-fetched, but more often than not, they are a pipe dream. Usually, it is self-talk, a hope of speaking into existence a future that is unlikely to come to fruition. For the individual looking for a new opportunity, they know deep down inside that their manager isn’t changing and work will continue to be the darkest part of their life until they find something new. For the business leader, they know that increasing the sales and marketing budget, rolling out a new business unit or product line, or overhauling their middle management layer probably isn’t going to move the needle. They are not quite at the end of their rope but are pretty dang close.

Recently, I participated in a forum with other business owners offering “wisdom from the trenches” to a group of aspiring entrepreneurs. One of the questions posed to the panel was something to the effect of, “what should business leaders focus their attention on?” A string of cliches followed–“Protect your Margins,” “Prioritize the Customer Experience,” or one that almost made me spit out my water, “Listen to the Market…she speaks!” Cue the eye roll.

Just a few weekends ago on a father/son camping trip with a group of buddies, most of whom are running businesses, a similar topic came up. One of the guys in the group lamented that he can’t figure out where to focus his energy on the business. He had a long list of issues that needed to be addressed or overhauled, projects that needed to be completed or started, and people challenges coming out of his ears. Another had similar issues, from cash flow to HR, and was frustrated that a new platform they had implemented wasn’t producing the traction he had hoped.

My response to these guys and my answer to the question at the forum were largely the same.