You learn leadership through experience.
I’ve had occasion to recall some of the most challenging and educational experiences of my development. I’m not proud of them. I wish they had never happened. But they formed me as much as anything.
The painful experiences
I co-founded Submedia in the late 90s. By the early 2000s we had nearly run out of money and were having trouble paying our debts. My PhD in physics, however useful for some things, hadn’t prepared me for running a business. Neither did a childhood with little business training.
I don’t know how my best attempts at leadership looked to others, but looking back, I think the best way I imagined to solve the problems was to work harder. I didn’t know how to understand people’s motivations or bring them together. And when a company struggles, asking people to work harder without empathy won’t motivate them.
The effect was that one day I came to the office and nobody else came. The company employed about a dozen people at the time. Can you imagine the feelings of a CEO to find no one decided to come in that day? Rather that they all decided to stay home? I later learned they coordinated to convey a message to me and the other co-founder. I don’t remember the details after more than a decade, but I remember looking out the window, helpless, hopeless, in tears.
I’m sure conveying more of the details would explain the situation better for the readers. I’m sorry I’m just giving a highlight (lowlight?). Needless to say, the situation changed me forever. People today ask me about my changing from science to business to leadership.
I usually tell them about how my values changed from information and facts to relationships and motivation. My helplessness then — my counterproductiveness in thinking harder work would get us out of the situation — influenced me as much as anything.
I’ve heard it said that you haven’t led until you’ve had to let someone go. As our funds ran down, we did our best to keep the people on board. Eventually we had to face that we couldn’t pay people anymore. With a payroll of about fifteen, we realized our only chance to make it meant letting go of eight people. As CEO, I had to do it — my first time letting anyone go. I had never been let go myself.
I grew up fast. I probably had the least business experience of anyone in the company. I had to tell them we had to let them go. Looking back, they probably knew what was happening long before I did. I think I did it poorly, if one can do it not poorly.
Anyway, it happened. I learned. I value what I learned and want to continue to lead. I believe I lead more effectively, certainly with more compassion and empathy, at least as I perceive myself, as a result.
Neither experience is something to be proud of. Like I wrote, I wish neither had happened. But they did, and such things happen, and anyone who chooses to lead either chooses to take responsibility to act or doesn’t. Either you learn from experiences like these two or you don’t.
The value of experience
During these difficult periods I struggled to find helpful mentorship and advice. I couldn’t find it from most people, but now and then I found someone who not only helped, they seemed to know my problems before I told them.
In talking with them I learned how they understood so quickly — they had gone through similar experiences. If you’ve been through experiences like that you know. If you haven’t — well, you may know intellectually, but I’m not sure how deeply or viscerally you’d understand.