Leadership Lessons from an Unsung Hero
The stresses of high-altitude mountain climbing reveal your true character; they unmask who you really are. You no longer have the social graces to hide behind, to play roles. You are the essence of what you are. - David Breashears service and selflessness, I offer this post as a wedding gift to a man who has succeeded not despite his commitment to what is best about human beings but because of it.
After the Internet bubble burst back in 2000, The Wall Street Journal ran an article about a young man trying to start a company in an economic environment that had suddenly grown toxic for startups. Most of his travails have long since faded, but I’ll never forget the advice that a hoary veteran of the entrepreneurial wars gave him. He said that a sound business plan, financing, and solid business skills were a given but no guarantee of success. “Far more importantly,” he said, “remember three things. Make sure your spouse is on board. Start the business with the right people. Most critically, remember that every startup must die a thousand deaths. If you aren’t ready to die a thousand deaths don’t even think about it. ”
Jay Hall and I started a company with my brother and three other partners on a few thousand dollars tossed in a hat and a business plan that one of our partners humorously described as “we’re smart guys we’ll figure out something to do.” But though we didn’t have a clue about what we were going to do, we were crystal clear about who we wanted tobe. And over the next seven years, Jay epitomized those selfless values best of all. Every time our business was dutifully dying one of its obligatory thousand deaths, Jay would nonchalantly walk into my office and say, “Don’t worry Aug. I got your back.” Then he would saunter out before I could even say thanks.
As COO, our employees respected, admired, and loved Jay because they knew that he cared more about their welfare than he did about his own. As a result, when called on to make excruciatingly tough decisions, he always got that crucial benefit of the doubt that so often is all that stands between a successful decision and an unmitigated disaster. As a leader he was every bit a soldier’s general, but he never let any of us forget for an instant that the most important members of our team were always our customers. Possessing a healthy ego means that Jay Hall doesn’t have an egotistical bone in his body. This gave him the moral authority throughout our company that no mere title can ever bestow. The miraculous changes that people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, and John Paul ll engineer teach us that moral authority is the most compelling power a leader can have. Tragically, it is this all important moral authority that even our best business schools seem so powerless to impart that they don’t even bother to try.
I recently heard a CEO ruefully remark that he had hundreds of problems and all of them were walking around his company on two legs. When I reflect on why we were able to grow a company without investors or borrowed money, I know that it was not because we were so much smarter or harder working. It was because we wasted so little of our precious time and energy looking over our shoulders. For every company that fails for business reasons, ten more fail because like so many rock bands, they are overwhelmed by the friction of conflicting agendas, personal animosities, and pervasive mistrust.
Our proudest achievement is not the rapid growth that led to our eventual acquisition. It is that we were able to prove to ourselves that making money is merely the trailing indicator, the by-product, of a passionate commitment to things that are infinitely more valuable than money. Things like friendship. In the process we learned that our lofty principles were not a self-imposed handicap or competitive disadvantage. Instead they attracted two legged solutions rather than problems, and gave us the key differentiator that was so crucial to our success.
You never know anyone until you’ve gone off to war with them. Whatever the benefits of armchair introspection, as David Breashears points out, we only discover who we really are and what we stand for under pressure. It is the tough choices that call for personal sacrifice that reveal whether our cherished ideals are real or mere window dressing. I’ve had the honor of facing a thousand deaths on the battlefields of business with Jay Hall. And the only reason I survived to tell the tale is that he always had my back. I only pray that he feels the same way about me.
Congratulations Kavita and Jay Hall!“The secret to having a good marriage is to understand that marriage must be total, it must be permanent and it must be equal.” - Frank Pittman
Check out this August Turak video to find out how to become a better spouse. Discover how this will make you a more successful leader and business person.