In Jay Z’s 2010 single, “Most Kings,” he muses in the chorus how most kings get their heads cut off. A dark thought, where Jay is reflecting on his own story and on the challenges (and challengers) when you’re at the top of the game. As I listen to his words, propped up by a Run-DMC sample, I ponder a broader meaning, considering the weight and complexity for anyone on top of their respective games, in positions of power and leadership.
Leadership in business is an immense responsibility — a responsibility that only grows and intensifies as a business grows. For me, I know people are always counting on me, constantly looking to me for vision, direction, support and holding me accountable for the health and sustainability of the business, including people’s jobs and careers, people’s individual needs and livelihoods, culture, comfort, etc. They’re expecting me to make sound decisions and to do what’s right. To lead us from point A to point B, while simultaneously caring for everyone along the way, lifting our people up and staying one step ahead of the competition, so our success can continue into the future… and all the while I know I can’t possibly please everyone. I can’t provide for everyone’s needs. I can’t act on everyone’s feedback and ideas. I can’t even answer everyone’s questions. There’s only one me, and so many of them.
Most days it’s an incredible honor to lead. Some days it can be a big weight to carry . Especially when you sincerely care about what people think. In this way, it’s an impossible position. And in this, it’s easy to see how most kings get their heads cut off.
The first ever Pulitzer Prize Winner, journalist Herbert Bayard Swope Sr once said, “I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.”
“I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is: Try to please everybody.” - Herbert Swope Sr.
This is an undeniable truth — something I’ve spent a lot of time absorbing over the years. I literally read and contemplate Swope’s words every single day. It’s part of my morning routine. And so rather than seek the approval and popularity of those whom I lead — I wake up every day and ask “Who am I? What is my purpose? What are my values? What will I do today? And what am I aiming to accomplish during my lifetime? When these things are clear, aligned, and in harmony — I’m the best, centered leader I can be. Pleasing everybody has no place in my life. It has no place in leadership.
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned over the past year or so is that long term, perpetual success can lead to blind spots, apathy and over-confidence. As I’ve built my company over the past 8 years, I’ve had the great fortune to experience sustained growth and abundance over most of it. I’m embarrassed to say that until recently, we’ve never even had a mildly rough season to navigate. It’s all felt quite natural and organic. In some ways it’s been easy. It took me until right now to realize that this feeling — that peaceful, easy feeling — should be a red flag.
Over the past 24 months we’ve been able to finally make the jump from small company start-up mode to a more mature, grown-up place — making big strides in improving pay, benefits, flexibility and quality of life for our staff. We’ve been able to add more space and spread out a little bit. We’ve had sustained abundance, allowing us to add resources and staff-up in ways we’ve never done before. And while these things are fine and good on their own, what I’m learning right now in this moment is that a long, sustained season of abundance can actually mask a lot of problems and create some significant blind spots. Seemingly eternal success can fog decision making in leadership too.
As I look in the mirror and consider the fantastic voyage I’ve been on for the past 8 years, I’ve suddenly become awake and aware that I’ve missed out on a lot of very important lessons — lessons that can only be learned through struggle and failure. Lessons I simply could not learn during such a long run of success. The truth is, I’ve allowed myself to get caught up in all of it a little too much..
Software pioneer, Fred Brooks once said, “You can learn more from failure than success. In failure you’re forced to find out what part did not work. But in success you can believe everything you did was great, when in fact some parts may not have worked at all. Failure forces you to face reality.”
“You can learn more from failure than success. In failure you’re forced to find out what part did not work. But in success you can believe everything you did was great, when in fact some parts may not have worked at all. Failure forces you to face reality.” - Fred Brooks
Thank you, Fred. You’ve perfectly articulated the exact point I’ve been trying to solve.
When all of your performance metrics on the dashboard are glowing bright green and you’ve got the wind in your sails, it’s easy to lose touch with reality. It’s a lot easier to roll the dice and take risks. It’s easy to get comfortable. It’s also easy to tolerate people — people you wouldn’t tolerate under more challenging circumstances. Sustained success and abundance can mask and fog up a lot of things. Trust me.
In navigating the currents of my first truly challenging season in business and in leadership, I’ve quickly picked up some incredibly valuable lessons. Hard lessons. Lessons that I would’ve never been able to see if my dashboard was always blinding me with bright glowing green. Here are the five most critical lessons I’ve learned in recent months:
What got you here won’t get you there. Change is a necessary constant if you want to evolve, stay healthy and be a sustainable business amidst today’s rapidly evolving global marketplace. Unfortunately, people are often part of the change that needs to happen in growing companies. In my business, we’ve averaged about 40% year-over-year growth throughout our 8 year history. It’s really hard to find people, especially leaders, who can keep up and grow with you at that kind of rate. It’s sad, but true. My friend, Bob Glazer of Acceleration Partners in Boston, explains this concept (and some solutions) really well here. (I highly recommend subscribing to Friday Forward, Bob’s weekly email on inspiration and practical insights for leaders. Subscribe here.)
Leadership isn’t a popularity contest. Leadership is a hard, highly complex and nuanced job, that’s constantly under scrutiny, opinion and speculation. Shoe designer Tinker Hatfield once said, “If people don’t either love or hate your work, you haven’t done anything.” As a leader, one has to be clear and confident about their driving purpose, their values and their core leadership philosophy. And in these, you have to be willing to stand strong in the face of a storm, and make hard decisions. You must stand strong in the face of scrutiny and criticism and take action. Sometimes this is a fun and gratifying role where you’re announcing profit sharing, community giving and pay increases. Other times you may be telling a co-worker that their performance isn’t cutting it or announcing budget cuts and layoffs. You can’t have the good without the bad. It’s all part of the same job. And if you lead groups of people for very long, you’ll eventually find that some people will trust and love your work, your approach and your leadership style — and others will hate it. They may even hate you. I know I’ve got some haters. Getting comfortable with this fact of life is really difficult. And equally necessary. Leadership isn’t a popularity contest. The stronger and better you grow into your own leadership beliefs and philosophy, the more it will act like a strong magnet — a magnet that attracts and pulls in people who get it and resonate with it — and it will equally repel and strongly push away those who can’t stand it. Those who can’t stand you. Embrace your magnet.
“If people don’t either love or hate your work, you haven’t done anything.” - Tinker Hatfield
It’s a business, not a social club. I’ve learned no matter how earnest my intentions may be to take care of our people and make our quality of life and flexibility a priority at my company — at the end of the day, everyone’s got to know it’s a business first and foremost. It’s not a social club. It’s not a friend group. And it’s not a social services office. Community, friendship and a familial, supportive culture are the results of a strong, healthy, high functioning organization. We cannot lose sight that it’s a business first. Health and stability of the business precede everything else. Expectations should be set accordingly.
Identify the core DNA — the core internal operating principles that sparked your success in the first place and made you who you are. Protect it. Celebrate it. Etch it onto stone tablets. And never forget it. Jim Collins captures this wonderfully with his concept of a SMaC Recipe in his book, “Great By Choice.” The sooner a business and its leaders can identify, understand and uphold these core inner components that initially sparked their success and formed your identity, the better they’ll know what to fortify and defend when a storm comes.
Always lead with Optimism and Fortitude, no matter how challenging or hard things may be. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, emotional or discouraged as a leader, I often reflect on an excerpt from Viktor Frankl’s memoir, “Man’s Search for Meaning” — his story of surviving the holocaust camps during World War II. Frankl writes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” We always have the choice to choose our attitude. As leaders, we must choose optimism and fortitude, no matter the situation, reason or season.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” - Viktor Frankl
Perpetual change is an undeniable truth for any high growth company. To sit still, to slow down, or to be overly calm, steady and predictable in a business creates a great risk of complacency. And to become complacent in today’s business world is to hang a giant target on your back, inviting the competition to take you out and make you irrelevant. Growth, constant change, perpetual evolution, never-ending improvement and innovation are undeniable necessities in today’s business landscape. If these words make you twitch, then being part of a growing business might not be the best place for you. Just saying.
Just for a moment, let’s think about the symbiotic nature of these words: health, growth, and change.
In Hova’s “Most Kings” — he writes “Everybody look at you strange, say you changed. Like you work that hard just to stay the same?” (He breaks it down further in an interview here)
“Everybody look at you strange, say you changed. Like you work that hard just to stay the same?” - Jay Z
Yes, I’ve changed. If we knew each other ten years ago, I hope you might see me today and see how much I’ve changed. That’s the point. That’s what I’m working on. Growth. Evolution. Self improvement. Constantly. Can’t stop. Won’t stop.
And as I grow, I’m always looking around, considering whom my fellow leaders are, and asking who’s with me? Who else wants to live into growth and lead people on a high growth rate? Like we work this hard just to stay the same?
Entrepreneur, artist and one of my good friends, Jenelle Isaacson, recently explained to me, “Everything that’s healthy grows. Things that aren’t healthy die.” Let’s think about that for a moment…
And Catherine the Great put it another way: “That which does not grow, rots.”
Here’s to health. Here’s to growth. Here’s to change.
--> This essay is part of a series published in collaboration with The Western Writers League. Take a few minutes to explore my peers’s work as well.