Most leadership literature is, frankly, useless. It’s loaded with generalities like “Great leaders need to be decisive, strong communicators, cool in a crisis, build agile teams, hire wisely, work toward their values, define markets…” Who wouldn’t agree? When I asked my friends, colleagues and professional contacts, “Has the leadership literature helped you?” their answer was “No.”

Their experiences are grittier than anything the leadership literature addresses. For example:

  • Those who managed VC-based companies discovered each was a horse in the stable, employed to solve a particular problem: the executive who can build a team, the one who can grow a market, get the IP protected, or raise capital. Once they achieved their outcomes, they were fired. Each was devastated. But soon they were hired to perform that trick again for another company in the portfolio. Effectively, this type of person became a career executive for that particular problem, for that investment group.
  • Executives who acquired a company realized that while they were personally excellent in sales, finance or engineering, they had to learn what it meant to be “strategic.” One had to redefine how he spent his time, what to do, in order to be strategic; another found herself managing a partner who disagreed on how company money should be spent; a third dealt with the anxiety of being personally accountable for mountainous debt; another exec grappled with the sense that, now that he was committed, he couldn’t just quit.
  • Leaders who operated within a traditional company had other challenges. One had to create a dynamic personal brand; another had to find a balance between leading and being authentically himself; one felt she had to sometimes choose between being liked with being respected; another had to figure out how to lead while the previous CEO was still with the company, on the board as a co-CEO.

Despite the wide variety of situations, we identified common threads during our conversations.

  • The job is filled with worry and stunning levels of stress, even when it’s fun.
  • You have to maintain energy and “mojo” and not just focus on problems.
  • The nature of your business has its nuances, which affect how you lead.
  • Managing time – and those who demand your time – is a critical skill.

The stories from these authentic and accomplished people are superior to anything I’ve gleaned in school, and it’s time to pay it forward. Mary Stewart & I are putting them together as book and, as the work takes shape, I’ll be sharing elements of our interviews in a blog. Stay tuned!