The perfect storm that can shipwreck even the most promising career – 6 things you need to know today

perfectstormIt is everyone’s dream – a corner office, a commensurate salary, respect and recognition from your peers. Leadership has its privileges, if not immediately at least eventually. From the first experiences of being a leader, which most people do not readily identify as such, until one’s name becomes synonymous with the term, persons in whom the gift of leadership resides are on a path to greater dimensions of significance. You get better at what you do and it shows.

The manifestation of truly superlative leadership is filled with nuance. Taken by themselves the nuances are almost imperceptible but in a package they point to someone great and something significant.

But there is a perfect storm that will almost certainly shipwreck even the most promising career. It is the convergence of Too Much, Too Soon, Too Easy.

Happily most of us will not experience it but enough do that it warrants our attention. And who among us wouldn’t prefer an even shorter, less rocky path to success? We see those for whom success comes early in their career, to whom larger amounts of money flows, unto whom higher accolades gather…and a tinge of envy, perhaps even resentment speaks in a small voice inside our heads.

But having lived long enough to be looking a life from the far side, I can assure you that the ones to be pitied and fearful for are not those of you who struggle in the path for success. It is those who got too much too soon too easily.

Surprisingly, thoroughbred horses, those who perform the best on the track are not coddled. They are subjected to strenuous conditioning, hard and at times harsh treatment designed to bring out the horse’s strengths and strengthen his weaknesses.

It is counterintuitive to what we might prefer to think. I know it is counterintuitive to what I would want.

But we must ask…and answer why. There are six reasons. Here they are:

  1. Effective and superlative leadership comes from those who understand that leadership and power is not about steel held in their hands but about the steel in their hearts. Leadership is the ability to possess and draw upon moral courage and whose values are rooted within moral fortitude. There is often an easy way in juxtaposition to the right way. It demands steel in the heart to make those kinds of decisions…steel that has been forged in the fires of adversity, struggle, and growth.
  2. People who’ve come by too much too soon too easily tend to become hard-hearted and hard-nosed whereas those whose growth into leadership has come from a series of successful, moral, and courageous encounters with the exigencies of life tend to be neither. Their strength is that of character formed over time and under pressure. Insensitivity is the direct result of ignorance of or disregard for the struggles of others.
  3. We all have feet of clay but those who have come by position and power easily seem to lose awareness of it. The consequential blindness manifests itself in arrogance, conceit, haughtiness, and hubris. An intolerance for the failing and feelings of others results.
  4. Those who have had life and its privileges handed to them tend to expect that life and others owe them something. Those of that ilk tend to demand respect while the character made manifest in those who have earned it command respect. The difference is subtle but significant.
  5. Having experienced pain firsthand, we are well-prepared to tackle painful things and tackle them first. Superlative leaders are not pain avoidance people. They are pain conquering people. There are fun things to do and there are necessary things to do. Those whose path to power has come easily tend to avoid or postpone difficult decisions. They invent all manner of rationalized reasons but show me a person in a position of leadership who cannot make decisions readily or whose habit is to postpone making difficult ones as long as possible and I will show you a person who was given the position. They did not earn it.
  6. Coming to reign by virtue of pain prepares us to rule, govern, lead, and guide from a place of mercy and understanding. It makes us human, creates an approachable atmosphere, and prepares us to motivate rather than manipulate. You’re probably familiar with the old exercise and fitness mantra – no pain no gain. Well, it’s true in our field as well. You see, the pain which we experience as we are growing into leadership and influence spawns another mantra – no pain no reign. (Of course, I mean “reign” in the sense of sitting in a place of responsibility and power not mere privilege and esteem).

Even a brief examination of professional sports reveals manifold tragedies in the lives of young athletes whose sudden rise to fame and fortune brought upon them pressures, responsibilities, and unseen consequences. Lottery winners have much the same tragic result. If I may, let me encourage you that the path to the success you want…and deserve…may seem unfairly challenging, but it is not. The only leadership worth having, the only position worth occupying, the only privileges wholesomely enjoyed are those we’ve earned.


Persistence – the glue of success

trafodataThe two teenage boys were students at Lakeside High School and members of the fledgling Lakeside Programmers Group. The group was granted free computer time on various machines in exchange for writing programs.

At the time, 1970, city and county municipalities conducted traffic surveys by stretching a rubber hose across a highway that triggered a roadside counter every time a vehicle passed over. Air pulses generated by the passing vehicle would punch a hole in a roll of paper tape in a 16-bit pattern which would then be “read” by private contractors. The data about traffic patterns would be used by highway planning departments to plan road improvements and adjust traffic signals.

Those two teenage boys thought there could be a better way and set out to design a computer system that could read and interpret the paper tapes. Using the computer at the University of Washington, whose librarian was the father of Paul Allen, the other young man produced traffic flow charts.

The name of that other young man was Bill Gates and the boys called their company Traf-O-Data.

While Gates and Allen were competent at writing programs they knew nothing about hardware. They enlisted the help of Paul Wennberg who told them about Wes Pritchard who introduced them to Paul Gilbert who built the computer. Eventually Paul Gilbert was invited to become a partner.

When the county representative came in to see the machine, however, it didn’t work. But the trio persisted and did indeed create a device that would analyze and interpret the collected data.

But in a relatively short while, the State of Washington offered free traffic processing services to cities and ended the need for private contractors. All three partners moved on to other projects. One of them came up with DOS and founded a small company called Microsoft (you might have heard of it).

Paul Allen said that “Even though Traf-O-Data wasn’t a roaring success, it was seminal in preparing us to make Microsoft’s first product a couple of years later. We taught ourselves to simulate how microprocessors work using DEC computers, so we could develop software even before our machine was built.” (emphasis mine)

Two things stand out to me.

One is that what happens now is critical to what happens then. Life is lived from beginning to end and the principle of integrity (I am not referring to character in this sense) is that we are one large entirety. We might like to separate this part from that part, but in reality everything works together to manifest one unit that is you.

A close friend sat on a sofa going through a photo album with her grandchild. The book held a brief history of the friend’s life. One photo after another showed her in one setting or another – real estate school, flower arranging school, in a Tupperware business, and more. Her grandchild asked about each to which Grandma replied that she never quite finished the course or completed the business. Then she said something remarkable and very telling.

She said, “That’s not like me. I always finish what I begin.”

The truth is she seldom finished anything! The album bore testimony to the truth – she was a great starter, full of enthusiasm and determination but lacking the quality of persistence.

Starting is easy.

Sticking to it is not.

The second thing that stands out in the Traf-O-Data story is Paul Allen’s insight that “we could develop software even before our machine was built.” What happens today will have a connection with tomorrow. We can insert our own nouns in that sentence:

“We could develop _______ even before ______ was built.”

Indeed, superlative leaders know that lots of things, lots of aptitudes, lots of attitudes, lots of connections, lots of just about everythings have to be found, developed, enhanced, constructed, altered, amended, even abandoned before something else is completed.

Notice that neither Paul Allen nor Bill Gates is still in the Traf-O-Data business and there is indeed a time to move on. But the things they learned and practiced made their ultimate successes possible.

Another decades long overnight success story

Some look at Gates as having fallen into success at Microsoft; that he was just in the right place at the right time. But people honest with themselves avoid such easy and faulty analyses. Like Eric Hoffer said – “They who lack talent expect things to happen without effort. They ascribe failure to a lack of inspiration or ability, or to misfortune, rather than to insufficient application. At the core of every true talent there is an awareness of the difficulties inherent in any achievement, and the confidence that by persistence and patience something worthwhile will be realized. Thus talent is a species of vigor.”

 Here’s another quote from Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States – “Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan “Press On” has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

This past August I participated in the National Leadership Conference of SCORE, the volunteer branch of the Small Business Administration staffed by experience business people who offer free mentoring to small business owners. At the event’s annual awards gala, they bestowed an Entrepreneur’s Award on the small business person who “had an idea and just would not let it go.”

Seminal in Allen and Gates is that same spirit. They had an idea to process necessary data easier and at a cheaper cost that would output the data in a form more useable to its recipients and do so at a cheaper cost.

What’s your idea? Don’t answer that with the things you do. Answer that by extracting the same principle as I did in the above paragraph. Then, once you’ve distilled the things you do down into their essence, don’t give up because “Energy and persistence conquer all things.” – Benjamin Franklin