You can read the previous installment in the series here.
Perhaps one of the best leadership lessons available has its origins in the Roman Empire. (Most articles on leadership won’t venture as far as ancient Rome, but this clearly isn’t your average leadership article.) During the Roman Triumphs — ceremonies meant to celebrate the successes of the Roman military and its leaders — it’s purported that a slave would hold a crown of laurels over the head of the feted general, while whispering the phrase “Memento mori” into his ear — “Remember you are mortal.” Given what we know of many of the generals and emperors who seemingly forgot that lesson, and the fate of the Roman empire itself, it’s not a bad source for advice.
The founder of today isn’t the general of yesteryear, although given the way that some entrepreneurs are elevated by blogs and magazines wholly devoted to the enterprise of enterprise, you’d have to wonder. Your victories are financial, not martial, and your employees are voluntary where the Roman forces were decidedly not. But one thing that transcends the years is the ability of any leader to get lost in their own hubris and pride, losing touch with the reality that they are subject to the same flaws as anyone.
In the face of success, it’s easy to begin to believe that continued success is inevitable — that your ascent to the top is a fait accompli. Doubts begin to fade into the background, and other voices you might have once listened to now seem diminished. It might not be full-bore arrogance, but certainly an over-inflated confidence that blinds you to the possibility of failure that is ever-present. In the midst of this overwhelming success, at a time when it feels like you are getting it absolutely right, it behooves you to step back and consider your plans and next steps. The history of startups is replete with tales of companies that tried too much too soon, that had the absolute surety of their purpose, only to find that they were mistaken. Don’t let your pride cloud your judgment and lure you into a misstep.
One of the best guards against the myopia of hubris is a collection of voices willing to speak hard truths to you, particularly in cases where you don’t want to hear it. Be they advisors, employees, or family; having someone who will speak honestly to you and not try to flatter or placate can help you avoid getting lost in your own thinking. You might have had great ideas in the past, and again in the future, but each one has to stand on its own merits, and your ideas of the present might not be as strong as you believe. Think again about recent business history, stretching back only a few decades: how many ill-advised products were launched because no one had the courage to stand up and proclaim it a bad idea, or if they did, how many were shouted down or ignored? How many products went to market and ultimately tanked because a CEO insisted that their own instinct and insight outweighed the wisdom of the crowd? Make yourself open to outside opinions — and criticisms— before you charge headlong into a mistake.
Part of that reminder of mortality uttered to generals and war heroes touches on a very literal interpretation of the words: remembering that we are flesh and blood, susceptible to aches and pains, and at the extreme, death. Hopefully there is no need for a lesson on not working yourself to death, but there is something to the idea that we should consider our own relative frailty when we’re going about our work. Breaks for necessary rest and relaxation serve to do more than give us the necessary energy and release we need to keep going; they also provide a separation from our daily grind that can provide needed perspective on the job itself — what we’re doing and how we’re going about it. In the interim, we can see things differently from a remove, and hopefully spot mistakes and missteps not only with process or product but with our leadership as well. By reconnecting with life outside of work, we can hopefully find the levity and humility needed to change where it’s needed.
Not losing sight of your goals is critical to guiding your company to success, but so is not losing sight of yourself and your own character. No one goes into any venture thinking it will fundamentally change them, but we’re all subject to circumstances that are largely out of our control. We owe it to ourselves as much as the people working for us to try and remain the same principled, grounded leader regardless of success, and we can do that by keeping front of mind the fallibility of ourselves and our venture. #onwards.