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BTDT Short: As a Founder/CEO, ‘Badass’ Is the Last Thing I’m Interested in Being

I frequently talk about the struggle of being the Founder/CEO of a startup. The stress around decisions. The risk of the bets. The weight of the thing, all on your shoulders, 24/7, whether you’re working, walking, waiting or wailing.

Those that don’t know, laugh a bit, or brush it off with a self-righteous admonishment along the lines of, “Who is he to complain — he’s got the title and pay and the power, and the perks, etc.”  But they really don’t know. All they know is what the media tells them about what it is to be the leader. Or what they infer by watching other Founders/CEOs interact in public.

But the truth, as those of you who know, know, is that it is incredibly difficult. Often, it’s a very lonely place to be and you struggle greatly with decisions and actions that can affect many, many people — family, employees, investors, customers, etc.

Sometimes we freeze up around a decision. Sometimes we’re simply overwhelmed by the sheer volume or implications. We wait for something to force a decision because we’re too scared to make it. But that’s death. That’s where leaders and companies start the long slide to obscurity.

Often, I’ve found, the best way to move forward, when juggling these decisions that usually affect both the personal and professional aspects of your life, is to make a decision, ignore the emotion, and just plow forward. Execute. ‘Every day, forward,’ is a personal mantra I use on those especially difficult mornings when getting out of bed seems like the least appealing decision possible. Every day, forward. It works. It’s not about emotion, it’s about action. Passive aggressiveness kills businesses and topples leaders. It’s the slow erosion of direction and passion that leaves you second guessing everything. And leaves your team floundering without a solid course of action.

Recently, I was reading the book, ‘Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef’’ by Gabrielle Hamilton — the chef/owner of Prune in NYC. I’m not a big fan of business books. I find they tend to be sterile and curated retrospectives about an out-of-context situation. Life books, however, I’m a fan of. Learning from both the good and bad decisions others have made throughout their lives is much easier to relate to my life and challenges. In “Blood, Bones & Butter…,” Gabrielle provides an engrossing account of her life — from childhood to industry-leading professional. She’s both an exceptional writer, her book had me very deep into her world, and a deeply thoughtful and meticulous chef. I’ve eaten at her restaurant and it was as soul-satisfying as her book.

One of the passages in her book, however, had me almost in tears. I immediately connected with the struggle and emotion she was conveying about the challenge of being a leader. It describes her situation/thought process while planning for maternity leave to have her baby as, for all intents and purposes, a single mother, and at the same time, hearing that two of her employees were leaving with almost no notice. Not a uniquely weird situation in the world of running our own businesses, but one that can easily freeze us in our tracks and leave us deep in the pit of self-pitying inaction. Here’s the excerpt (any/all errors are mine in reprinting):

“…I grabbed a black Sharpie and wrote myself a To-Do list for all of it. In twenty years of chronic, compulsive list making, I had authored some that have been downright Beckettian in the sequencing, and it is exactly the anomaly of sequencing –the non sequitur- that makes some of those To-Do lists earn a spot in your box of keepsakes…But this one, written in a calm and steady hand, surpassed and out-surrealed all other To-Do lists in my life thus far lived.

–  Get w/AT and limit menu

– Train CR on a 2-man line

– Call Roode for fill in?

– Have baby

– Tell brunch crew vinaigrette too acidic

– Pick up white platters

– Change filters in hood

– Figure out pomegranate syrup

        And I did, in fact, do all of that, and the syrup got figured out and the platters got picked up and the hood filters got changed and the baby was born and the ship sailed, with a diminished crew and a severely handicapped captain. But most urgently, besides listing what to do and when to do it, alone in that office with the door closed, I sat trying to figure out how to leave my office and re-enter a room full of keenly watching cooks, and get back to my cutting board and family meal, without appearing devastated or even dented. The staff does not want to see you fall apart. It unnerves them. You can let it go in the privacy of your office, you can weep in the walk-in, but at the bench, you must pick up your knife and finish boning out those chickens. [emphasis mine]

        It’s possible that working that brunch egg shift at thirty-nine weeks pregnant is badass. And also possible that biting the bullet and scheduling your own labor is badass. Keeping your shit together in front of your crew, no matter what, is badass. Maybe even driving out to IKEA to pick up thirty white china platters and get back by dinner service the day before you are going to give birth is badass. But badass is the last thing I’m interested in being. Badass is a juvenile aspiration.

        …When you are the one throwing the party every night, emptying the ashtrays, making sure all the tonic is cold, the limes fresh, the shifts covered, the meat perfectly cooked and adequately rested, the customers carefree and the employees calm and confident, it will leave its marks. Someone has to stay in the kitchen and do the bones of the thing, to make sure it stands up, and if it’s you, so be it.”

I could never have said it better, Gabrielle. Every day, forward.

 

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