Ben Horowitz has written one of the most honest, powerful, and enlightening books on what it is like and the skills required to be a successful CEO. We know Horowitz: Founder and CEO of Opsware or Loudcloud which he sold to HP in 2007 for $1.6 billion. Then of course his venture capital firm bet on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and scores of other companies that now populate our lives and language. His short answer to the question of what makes a successful or great CEO is “don’t quit!” His book is called “The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When there are No Easy Answers.” Well, guess what, wether or not you are running a business, a nonprofit, a college or university building a new business, or are a member of the team in any organization, in todays market and changing economy there are no easy preset answers! None! But, as Horowitz says it is critical to believe that there is an answer and to forget about your chances of landing on the right one. Most people who have been in the lonely position of CEO know certain things, but only through experience. Like Horowitz statement that you have to fight to keep your focus and you have to decide what you think the best course of action is even when there is no good course of action. Read all of the leadership and management books you like, he goes on, they are all about what to do so you don’t screw up. But the reality is that inherent in the position of leadership is this fact – you will screw up over and over, but you learn. Horowitz describes his book as offering lessons “on how to make it through the struggle without quitting or throwing up too much.”
The entire book is excellent so I will only offer up a few sections that struck a cord with me. I suggest that anyone considering becoming a CEO or who is leading any organization or group of people read these sections.
First is the section on “The Struggle.” He begins the section in a twist of irony by quoting Karl Marx “Life is struggle.” The Struggle, Horowitz says, and I agree, is something all leaders experience – “it’s when you wonder why you wanted this job in the first place, it is when everyone disagrees with your decisions, it is when only you know how bad things really are, it’s about sleepless nights, it’s when you have to force yourself to focus on where you are going and not what you are truing to avoid, it’s that cold sweat you get when you know you have to lead and you don’t really know where you are going, it’s the land of no mercy and betrayal by others that makes you feel like your guts will boil, it’s when your employees think you are lying to them and you start to think they may be right, it’s when self-doubt can become self-hatred, it’s when everyone thinks you are an idiot and you deep down know you are in over your head, it’s when you are having a conversation with someone and can’t hear a word they are saying because you are in “The Struggle”, and it’s when people ask why don’t you quit and you say something, but know you don’t know the answer.” Horowitz says all leaders go through The Struggle – Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates etc. – It’s not failure, but neither does it mean you will make it – only those able to find the reserves of strength and courage make it. But, he says, “The Struggle is where greatness comes from.” This is a biblical lesson! And he offers some techniques to survive The Struggle.
The second section is called, “The Most Difficult CEO Skill.” You learn to be a CEO by being a CEO, nothing can really prepare you for this job, says Horowitz, and even if you know what you are doing things go wrong.” “Building a multifaceted human organization to trust your leadership, to compete, and to succeed in an dynamic, highly competitive market is just hard stuff.” In this section he discusses the most personal and important battle all leaders face. Well, read the section!
The final section I will draw your attention to is about learning courage. Horowitz says, ” In life everyone at some point faces a situation where she can make the popular, easy, and wrong choice or do what is lonely, difficult, and right. He says,”that every time you make the hard, correct decision, no matter what the crowd says, you become a bit more courageous and every time you make the easy, popular, wrong decision you become a bit more cowardly.” This then begins to define you and your leadership.
In the next video I will post I discuss the audacity required of leaders and Horowitz does a great job of framing what I am talking about.