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One of my favourite poems is “If—” by Rudyard Kipling. The poem is instructive, laying out the qualities of a successful “man.” Blatant gender reference aside, the poem can be useful in another way: as a guide for leaders and CEOs, regardless if they are male, female or otherwise. The instructions are harsh but true. In particular, I often think about these five qualities as I build my company.
1. “If you can keep your head, when all about you are losing theirs and blaming you…you’ll be a man.”
When something unexpected and potentially devastating occurs (which is inevitable) your team, customers or investors may lose their collective heads and look to you, as the leader, because you are ultimately responsible. Strong leaders keep calm and accept responsibility, smile and assure the team that you’ve got this. Prove that you are made for the role by getting to work as a team and finding a way through the mess. Show no fear and enjoy the challenge.
2. “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too…you’ll be a man.”
My philosophy is that a leader should always trust in their ability to overcome adversity. However, if someone on the team feels doubt about an action or a strategy, then it’s worth listening to the doubter. Find out if their concern is rooted in reason. Is the doubt real and does it require mitigation? Or was the plan or strategy simply not explained well enough to keep doubts at bay? Even great leaders fail to articulate their ideas clearly sometimes. Good, comprehensive communication counters doubt as well as fear.
3. “If you can dream — and not make dreams your master…you’ll be a man.”
A dream is an incredibly important part of starting a company, but good leaders also stay rooted in reality. There is a big difference between relentlessly pursuing a vision and recklessly leading your company over a cliff for the sake of an ideal. Leaders must use foresight, side-sight and hindsight so that they can course correct quickly, adapting to market realities and all the strategic advice that they are generously given, solicited or not.
4. “If you can meet with triumph and disaster and treat those two imposters just the same…you’ll be a man.”
When I read this verse as a young adult, I was confused by what Kipling meant. However, since becoming a CEO I have stared success in the face and realized that it is empty. I have also faced failure and discovered that failure is just one more thing that a leader must overcome on the way to achieving a goal. With failure and success both filed away as the imposters they are, you and your team are unstoppable.
5. “If you hold on when there is nothing in you except the will that says to them: ‘Hold on!’…you’ll be a man.”
I can’t think of a better verse to describe the passion of a leader. With that phrase, Kipling is describing how passionately I feel about my company and my ability to lead. The only time a startup fails is when the founder gives up. So, just hold on.
Building Summit Nanotech has been one of the most difficult and rewarding things I have ever done. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It is inspiring to think that if we, as leaders, heed the advice in this poem then, regardless of gender, “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”