As an owner of EMyth and its Board Chair, this is a meaningful time for me. October is National Women’s Small Business Month. My 35th anniversary at EMyth is a few months away, having spent the first 17 years building the company into a global brand with my former husband, Michael Gerber, EMyth’s founder and best selling author of The E-Myth Revisited, and the last 10 years as its Board Chair.
What it means to be a leader, as a woman and a business owner, has defined my career.
For those women business owners who aren’t yet the leaders you’d like to be, you’re not alone. For the longest time, I was definitely not a leader. I had lots of insight, energy and good instincts. I could make difficult decisions relatively easily. I could generate growth. I knew how to build systems that leveraged people to produce exceptional results. But, I didn’t know how to lead people, a wholly different proposition.
Leading people is about understanding yourself and your own vulnerabilities, the base qualification for understanding the people who work for you and successfully taking them someplace that you genuinely, passionately want them to go with you.
While we’re currently running my series on sales and building a sales system, I know you haven’t heard from me much. I’d like to introduce myself to you by sharing some of my story.
After 13 years in various leadership positions, I became EMyth’s President in 1995. Within 18 months, despite the success of The E-Myth Revisited and the growth of the company, I felt overwhelmed. Everything felt like it was too much. Nothing I tried made those feelings go away. I started working with my own business coach, an exceptional woman who became a true mentor in my life. With her help, I began to recognize that what looked like my inability to manage the demands of the company on the outside was actually my increasing awareness of how emotionally disconnected I felt on the inside.
I remember the day when it hit me that I didn’t know the sound of my real voice. I was married, raising two young children and running a company—living a seemingly good life—when I realized that most of what I expressed came from what others had taught me or expected of me. I started to question everything I thought was important and discovered how much of it was paper thin. Unexamined, ungrounded, untethered to something that felt essentially me...hollow.
I also came face-to-face with the denial I had been in about my impact on people in the company. I was too often angry, demanding and impatient. I could see that I had the respect of my employees but I didn’t have their trust. I had put them in a horrible position, earning their respect with my strengths and violating their trust with my weaknesses.
Over the next two years, I did my best to keep my commitments to EMyth and, while I could often power through during the day to get things done, the despair, humiliation, fear and regret I was experiencing, at a depth I had never known, made it very difficult. By the end of 1998, I realized that my responsibilities at EMyth were not giving me what I needed and I wasn’t giving EMyth what it needed from me.
So, in mid-1999, having built a company, consistent with EMyth principles, that no longer depended on me, I retired as President but remained on the board to continue exploring and discovering who I was, what I really cared about, what my blind spots were, where my self-perception was inaccurate, where my beliefs were unproductive, and what it really meant to lead.
My journey over the past 17 years has taken me to India, the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, the south of France, Hamburg, Germany, and Ashland, Oregon. I’ve had the generous help, at various times, of some special coaches and teachers. I’ve also been supported by a loving husband and wonderful friends.
Perhaps my greatest teachers have been EMyth and Life, all the precious moments that have made it possible for me to grow and change by providing answers to my endless questions about my relationship to myself, my team, my business, my loved ones and the world.
Today, my voice is my own and I feel like a leader. This is, of course, a learning process that never ends.
I would say that I’m living proof that, while there may be born leaders, real leadership is a commitment and a choice. A commitment we make to ourselves to be ourselves. A choice we make to support each member of our team in being themselves. That’s when leaders lead and employees follow from a place of joy, curiosity and love rather than fear. I suspect that if more women business owners understood leadership in these terms, they would more easily recognize their own unlimited potential to take up this challenge.
For those of you who are interested in discovering what leadership means to you, here are some questions you can ask yourself that might help you on your path:How well do you know what you really want for your life?
- Are you able to dream (not the sleeping kind) about what you want your life to be like? Have you ever spent time thinking about whether your ambitions and goals in your life are your own or someone else’s? Do you ever have the feeling that you haven’t yet found your voice? Do you have a sense of purpose that gets you out of bed in the morning with joy to meet the day?
- Have you articulated your most important values to yourself? Do you live by them or are they just concepts in your life? Have you intentionally infused what matters most to you into the culture of your company? Do you naturally attract employees who share your most meaningful values and live them every day in your business?
- Are you confident in your strengths and comfortable in your weaknesses? Do you have an easy relationship with what you don’t know? Can you allow yourself to be impacted by your employees’ ideas and perspectives without feeling out of control? Do you regularly co-create with your team where the result becomes greater than the sum of the parts?
- Do you have the feeling that as you come to understand yourself better, you have a better understanding of each member of your team and their needs? Do you consider it your responsibility to meet your people where they are or are you more likely to expect them to understand you? When you meet with an employee, are you actively entering their reality or do you assume that you know what is real for them?
- Do you have a clear and specific understanding of where you’re leading people? Are you confident enough in the goodness of your pictures to take them there? Can you see and feel the gap between where you are and where your team is and help them take small steps each and every day? Have you ever had the experience that as you open up to your people they open up to you?
If any of these questions touches a chord in you, I’d love to hear from you. Just send me a comment below and I’ll respond.
Read Gail’s series on sales and how to think about building a great sales system in your company here.