It would be an understatement to say that launching a civic tech startup eight years ago has been the steepest, longest, most rewarding learning curve of my life.
When I was younger, I wasn’t one of those people who dreamed of being a scientist or engineer or doctor. While my college major was special education, my real dream was being a mother -- the kind who sewed elaborate costumes, baked homemade bread, volunteered at school, walked to the library and explored museums with our kids. And that is exactly how I spent my days for almost two decades -- loving every moment of it.
But when an opportunity presented itself to do something unplanned that I saw as having the potential to change the lives of others, I made the leap and metamorphosed from that stay-at-home mom into a tech startup founder and CEO. The growth curve has included learning to run a company, raise venture capital, acquire clients, understand how to do business with government clients, and manage a team.
Here are seven lessons I've learned about leadership while growing into my role:
1. Be authentic.
Whatever your style, whatever your personality, when you embrace who you are and get comfortable in your own skin, others will also feel more comfortable in your presence.
2. Anger is not a substitute for strength.
Even if you are facing misogyny, disrespect, or insubordination, if you allow anger to be your fuel, your response will likely be spiteful, cruel, and unkind. Anger can quite effectively prompt us to act, but it must never be the fuel we use to make our decisions or drive our actions.
3. Don't gossip.
As simple as it sounds, it isn't simple at all. If you talk to your team about other people, they will not tell you what is going wrong, because they will not believe you will keep it private. If you don't have your team's trust, you cannot lead. You can drive, but not lead. That takes trust.
4. Kindness is not a sign of weakness.
It is sometimes easy to confuse being tough with being a good leader, and there are times that toughness is exactly what is needed. But kindness comes from strength, and it is a choice that makes difficult situations easier and good situations a real win.
5. Compassion fuels loyalty.
There are times when we know someone is struggling and needs us to choose their wellbeing over that of the company -- whether it is relief from an overwhelming responsibility, showing understanding in the face of a terrible mistake, or accommodating urgent needs for some unexpected life event. While it will be your responsibility to mitigate the impact for the rest of the team, when you can respond with compassion, you will gain loyalty from your team that will be returned far above and beyond what might be expected.
6. Pick your battles, and then stick with it until you win.
Understand what your deal-breakers are -- things that absolutely must also be the values of your team. Whether it is prioritizing customer complaints or never tolerating one team member's undermining another, make a short list of traits or company values that are non-negotiable. When you are annoyed with a team member's behavior, decide if it is simply an annoyance or if it violates one of these values. If it is an annoyance, let it go. If it violates something on your list, address it head-on and don't relent until you have resolved the issue completely. If you fight every slight offense, you will be resented. If you always give in, no one will follow.
7. Integrity is a better companion than success.
Pick integrity every time. No matter how tempting it is to cut corners or do what is expedient rather than what is prudent, you will eventually have to pay the price for those decisions. Better to take the hit and keep your integrity intact than choose success that is built on dishonesty or poor ethics.