I read and re-read the post by Ben Horowitz today: What’s The Most Difficult CEO Skill? Managing Your Own Psychology. I kept reading it over and over because I finally realized that I was not alone. As an African entrepreneur, I am confronted with challenges that CEOs in developed countries don’t even know exist. But they have their own challenges and in the end, the psychological ‘condition’ and the internal struggle are the same. Horowitz says:
‘The first rule of the CEO psychological meltdown is don’t talk about the psychological meltdown.’
This is so true. Because who do you talk to? As well meaning as they might be, friends, even employees simply cannot understand. It is like a White person not knowing what it is like to be Black. I mean, they feel for you. Intellectually, they understand that it might be different but in the end, they really don’t know. As a result, I spare my friends and my family with the gory details of entrepreneurship in Africa and I save them for my blog.
I remember one time, I had several members of my American family together for Thanksgiving and they really wanted details about my life in Africa. So I started to tell them a story and seeing their bewildered look, I stopped and brought the story to an end. Even then, they were wondering why I just didn’t come back to the US where I could lead a more ‘normal’ life. Another time, I met with members of the World Bank’s “Doing Business” staff as they were getting background information on my country to compile their yearly report. After three hours, they looked at me and said: “Why are you still there?” A ‘normal’ person simply cannot understand what drives an entrepreneur, nor understand, as Horowitz so perfectly describes, the loneliness of being a CEO.
But my favorite quote from Horowitz’s article is:
Tip to aspiring entrepreneurs: if you don’t like choosing between horrible and cataclysmic, don’t become CEO.
I often say that leadership involves choosing between bad and worse and you will be judged on making the bad choice. Few, if any around you understand that you had few options when making an important decision or that all of your options were bad ones. In the end, they will simply conclude you made a bad choice. Having made some over the more than 11 years since I started my company, I have a soft spot for all leaders, be they business or political when people second-guess their decisions.
Horowitz ends with some nice suggestions on how to manage your psychology. His final advice:
'Don’t Punk Out and Don’t Quit As CEO, there will be many times when you feel like quitting. I have seen CEOs try to cope with the stress by drinking heavily, checking out, and even quitting. In each case, the CEO has a marvelous rationalization why it was OK for him to punk out or quit, but none them will every be great CEOs. Great CEOs face the pain. They deal with the sleepless nights, the cold sweat, and what my friend the great Alfred Chuang (legendary founder and CEO of BEA Systems) calls “the torture.” Whenever I meet a successful CEO, I ask them how they did it. Mediocre CEOs point to their brilliant strategic moves or their intuitive business sense or a variety of other self-congratulatory explanations. The great CEOs tend to be remarkably consistent in their answers. They all say: “I didn’t quit.”
I will re-read his advice every time I feel overwhelmed and the very next time I feel like a mad woman. I still think that being an entrepreneur in Africa is harder than it is in the developed world. Last week, Columbia University held its annual African Economic Forum and one of the speakers said that to be an entrepreneur, you had to be a little crazy. I responded: ‘To be an entrepreneur you have to be crazy. To be an entrepreneur in Africa, you have to be raving mad.
Well, after reading the article from Horowitz, I am still convinced that I am raving mad, but at least I know I am not alone.