7 Secrets to Being a Sustainable, Resilient and Agile Company: Golden Wisdom from “The Crucible of Leadership”

“If knowing yourself and being yourself were as easy to do as to talk about, there wouldn't be nearly so many people walking around in borrowed postures, spouting secondhand ideas, trying desperately to fit in rather than to stand out.” ― Warren G. Bennis, On Becoming a Leader

The May 6, 2013, Crash Course lecture “The Crucible of Leadership” with Jerry Colonna at CU’s Silicon Flatirons Center was memorable for everyone in attendance. Jerry Colonna is a successful venture capitalist and executive coach who has coached some amazing entrepreneurs and CEOs on how to use what he calls "The Crucible of Leadership" to become the leader you were meant to be. (He blogs at and tweets @jerrycolonna.)

The talk revolved around the stresses of being a CEO, and what it takes to be in that role of leadership. “The startup life is intense and intensely personal experience,” he said. And for him startups are the perfect crucible: an opportunity to know thy mettle in the heat of it all. Traditionally, a crucible is what an alchemist would use to turn lead into gold. For those in the startup life, he believes “it’s where the magic happens.”

Jerry’s delivery is a potent elixir that stirs a deep place within. It’s a tender place that we all feel as creators, as CEOs, as humans. If you ever get a chance to see him present – run, don’t walk. And, save a seat for your Startup CEO friends. Below is my distillation from the wisdom Jerry shared with us that evening.

1. Develop awareness of your relationship to work. We work for purpose and meaning, to create value in the world, for money. What is work to you? Is it your job or your joy? What did you parents teach you about work? We bring a lot to work, and we check a lot at the door before we enter. Inquiring boldly into these questions can yield potent insights and be a point of departure into a deeper inquiry of self.

2. Get comfortable with vulnerability. Rumor has it, being a CEO can feel pretty bad. It’s lonely at the top, you never know what lies ahead, you don’t have all the answers (but feel like you should), and there’s a subcutaneous level of anxiety spun from the constant fears and sense of inadequacy. As humans, even CEOs are emotional beings. "The major emotions a CEO has are frustration, disappointment, irritation and overwhelm," reports a CNN article from 2010. Not the most comfortable range of feelings for anyone. And while some posit that being a CEO should come with health warnings, getting comfortable with vulnerability can diffuse the stress and cortisol build up those feelings can cause. Start by voicing your feelings, even if it’s just to yourself at first. Be honest.

3. Know your flow. When hard work = stress, it doesn’t yield good results. Working in a constant state of emotions and feelings indicative of being in survival mode is the fastest way to depleting your resources as an effective leader. There is a powerful engagement in the oscillation between the states of the performance zone and the recovery zone (see this chart from The Energy Project on these emotional quadrants) that is your prime resource of creativity. To work hard and work better, you need to be alive – you need to learn what it takes for you to be in your creative flow.

4. Look fear in the face, and ask it to teach you. When it comes to failure, dig in to the root of that fear. Ask yourself: What are you afraid of? What are you afraid of? What are you afraid of? Trace your responses, and inquire deeper. Voicing your fears, down to the story of being ‘homeless, penniless, alone and unloved,” is to know what underlying stuff you’re working with. Fear has much to teach you about resistance, your blocks, and how you’re being. The lessons imparted by your fears are implicit in the practice of becoming yourself, leading authentically, standing in your energy. Until you get to the root of that fear, it will consume you. Identify the one fear you're running away from and to have the guts/balls/courage (whatever it takes) to admit it and surrender to it.

5. Know yourself. Being a leader requires a cultivated depth of self-knowledge and awareness. You must know:

What do you really believe? What are your visions? What values to you hold? What kind of company do you want to build? What kind of adult do you want to be? How do you want to be remembered? How do you feel?

6. Rooting and Rituals. Once you’ve done your reflective homework from #5, work that into your daily patterns. Develop a habit of grounding each day to remember those important things – who are you, what do you believe, what is your vision – as those are your Polaris, your living WHY. Then, explore this question to the point that you crave the answer: how do you slow down, find the pause in your day? Establish rituals that nourish your deepest sense of self, and pause long enough to connect to them daily.

7. Relax. Learning to relax and lighten up is the key to sustainability, resiliency, agility. As an entrepreneur, you started a company because you wanted to change the world, at least a small slice of the world that you saw you could change. That is an important ‘why’ to come back to and remember. You had an amazing idea that sparked a successful company doing (hopefully) great things. In the rapid growth of startup life, it’s important to reconnect to that moment, and to cultivate more moments like that. The pragmatic bottom line reason to relax is this: where is your next idea gonna come from?

And while I can be cheeky and put a cute title on this post, Jerry’s work is genuine and his message for leaders is simple: Being human is the crux of all that you do. If you ever get a chance to experience a Jerry presentation or work 1-on-1 with him, do. You will be changed by sitting at his table.