The Lessons of a Creative and Realistic CEO

“I thought I had to have all the answers myself,” said Kyle Zimmer on starting out as CEO of First Book.  “I don’t think I had the humility or the perspective to understand that that’s never the game, and that reaching out to as many brilliant minds as you can find is where the real strength is.”

That is a kind if common sense.  Anyone in a leadership role would be foolish not to tap into the knowledge and skills in others that are available.   But it is unusually frank in a CEO to acknowledge it, and Zimmer stands out for not only exposing her reliance on others but also for owning up to her misconceptions and pointing out the mistakes she made along the way.

But that’s just the beginning of the unconventional and frank observations on leadership, offered in an interview with The New York Times.  This is not your usual “Ten Steps To Success,” promoting the myths of mastery and immaculate decision-making CEOs usually prefer.  She appreciates the inevitability of mistakes:  “We want people who have tried things, and have failed, and have risen above it.”

That way, she explains, you not only benefit from the knowledge of what doesn’t work, you become more open and receptive in working with others:  “if you’re bright, and you’re a builder, and you’ve overcome the winds that blow against anybody trying to build anything, a lot of other things fall away, like defensiveness.” (See, “So, Your Idea Hit a Brick Wall. Congratulations!”)

This is not just about being in charge.  It is how you create a culture that encourages and supports innovation:  “if you have senior people who are dismissive and condescending, you’re going to have a very different group of people who are coming into the organization at the more junior level.”

It’s crucial, she points out, if you hope to do anything new.  “If you’re pushing in whatever you’re doing, you’re going to fail way more than you succeed. It’s that old saying: ‘You can fail without ever succeeding, but you can’t succeed without ever failing.’”

She concludes by offering two generalizations.  The first follows from her willingness to embrace the inevitability of failure.  “The culture we live in teaches us to fear failure, and I think that’s a huge mistake. When I look back over the history of our organization, the times we’ve been most creative were a result of the pressure of a failure or near failure.  The second is more surprising in an age of texting and video conferencing.  “There is no substitute for people spending time together. All the technology in the world doesn’t replace that. You have to interact with each other. You have to trust each other. And that doesn’t happen through e-mails.”

It sounds old-fashioned, but it is really timeless.  The world in which we live may be changing rapidly, bewildering us with constantly new challenges.  But our minds and our collective ability to think together, as Zimmer suggests, have pretty much stayed the same.  We still need each other, and that means spending time together.