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Among my favorite books is Authentic Leadership by Bill George. The book opens with:
“We need authentic leaders, people of the highest integrity, committed to building enduring organizations. We need leaders who have a deep sense of purpose and are true to their core values. We need leaders with the courage to build their companies to meet the needs of all stakeholders, and who recognize the importance of their service to society.”
One Monday night, I was privileged to be part of a small gathering of graduate students at Harvard’s Kennedy School where Bill spent the better part of 90 minutes sharing personal stories behind the creation of this book, and what Authentic Leadership means to him. I think it was the first time someone had articulated so well a concept that had been amorphously bouncing around in my head, begging to solidify. When you are given the opportunity to grow and lead a company, you take on a duty to do your best for everyone the company touches. Employees, vendors, investors, lenders, partners, industry associates, community members and, of course, customers all look to you to meet their needs, add value, and make their lives a little better.
Is it hard to build a business from scratch? And how! I can’t thoroughly communicate the way Stages has challenged me over the years… financially, emotionally, physically, mentally, personally. The number of times I have been on the brink of giving up are countless. But, if you are driven by purpose and values, the decision to get up and face another day is no longer about you.
It is typical of leaders to think they have to internalize everything… hide fear and disappointment, put on a happy face, project confidence. Bill postulates that rather than putting on a persona, authenticity is the most important characteristic of being a leader… in a nutshell: be yourself.
Does this mean you should burden your team with every trivial annoyance in your life? Absolutely not. But personalizing your interactions makes it much easier for people around you to do the same. When people are willing to share their challenges with you, it makes it easier for you to alleviate pressure, remove barriers, offer resources, propose solutions, or otherwise help them to accomplish what they need to. This applies equally to an employee trying to complete a project, a customer trying to select a product, or a landlord trying to negotiate the lease.
Where am I going with this? Ok, I am getting to that.
In 2008, when the financial crisis hit. I received a scathing social media post from a mother:
“How dare you try and make a profit off my suffering. Autism parents are barely scraping by. And you want to charge me for what I should get for free?!”
So, in the interest of being authentic, I will tell you my feelings were quite hurt. I was doing everything I could to keep my business afloat. We had lost our #2, 3, and 4 distributors, who either shut their doors, or could not afford to stock inventory. I sold my house, moved into my office, cashed out my retirement, and canceled my health insurance. I was behind on all of my bills, and the collection calls were incessant. To say the least, I did not come from money. There was no backstop. There was no safety net.
I ranged from wanting to cry (I think I did) to wanting to scream (I think I did that, too) to wanting to quit. Thankfully, I did not do that. Finally, when I could think straight I tried to put myself in her shoes. Maybe her child had just had a meltdown. Maybe she just received a collection notice from her child’s doctor’s office. Maybe insurance had denied coverage of her child’s therapy. Maybe she just burned dinner. Maybe all of these things happened in the last few hours. If text-screaming at me was what she needed to do to blow off steam, my shoulders could be broad enough that day. Lord knows I had done the same thing to the poor woman on the other end of the phone asking when I could pay my electric bill.
The next thing I did was think… is there anything I can still do to help her, and others like her? I certainly can’t just give away products. That’s not just about me and my financial needs… it would be irresponsible of me to put Stages in a position to not continue product development, which is of genuine value to families and educators. But there were a few things I could do, which would have no negative impact on Stages. I sent her a message and said:
“I am really sorry things are so rough. We do have some products with dings and dents, and other minor damage, that we can’t sell. What do you need?”
Her immediate response was one of apology and sincere gratitude. I sent her a box of Language Builder Cards. Two weeks later I received a handwritten thank you letter with a picture of her son looking at the cards and pointing to the picture (presumably just correctly answering a receptive labeling question).
Since that time Stages has become deeply dedicated to providing resources for families that cannot afford the teaching tools they need for their children. We post hundreds of free flashcards, lesson plans, data sheets, research and resources for families. I know things will come back around to us when that family shows our materials to a clinic or school who have it in their budget to purchase full physical products.
A central theme of Bill’s book is that mission-driven companies create far greater value over the long-term. I absolutely believe that is true. Mission-driven companies are founded to solve a specific problem or alleviate a need. The founder is driven by solving the problem in bigger and better ways, and they hire employees with similar goals and values. The mission has a direct impact on the company and product. The product gets better as a result of the mission, the customers are happier, and society is a little better off.
Now we find ourselves in a crisis equal if not greater to what we faced in 2008. And, now it is not just financial. Our families are in danger of getting sick, many schools are closed, an unprecedented number of people are out of work … and parents are again in need. We have added a great deal more to our online resources in an effort to help as much as possible. To find free downloadable resources for early autism education, visit our free resource page. I hope you find something that will help your child learn, and make your life just a little easier.
Angela Nelson, CEO Stages Learning
Editor: Autism Resources & Community
Angela Nelson is the creator of the widely-recognized Language Builder Picture Card Series, and the creator and lead author for the Language Builder ARIS curriculum. Angela received her BA and JD from UCLA where she studied and practiced behavior psychology under Dr. Ivar Lovaas, and her Ed.M. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, with a focus on technology innovation and education. As Founder and CEO of Stages Learning Materials, Angela has created autism, special needs and early childhood curriculum products since 1997. In addition to her duties at Stages, Angela writes for multiple industry publications and is Chair of the Education Market Association.