It was actually just before he skyrocketed to fame at a little known startup called Google.
I never worked directly for him like I would his successors. No, with Eric, I was just one in a sea of nearly 10,000 employees and seven layers of hierarchy. Which meant that our personal encounters were always brief and usually unmemorable.
Truth be told, if I happened to be in a meeting with Eric, it was always accompanied by an executive or two (or three or four), that made sure a rising young sales director never said anything out of line, did anything wrong, or received credit for an idea that was actually his own.
Even so, Eric was the first real CEO I worked with. He led more people in one company than lived in my childhood town, and certainly made more money than the combined incomes of every household in my neighborhood.
So I watched, and learned the following.
1. Leaders Aren't Always Picked First
Growing up, I had an unquenchable fear that I'd be picked last, if not at all. That I'd be "that kid" sitting alone in the lunchroom. Or be that awkward teenage boy without an invitation to the girls' choice dances.
As it turns out, Eric wasn't the first choice to be the turnaround CEO at Novell (sources say it was Robert Frankenberg). He wasn't the first choice to be the "grown up" CEO at Google (some say it was Steve Jobs).
But you wouldn't know that if you met him. It didn't deter him. Being the second choice didn't shake his confidence, or lessen what he was able to accomplish.
2. Leaders Don't Always Win
Eric didn't turn the ship around at Novell. He didn't hit every number. He didn't meet every analyst's expectation. He didn't solve every problem.
But not winning in every area didn't make him a bad leader. It didn't doom him to failure for the rest of his life. It didn't prevent bigger and better opportunities from coming along. It didn't define or confine him.
3. Leaders Make Mistakes
History has a way of dwelling on mistakes. Of finding fault for what went wrong. Of placing blame for why things didn't work.
Some would say the demise of Eric at Novell started with a single business decision. A single decision that many said toppled a billion-dollar enterprise.
Likely not the case, but the point is that leaders are human. They don't have a magical crystal ball to give them perfect clarity of the future. They make mistakes like the rest of us, but that doesn't make them any less of a leader.
4. Leaders Know Their Limits
In both his exit as CEO at Novell, and his eventual exit as CEO at Google, Eric acknowledged his skill-set was no longer sufficient for the task at hand.
That another leader, with a different sets of skills, was needed to steer the ship for a while.
And that's OK. That didn't make him a bad leader. It didn't make him an incapable leader for the rest of his career, or lessen his accomplishments to date.
5. Leaders Can Start Over and Win Again
Say what you will, but Eric's success as a leader at Google is far greater than any of his reported failures at Novell.
And that's the point. The defeatist in all of us would say you failed, and you'll always be a failure. You'll never rise again to your highest performance.
But that's not what real leaders believe. They don't let past successes or failures define their future. They approach every new opportunity with new eyes and ambition.
And that is what Eric taught me, if only from the sidelines.
Leadership will always be about who you are deep inside. Success and failure is always temporary, and never defining.
Regardless of either, or what any of your detractors may say, your future is always a clean slate ready for you to take advantage of.