When a mosquito bit me last fall, I was annoyed, but I certainly wasn't worried.

And while the past year since that fateful bite have not been fun on a personal level - and I am very glad to have it all behind me now - I did learn a lot of invaluable things about leadership that resulted in our own startup continuing to thrive and grow.

That single mosquito bite had infected me with West Nile Encephalitis, the much less common and much more extreme version of West Nile Virus. It causes, among other things, inflammation of the brain. 

It was no wonder I'd struggled with tasks that were normally a breeze. My brain was on fire and my body was struggling to repair itself after weeks of battling this illness.

It has been almost a year since that fateful mosquito bite, and I am so glad to be past it all. I am sharing my insights now because many startup teams aren't prepared for the unexpected to happen, and understanding what it takes to make it through it can make all the difference.

Hire Self Starters. 

Self-starters carry on even when leadership is less present.

While I was never hospitalized or fully sidelined, months of recovery meant that many of the tasks I'd previously managed were either ignored or became the additional responsibility of someone else. I spent much of my time working from home. But thanks to having a team where every single person is a self-starter, my absence did not halt forward progress. 

Our company continued to serve existing clients and landed new ones. We developed and deployed new technology on our platform. We even brought in new investment. 

None of this would have happened without the right team. 

Getting well is the highest priority.

When you've come out on the other side of a serious illness, your health is no longer something that you can ignore - and pushing yourself past your capacity is not being a hero. It is extending the amount of time that you are working wounded. 

Decide what will fall through the cracks. 

Leadership has to change when you're recovering from a significant illness. You can still lead, but you cannot do it the way you used to. You must make very difficult, strategic decisions about what your vital tasks are that are required for your startup to continue forward while you are recovering. Everything else has to be sidelined until you are better. If you can afford to hire help, do so. But if you are like most startups, your budget doesn't increase simply because you need more help, so it will be up to you how to spend your limited amount of energy and focus so that it has the most impact.

Decide who you will tell - and when

When I first realized I wasn't just dealing with the flu, I didn't tell anyone for a few days. I needed some time to process what this meant for me, and I didn't want burden others with this problem if I could help it. While I told my board right away, I do regret not sharing the news with others sooner than I did. To some extent, I kept hoping that I'd bounce back and wouldn't need to worry anyone else needlessly. 

But silence usually works against us. In the vacuum of information, we usually fill in the void with the absolute worst version of possibilities. So telling your team, your investors and other strategic allies why you haven't yet delivered something they expected or why you may not for some time may not be the happiest news they wanted to hear, but it is better than not knowing what is going on. And what I discovered is that most will be far more understanding than expected.

Decide to focus on good.

Pity parties are a waste of time, no matter how much you deserve one. Once you've dealt with the surprise of whatever it is you're facing, it is your job as a leader to do the difficult work to keep a positive mindset. Not only will it help you in your recovery, it will help your team. Decide to embrace joy despite your challenges by focusing on gratitude. When we make decisions that impact others while we are in a negative frame of mind, it is not fair to ourselves or others. Yes, we must be pragmatic. But we get to decide whether our pragmatism is based in negativity or positivity.

By choosing to focus on good, you can maintain a more positive mindset that will eventually restore your passion and energy that once inspired you to launch your startup in the first place.

This was certainly the case for me.

In fact, I'm likely in a far better place because of the experiences I went through this past year. I now have confidence that our team can pull together and move forward when things are difficult. That is powerful knowledge when it comes to leading a startup. 


Published on: Aug 15, 2018
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.