In 1927, my German grandmother was born in an orphanage 15 kilometers east of Munich in the small market town of Kirchseeon. With blond hair and blue eyes, she was classified as Aryan, which her nation's soon-to-be chancellor, Adolf Hitler, would declare the "master race." Still, she fell in love with a Black American GI in World War II. He brought her to the States--but not before they married and had a biracial child, my uncle, in a Germany defined by Hitler's ideals.
My grandmother was one of my earliest examples of leadership. She spoke her mind freely and knew exactly who she was, not looking for or requiring the approval of others. As a child, I saw a parallel between her strength and my own.
At this point, I've spent nearly as much time studying leaders as I've been one. And with every leader I've observed--including my grandmother--it's become clear to me that those who achieve remarkable things and overcome seemingly impossible odds know how to do three things.
When marathon runners begin at dawn, they often wrap themselves in trash bags to stay warm, and then dispose of these outer layers when the gun goes off. That's how our leadership team looks at ideas. Wearing them lightly and shedding them easily has helped our diverse team dominate in a homogeneous industry known for its reliance on tradition. Early on, when we were establishing our guiding principles for Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, the most important one was "We do it with excellence or we don't do it at all." That meant that if the end result would be just "OK," we looked for a better option and pursued it quickly. Uncle Nearest has scaled up faster than any independent brand in the American whiskey industry's more than 250-year history; our success has depended on our ability to pivot as often as necessary and as fast as possible.
One of the most stressful times in my career came when an investor, who was openly second-guessing my decisions, caused other investors to doubt my leadership. Because of this, I wound up putting unnecessary pressure on my team. Then, I recalled how leaders I'd studied had dealt with adversity without letting the weight of it roll down their org charts. I worked to develop that strength. Two of the greatest gifts we can give our people, I came to realize, are security and encouragement, no matter what difficulties we may face. When done right, outside observers see a swan floating gracefully on top of the water, without considering the feverish movement of her webbed feet underneath.
Reframe loss as opportunity.
For over a decade, my husband and I went through more than 10 fertility treatments, five rounds of in vitro fertilization, two unsuccessful adoption attempts, and an awful lot of money before concluding that the family we'd long dreamed of might not be a part of our purpose in this lifetime.
Rather than wallowing in sorrow for the children we wouldn't have--Grant Edward and Sidney Elisabeth were the names we'd been planning for years--we looked within this loss for what could be gained.
Soon after, I formed the investment company that owns Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey. My team members would feel like they were part of a family, I decided. They would feel encouraged to soar.
Five years later, the leadership abilities that once were hard lessons now feel like second nature. And the life advances I would have made for my children, I've made instead for my company, Grant Sidney, and the people who help it grow.