Four Leadership Lessons Learned While Running Four Miles Inside The Berlin Wall

Screen Shot 2016-01-31 at 9.34.28 PM25 years ago I was a young, inexperienced soldier serving in West Berlin, Germany. Living in Berlin during the Cold War and the cold weather of a Berlin February was a sobering experience. But, neither stopped me from running my favorite four miles of the Berlin Wall.

Both the “inner” concrete structure and the “outer” concrete structure of what was called “The Berlin Wall,” still stood in many sections of Berlin while I was stationed there. And, the asphalt path in between both walls once allowed the East German military to safely conduct their patrolling duties. It served a different purpose for me in 1991. It was my running path.

There was a small opening in the “inner structure” of the Berlin Wall, not too far from where at lived at Andrews Barracks. About once a week I would crawl through it and just run. Each time I did so, the combination of endorphins and the history of where I was running always flooded my mind with ideas about life and leadership. It was a great time to think and learn.

Here are some things I learned and how they relate to you, the Founding CEO.

1.  “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing.”

I like this often quoted piece of writing from Thomas Jefferson to James Madison. It also applies to us as Founding CEOs. Even though I knew of no policies preventing it, I probably wasn’t supposed to be running inside the Berlin Wall. But, running inside the Berlin Wall gave me a strange sort of rebellious, fun feeling and made me appreciate the people of Germany more.

I guess I felt a small sense of solidarity with the brave people of Germany that precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall. Sometimes even little personal rebellions are important for us to break free and learn. They often lead to large collective rebellions like the fall of a wall.

You, Founding CEOs, understand this, right? You understand the desire to reinvent a business model, disrupt a sector, bring change to a town, city, or even a country.

But, the fall of The Wall and reunification of Germany brought greater peace and the opportunity for prosperity to a large number of people.

Will your “rebellion” have a positive impact? Will your startup result in a better life for others?

2. Is your company culture having a positive impact on your employees’ lives?

It was a lonely run on the colder days. The truth is, I was also feeling pretty lonely during this time period. It was my first duty assignment overseas. I missed the USA. 

Along my runs I often took note of two houses that were mere feet from the inner and outer walls, but separated by the gap of the “no man’s land” where I ran. The families of those two houses were once neighbors. They suddenly were miles apart from each other when The Wall went up. I imagined the loneliness and pain The Wall must have created.

A local German family invited me into their home for an amazing Christmas meal. They told me stories about some of these families that occupied the houses I saw on my runs. I was so filled with their generosity and warmth, that it oddly felt like I was part of the community, even as a temporary resident. Life is so much more fulfilling when you share it with others without walls and barriers, real and imagined. 

As the leader of your company, are you doing the same?

Are you fostering a culture of openness, warmth, and generosity amongst the people at your company? Does it not only bring your mission alive, but also bring people together in a way they will remember as a positive experience years from now?

3. Freedom is more powerful than repression.

While running I would often pass by some tourists who were chipping off pieces of The Wall as souvenirs. At the time it struck me as odd. Why would people want a physical memory of such a horrible example of human barriers, death, and misery? 

That was until some friends and I decided to rent a hammer and chisel to do the same thing. Why? I think I just wanted a historical artifact that reminded me of the intense emotional feeling I got running inside The Wall. The deteriorating wall became my weekly reminder that freedom is more powerful than repression.

As a Founding CEO, you may be tempted to “direct” others in many ways that bring your business idea alive in accordance with your visions. The thing is, people yearn to be free. The Wall came down because of this.

Are you giving the people on your team the freedom to use their talents to enhance your vision to create an even better and more successful company?

4. Taking action on your dreams now, helps others do the same.

I left college after two years because I ran out of tuition money. I like to learn, so leaving Hofstra University where I started, was pretty devastating. It was my dream to sometime return and finish school after completing my Army contract.

My weekly runs in the middle of The Wall gave me a lot of time to think and dream. There were guard towers along my run route. The East German military used them to ensure no one from East Germany would climb The Wall and defect to the West. 

Have you ever seen something that just suddenly struck you as so meaningful that you couldn’t get it out of your head? That’s how I felt on one of my runs after thinking about the guard towers. Imagine you want to travel to another state, province, region, or even across town to see a friend, attend school, or visit family. But, you can’t because someone with a rifle will kill you for doing so. 

As I ran one day I felt a resolve form inside of me. The contrast between the guard towers and my dreams of going back to school ignited in my heart. Serendipitously I learned of an Army “Green to Gold” college scholarship program for people like me. I applied, won it, and was soon back in class at Hofstra University.

That opportunity helped me on my path to becoming a Founding CEO. So many people helped me on this path.

The more you help your team members with their dreams, the more they will help your dream, your company, on its way to success.

Take action on your dreams now, helps others do the same.

I am grateful for my time in Berlin. It’s amazing what you can learn when you explore the world around you on a run.

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