I was returning to one of the most intense meetings of my life, and there was no hiding the knot on my head. Clearly, I had some explaining to do.
It was early December 2008, just a few weeks after my return to Prologis. The situation I had inherited had gone from bad to awful. And the forecast called for it to get worse.
I knew we had problems, but I had vastly underestimated most of them. The realities began hitting me on my first day back, which I recall like it was yesterday. I picked up The Wall Street Journal, as I usually did each morning, and saw our situation summed up in a headline: “Warehouse Owner Prologis Hits a Wall.” One senior analyst accurately pointed out that Prologis had fallen because it was “overleveraged and counting on good economic times.” Other analysts openly predicted bankruptcy.
The top priority was simple: survive. We had to make sweeping changes, and we had to make them quickly.
As you might imagine, our leadership team began working late into the nights looking for solutions. On one such night, our treasurer, chief financial officer, and seven or eight other financial analysts were with me in the doom-and-gloom conference room discussing some harsh realities.
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I was physically, intellectually, and emotionally exhausted. Never had I felt so unsure about things, so unsteady in my course, so ill-equipped to lead. I thought about all the people I knew and cared for who worked for Prologis. I thought about the people in the room who needed my leadership. I thought about my family. With the crisis swirling around us, I was feeling the weight of my new title and the weight of the company’s future on my shoulders. It might as well have been the weight of the world.
As the pressure and anxiety mounted in my mind, I bought myself the one thing I needed most—time.
“I need a few minutes,” I told the group, and I left the conference room to get a drink of water and clear my head.
The hallway on the fifth floor of our corporate headquarters in Denver seemed more narrow than usual. As I walked toward my office, I became dizzy, and the floor seemed unsteady beneath my feet. It quickly became apparent that I was about to faint, so I stepped into the first office I came to in search of a chair. My legs began to melt like butter on a hot roll. And in the darkness of that empty office, I passed out cold.
When I awoke about ten minutes later, I wasn’t sure where I was or how I’d gotten there. I took several slow, deep breaths and tried to gather my wits and my bearings. My head throbbed from a lump above my brow. I looked down to see blood forming into a dark red pool on the green carpet. My fall had taken me headfirst into the corner of a desk, leaving a nasty gash above my eye to go with the knot on my head.
I sat up on the floor and pressed my palm against the cut to slow the bleeding. My head still throbbed, but my mind became crystal clear about a hard truth: everyone in the conference room was waiting for me to return, and I still didn’t have any answers.
This isn’t an easy admission for any leader, especially one at the top of the org chart. We’re in charge because we are supposed to be the “expert.” In times of turmoil, all eyes fall on the leader. Everyone is looking to the leader to bring the team out of the wilderness. The leader must respond with confidence, passion, purpose, and solutions. I had the passion, I knew our purpose, and I thought we would somehow figure things out. But I was woefully short on solutions.
When I returned to the conference room, it easily had been twenty minutes since I had asked for the break. As I walked in, I was still thinking through what I would say and how I would say it. I was gripped by fear but too proud to admit my insecurities. I tried to restart the meeting as if nothing had happened, but I felt the collective gaze of the group as it locked onto my battered face. I looked back blankly until someone broke the awkward silence.
“What the hell happened to your head?” the voice said.
I’m in prison, I thought. There’s no way out.
Still unsteady on my feet, still unsure of exactly what to say or do, I briefly told them how I’d passed out and hit my head. Then I did something every leader I know struggles to do: I let go. I became vulnerable. I took a deep breath and spoke directly from my heart.
“Look, I don’t know what to say,” I told them. “I simply don’t know what to do. Frankly, I don’t have the answers. I really don’t. I need your help.”
Lead with Transformative Influence
Transfluence shows leaders how they can have transformative influence by overcoming their fears and pride, building transparency into their leadership, developing a strong core of authentic values, and passionately pursuing a meaningful purpose.
Walt, 2008 was brutal, many great companies failed because of their leadership gave up.
We had too many under our care not to do our all to come out of it. Lots of hard decisions.
Walt, I am sorry this happened, but, I also love it that you shared! Authentic leadership at it’s core…an inspiration for sure.
Thanks Trisha! I hope you’ve been able to check out the book!
Good gosh Walt! What an amazing story. Thank you for the sincere discussion of a very difficult time in your life.
Thanks, Dave! Let me know if you’re able to read the full story in the book.