THE BLOG

True Leadership

02/03/2015 10:21 pm ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015

There's a radical new form of leadership that is emerging. I learned it the hard way. But I'm a different person as a result. And my company is better for it. I run a company that recently went public. It's a process that is not for the faint of heart. Literally. Months after ringing the bell on NASDAQ, I rolled myself into elective heart surgery. It was a congenital problem. A fairly routine surgery, as it goes today, but the process of having your heart, literally in the hands of another, made me take stock at the very deepest levels of what it means to be human and a leader.

I've always been driven. As a kid I had a successful car detailing business. I even managed to get a nomination to and attend West Point where I was class president while having a side business providing bootlegged cable to fellow cadets. A practice that wasn't condoned by my superiors. But I was young and arrogant and brash. That quality of challenging the status quo, breaking the rules and charging toward my goals, despite the odds, had always served me in life. Indeed, it has historically been a hallmark of great leadership. I'm not certain it will remain so in this next century. Drive? Yes. Vision? Yes. Passion? Yes. But there is a new form of leadership that is replacing the arrogance of old, in favor of something I never thought I would be talking about as a former rugby player turned CEO with a mad passion for the automotive industry.

In 2005, that passion lead me to start a company that has come to be known as TrueCar. My premise? Buying a car isn't as fun as it should be. So I reasoned that with the advent of big data, technology and the transparency that both afford, we could change that. Today a car sells via the TrueCar platform on average every minute of every day. I'm happy to report we had a very successful IPO in May of last year. Ironically, what got me there wasn't the brashness and arrogance of my youth. In fact, those two qualities almost killed my business and took a toll on me. For leaders in American culture, the prize has always been business success. The spoils associated with that success are so intoxicating that we have a tendency to put on blinders as we ascend to the summit. The belief is that all is redeemed when you conquer the mountain. Riches. Validation. Self-worth. Leaving your mark on history.

I actually think these qualities might have been necessary during the industrial revolution when the innovation of the time involved pushing thousands of tons of steel and cargo up mountains and across the great plains. I charged into automotive with an industrial mindset. The innovation I wanted to foist upon an industry of steel was transparency. With big data, we can now offer pricing context that shows consumers a fair price and obviates the need for negotiation in most instances. It is an innovation that totally revolutionizes a process. My problem as a young leader in the early days of my company, was that I pushed it on an industry with an industrialist mindset, not the mindset of new leadership.

In 2011, my hard charging ways caused the industry to aggressively reject my company. I made statements that alienated the very people I was trying to serve, namely, car dealers. The industrialist mindset in me wanted to keep pushing, to add more dynamite to the charge and blast my way through the mountain. On the eve of the birth of my 4th child I was in a conference room at the hospital in an emergency session with my Board of directors to discuss what was amounting to a dealer and industry boycott of my company. I caught my reflection in the mirror. I had lost 20 pounds in a matter of weeks. I found myself thinking about drinking at about 4 o'clock every afternoon, something I had never done in my life. On one of the most important nights of my life, I was a distracted expectant father. That's not how I wanted to live. Something had to give. My trusted lawyers and beleaguered Board were gathered, when it dawned on me that there was only one way out. I had to live my brand. I had to be transparent. I had to tell the truth. I had to be vulnerable. It's not easy to be an arrogant know it all and own up to your mistakes.

A couple of months later, at the Miami Roundtable, a gathering of some of the most influential people in automotive, I gave the keynote address. It was an apology to an industry I love. I owned up to my trespasses and acknowledged my arrogance. It was a humbling moment. I was cannon fodder to a group that wanted to run me out of business. After 20 long minutes of talking to an icy room, I opened it up for questions. I was terrified about what might come my way. But I was living my brand fully for the first time. There was a deafening silence. And then a dealer raised his hand. These were his words. "I was one of your biggest detractors. But based on what you have said here today, I would like back on your program." I couldn't have scripted a more desirable response.

It wasn't my smarts that turned the tide, nor my ambition or doggedness. It was my vulnerability. What I learned in the process was that humans are very forgiving in the presence of truth. Even if it's not always pretty. I still had to do the hard work of fixing what was broken. I worked my company to the bone in 24 hour cycles to make the changes I promised to the industry. But in time we rebounded and just recently crossed the 10,000 dealer mark. Nearly a third of all car dealers operating in the US are now on our program. Most importantly, my heart is healthy. The midlife tune up worked. I have come to believe it was more than a plumbing job. I had a change of heart about how to lead. It starts with a renewed appreciation for the ticker in the chest that we point to when we say I. And an abiding commitment to be vulnerable as a leader, especially when it's hardest to do so.