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What would Michelle Obama do?

I talk a lot about Michelle Obama with my clients. I find myself often quoting the 2016 Democratic Convention speech, when Michelle said: “When someone is cruel or acts like a bully, you don’t stoop to their level. No, our motto is: ‘When they go low, we go high’.”

As founders and leaders of early stage companies, it is our job to maintain our integrity and “go high” every single time. We need to model professionalism and act as a living example of our company values in action.

Often, in my coaching sessions, clients vent to me about something atrocious that someone did recently. It could have been a direct report, a board member, or a co-founder - it doesn't matter, really - but someone did something that crossed a line. More often than not, my client is roaring to go and wants to write back a zinger - or compose a multi-page email response.

Let me tell you: it never pays to stoop to their level. As a leader of an emerging company, I encourage you to ask yourself: “What would Michelle Obama do?” And then do that instead.

As CEOs, we are the ethical and moral compass for our company. If we go low, we’re signaling to everyone that we permit unprofessional behavior on our team.

Our reputation is one of our most precious assets for hiring talent, collaborating with partners, and building relations with investors. Once it’s tainted, it’s incredibly hard to gain it back.

Sure, it would feel good to give that person a shove out the door as they leave [especially after all of the shenanigans they’ve pulled!]. But a real leader holds their head up and always takes the high road. It’s always worth it to give them the extra severance, to write a “thank you” note, or to say “I’m sorry,” even if you don’t completely believe you're at fault.

A therapist once told me to imagine stressful moments as a trip down a whitewater river.

For those of you who have been down a river with raging rapids you know that, if you fall out of your boat into whitewater, you never want to try to stand up. If you do that, your legs will get caught under a rock and you’ll likely drown. Instead, your best bet for surviving a trip down the rapids is to remain calm and lay flat on your back. If you keep your body calm, you’ll float right past the most aggressive section of the river and end up just fine when the water eddies out.

I think about this image a lot when drama is unfolding around me. Instead of trying to fight against the current, I try to imagine myself floating on the surface. When I stay calm and choose the high road, the situation passes by more smoothly. As a leader, I'm always playing the long game. No matter how tasty it might feel to get in to get in there and throw a punch or two, I ask myself “What would Michelle Obama do?” I encourage you to always take the high road instead.


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