Servant Leadership wins over “Command and Control”, always. — Growing up in a military family headed by an officerand fighter pilot, I was subjected to “command and control” management, which depends on strict hierarchy, unquestioning obedience, and little room for thinking. Young and naïve, I had no idea that this style of “leadership” was a relic of the past fueled by insecure egos.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing David M. M. Taffet. Over the broad sweep of his career, David’s taken on countless roles: parallel entrepreneur, venture capitalist, investment banker, fund manager, turnaround specialist, Mr. Mom, mentor, and street photographer. Three descriptive words flows through them all: Intrepid. Immersed. Inspired. David’s career has spanned law, investment banking, private equity, not-for-profits, turnarounds, buy-outs, management, and startups, including his newest venture as Petal’s Chief Executive Officer. David has 30-plus years of experience building companies, leading successful teams, raising capital (almost half a billion dollars in total), and developing cross-sector partnerships for commercial and public gain.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
As John Lennon observes in “Beautiful Boy”: “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
From the time I was four, I was going to be a civil rights lawyer. Everything I did was fueled by that dream. I interned for an Alabama-based civil rights lawyer in high school. I worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center in college. I graduated from the University of Virginia School of Law. I joined one of the top law firms in Philadelphia, and, at a very young age, co-represented John Doe, Esquire, whose plight was made famous in the move “Philadelphia” starring Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington. I had realized my dream of becoming a civil rights lawyer.
But, there was one problem. I hated life as a lawyer. As fate would have it, I was assigned to the firm’s three most notorious and cantankerous partners. One of the partners was so difficult that he had burned through three associates in less than a year. My colleagues were shocked that I had survived over a year of his constant bullying and disrespect. Unbeknownst to them, I’d had practice fending off bullies all my life. This one was no different than the others.
On Monday, February 12, 1996, I made it clear that I would be celebrating Valentine’s Day with my then-wife over a romantic dinner that Friday. Making this proclamation was both gutsy and critical given that litigation associates were expected to spend all weekend at the firm. Thus, I loudly and gratuitously reaffirmed my plans daily to anyone and everyone, especially the bully.
Around 6:00 PM on Friday, I turned off my office lights and made for the exit. Just as I neared the end of the hall, I was greeted by the bully.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?”
“I have a Valentine’s date with my wife,” I said, “the one I’ve been telling you about all week?”
“Have you completed the replies to the motions that came in today?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “They aren’t due until next week.”
He shook his head. “They’re due tonight.”
Rage descended on me. “Do you intend to stay at the office until I finish the replies?” I asked, trying to remain cheery.
“No,” was, of course, his answer.
I asked him if he would be reviewing my work the next day.
I asked him when he expected to review my work.
“Monday,” he said.
“Then I’ll have the work completed on Monday,” I said. “Now, I’m going to enjoy dinner my wife.”
“No, you are going to stay and complete them now,” he said.
At that moment, I informed him that he was fired as my boss. I told him that he had lost the privilege of assigning me work, and that I would share my decision with the firm’s managing partner first thing Monday. He was dumfounded and speechless. I smiled, pushed past him, and went on my date.
Quitting this way helped me reclaim my self-respect and laid the groundwork for my management philosophy — that everything happens with and through people. I realized that my passion was people not law, and that I could pursue anything I wanted. I decided I would rather lose than win with the bullies at the firm.
That day marked the beginning of the end of my career as a civil rights lawyer and the start of my passion for entrepreneurism and business. Life happened, and I responded on my own terms. I’ve reported to very few people since leaving law, preferring to work for myself instead. But, each time I’ve had a “boss,” I did so with the knowledge that no matter how I was treated, I had the power to decide the direction of my life, and that I deserved to be happy in my professional pursuits.
I never have more fun than when I’m building a business or a team.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
The most significant challenge I’ve encountered in launching Petal was COVID-19, which has complicated everything, including our money raise, moving to and headquartering the company in Texas, and the functioning of our business, which now operates entirely through remote professionals.
Just as the pandemic was testing the levies of denial, my wife Christie (who is one of Petal’s co-founders and EVP of Social Impact), and I were hitting the road on a fundraising trip as part of the company’s seed round. Our first stop was Toronto where we met with the aerospace engineers who invented Petal’s technology. In Brooklyn, we were scheduled to meet with Petal’s award-winning industrial designer, Scott Henderson, and the producers of a television show doing a feature on the company. From there, we were headed to Philadelphia and Baltimore to meet with more investors.
Building more on Lennon’s truth that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” fate served up a tsunami wave named Covid-19. We left Canada early and unexpectedly so we could make it across the U.S. line before the border closed. As we crossed into the country, New York City shut down. We ended up canceling our meetings in Brooklyn and staying a night in Ithaca instead.
We made it to Philadelphia 30 minutes after the city closed all non-essential businesses. When we got to Baltimore, the State of Maryland was on the cusp of shutting down, and Ohio (where we lived at the time) was about to declare a shelter-in-place order. We arrived home just before the wave of shelter-in-place orders crashed down across the U.S.
Despite many pandemic-related complications, we succeeded in raising enough money, selling our home in Ohio, making the 1,000-plus mile trek to Fort Worth, Texas with our AmStaffs Honor and Phoenix, closing on our new home, and launching Petal.
I can’t say I learned anything completely new from this experience, but several previously learned lessons have been reinforced:
- While others slam on the breaks and/or rush for the exit, press forward.
- Large-scale public retreat from normal operation often creates untapped opportunity that you should find and mine.
- Never mourn your pre-conceived expectations of how things should have been; instead, accept and flow with events as they really are — good, bad, and ugly.
- Accept every set back as if it were your decision and make the most of it.
- Focus on the things you can control and don’t fight the things you cannot.
- Laugh (especially at yourself).
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
Christie and I have weathered lots of near-catastrophes together. Despite the difficulties we’ve faced, we have managed to inspire our investors and assemble a remote team of outstanding professionals. Some factors that have led to this success include optimism, our propensity for laughter, and our shared commitment to three things:
- Common Purpose
The two of us have undeniable chemistry that radiates through our interactions. We naturally attract joyful people and we ruthlessly defend against toxicity. People who enjoy each other’s company will naturally rise to their highest levels of achievement. No one wants to disappoint team members who they care for and respect.
We have a common purpose, and we only work with people who share our vision. This common vision gives actionable purpose to everyone’s roles.
Even with great chemistry and a common vision, little can be accomplished without ongoing and meaningful communication. We voice everything with authenticity, humility, and mutual respect. Because we tolerate nothing less from those around us, we generally find that our communications are productive and effective.
The vitality of these three attributes will, in large part, predict the success of any viable business.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
I’ve built, bought, and/or turned around almost 30 companies internationally. Today, I perceive my younger self with 20/20 clarity, and it isn’t always pretty. I could certainly have benefitted from knowing the following:
(1) Servant Leadership wins over “Command and Control”, always.
Growing up in a military family headed by an officerand fighter pilot, I was subjected to “command and control” management, which depends on strict hierarchy, unquestioning obedience, and little room for thinking. Young and naïve, I had no idea that this style of “leadership” was a relic of the past fueled by insecure egos.
When I first led my own enterprise, I quickly learned that, 1) I didn’t have all the answers, and 2) that strict hierarchies stifle communication and discourage initiative. Fortunately, I had the self-awareness to relinquish my pre-conceived notions, adopt a servant leadership style, and work with everyone, no matter their rank. This flattening of the hierarchy opened lines of communication and encouraged initiative-taking and creativity.
Lessons learned: Sublimate your ego and embrace a growth mind-set as you help the team rise to its greatest potential.
(2) Your title is neither a qualification nor a justification.
I will never forget the excitement of launching my own venture capital firm and investment bank. I was so proud of my “Founder and President” business cards. But, I quickly realized that my title meant almost nothing. All anyone wanted to know was why I was the leader and what my capabilities were. Being a “Founder and President” did nothing to engender the respect I was after.
When I took a moment to assess my empty infatuation with titles, I understood that position worship was an easy yet irrelevant way of understanding life. As children, we experience cognitive dissonance, and no one explains what to do about it. So, we create justifications for things that don’t make sense to us. Through childhood and adolescence, I told myself that the pain inflicted on me was justified because those inflicting it outranked me.
I grew up poor, suffered bouts of food insecurity in college, and managed with difficulty to rise above my circumstances through hard work, grit and creativity. Throughout it all, I held no title, but my friends did call me “Mighty Mouse” (I’m short). My title didn’t enable my success, it was my effort and my ability to overcome challenges.
From that point on, I have taken a “secret boss” approach to almost every company I’ve bought, built, or led. Most notably, while doing a turnaround for a Louisiana-based telecom construction company, I showed up to work as a rank-and-file construction crew member wearing a hard hat, steel boots and an enormous tool pack. For almost a month, I worked in the Bayou digging ditches, turning pipe, splicing cable, and mixing and pouring concrete. My purpose was to understand the projects, the work involved, and the people engaged in the work.
Each night, I worked on a forensic accounting investigation of the company to better understand the flow of funds. At the end of my immersion, I shared with the crew my identity and role as the new CEO. My willingness to work alongside them earned me serious street cred with the team and united us in the task ahead.
Lessons learned: Never rely on a title to generate results; instead, inspire teams through authentic, open communication and a blue-collar work ethic.
(3) Excellence is determined by how you handle failure (not your level of success).
Though I have enjoyed some nice successes, I have also suffered some spectacular failures. And while some may view these painful experiences as negative (and even wish to bury them), I consider them essential to my personal/professional growth and important referential touch points when leading and mentoring teams of people, colleagues, and friends. They are the underpinnings of authentic connection and humble leadership. They are also constant reminders of my resilience and tenacity. Whenever I find myself down (and out), I simply stand up, brush myself off, and declare “Next!”
I never drive looking into my rearview mirror. The past does not define me; it only informs me. Optimism and forward momentum always ensure a better day for me.
Lessons learned: Exhibit resilience in the face of defeats, optimism during dark days, tenacity in the face of difficulty, creativity in the face of unforeseen circumstances, and, most importantly, infectious enthusiasm to inspire teams.
(4) Team chemistry, not individual excellence, rules.
When I built my first companies, I spent countless hours sifting through resumes for the best, most qualified candidates for the positions I wanted to fill. I interviewed everyone personally and hired the best of them. I had done my homework, and I believed in my discernment. Well, each person was a superstar in their respective areas, and they each knew it. Egos flared, conflict emerged, and productivity plummeted. I appreciated quickly that a collection of exceptional individuals does not necessarily constitute a winning team.
In every subsequent scenario where I sought to hire people and build a team, I considered chemistry above experience or perceived competence. I thought more about how people might work with one another than about what each individual would bring to bear. I came to appreciate that people who enjoy one another will naturally rise to their highest levels of achievement for fear of disappointing team members they respect. No amount of individual talent or experience can serve as an adequate substitute for chemistry. Cohesiveness trumps individualism, always.
Lessons learned: How people work with one another matters more than what any one individual can bring to bear. A well-functioning collective of people will quickly outpace the performance of a group of brilliant but disjointed individuals.
(5) Prioritize communication, accessibility, and personal connections.
When I led my first company, I prided myself on my work ethic and extreme focus. I wanted to set an example of excellence. Each day, I arrived early, stayed late, and worked like a machine. And, like a machine, I appeared distant and cold. The extrovert in me suffered. The discipline I employed as inspiration became a wall that isolated me from the company and the team. I focused like a laser, ignoring the natural flow of the world and the contributions of the team. This proved detrimental not only to the company and the team members, but also me. I had unilaterally alienated myself.
To turn things around, I re-embraced the truth that made me quit law and embark on a new career — that everything worth doing happens with and through people. I couldn’t do it alone, and I didn’t want to, either. So, I started to have fun running the company. I made it my mission to connect personally with every member of the team, and it changed everything. When I opened the flow of communication, everyone was happier and more fulfilled. The office vibe shifted dramatically, and meaningful success followed.
Lessons learned: Invite open communication, demonstrate faith in the team and maintain a friendly, open-door policy that instills a sense of safety and engenders trust and honesty.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Leading companies through trying times can prove exhausting. I’ve found that these three things help prevent burnout:
- Never internalize a business’s success or failure as a measure of who you are. Often, business leaders are worshipped for their wealth and success. In contrast, those who take risks and fail are demonized or degraded. Ironically, the leaders in both instances can be equally brilliant, hardworking, and inspirational, but fate can deal them different hands. Business leaders face disparate degrees of market acceptance, competition, pricing pressures, political events, global disasters, economic downturns, etc. that may tip the scales in one direction or another. None of these things are in their control. Personality cannot change the currents of commerce and life. It isn’t about leaders as individuals; it’s about what life brings you and how you respond to its challenges.
- Embrace the mantra “I can’t believe I get paid to do this!”
So long as you know that you are lucky to do what you do, your occupation and endeavors will never feel like work. With so many people unemployed and suffering inhumane and unjust treatment worldwide, it is a privilege to pursue profit at the helm of an enterprise. Don’t engage begrudgingly as if your job were an obligation; instead, dive in eagerly recognizing how fortunate you are to build your future.
- When confronted with large challenges, draw on your internal motivators (vs. external motivators like pay, position, and status) to maintain happiness.
The promise of cold cash, incremental promotions, and/or ephemeral fame are poor comforts when in the thick of it. Instead, stay present and embrace your discomfort. See discomfort as an old friend that helps you grow. Appreciate the uniqueness of the challenges you face, embrace the lessons you are learning in real time, draw on optimism to help you out of the mire, and recognize that your strength inspires others. The true measure of a leader is not in their successes, but rather in how they behave when times are tough. It’s the most important time for a leader to shine.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am forever grateful to Bruce Payne, who was Founding Director of the Hart Leadership Program at Duke University. Today, Bruce is Interim and Founding Director of the Graduate Program in Arts Administration at Baruch College and Associate Provost for the Arts at Hunter College.
In 1986, Bruce invited me to join the inaugural Hart Leadership Class and his first “Leadership, Policy and Change” seminar. He also oversaw my independent study and internship at the Southern Poverty Law Center and met with me weekly for another independent study on Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
Bruce was singular in his contribution to my education. He constantly pushed me past my perceived limits and taught me to adopt an antifragile mindset through repeated shocks to my ego. Whenever I had reached a point of satisfaction with myself or my work, he would find ways to knock me down a peg — or simply allow for it to happen as he looked on knowingly.
In our independent study, Bruce treated me as a peer as we analyzed Socrates. Keep in mind, this was my first real experience with philosophy. No matter. He expected me to keep up with him, and when I challenged his interpretation or logic, he came back at me even harder with arguments to the contrary. He never demeaned me or made me feel stupid during the process. Instead, he taught me to be hard on the issue, not the person.
When I asked Bruce for a law school recommendation letter, he wrote about an incident from “Leadership, Policy and Change” where I was the sole student among 74 others who argued that Flannery O’Connor’s “The Lame Shall Enter First” was about the nature of evil: “For more than an hour, David maintained his position against all comers,” wrote Bruce. “Most students in such a case would bend or fall silent. David was steadfast. Neither angry attacks nor friendly persuasion could convince him.”
Bruce waited until the class was over — when we were all walking to the door — to stop the entire class and announce that my interpretation was right — that there is evil in the world and we need to recognize it or become a victim to it. Rather than defend me during the class, he allowed for the barrage of classmate attacks, knowing that exposure to repeated stressors would develop my tenacity and my resilience.
To this day, his lessons influence my perspective and decision-making strategy.
Thank you for allowing me to fall and fail, Bruce.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
I have never turned away from the goal of becoming a professional photographer.
Outside of venture building, my passion lies in street and photojournalistic photography. Since I was 8 years old, I have connected with people through the lens of my Nikon camera.
With explicit consent, I immerse myself in foreign and/or marginalized communities to highlight human commonality and promote understanding across cultures. To date, I’ve photographed in all 50 of the United States of America, in 53 countries over 5 continents, and in hundreds of cities and towns.
Turning this passion into a way of life would be a dream realized.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
As my lasting legacy, I’d like my children to live fulfilling lives as agents of optimism and love. They have both matured into compassionate, astute adults, and I’m so proud of them.
My 26-year-old son, Jordan, is completing his Master’s in Social Work on his way to becoming a licensed clinical social worker. My 23-year-old daughter, Lily, is a recent graduate of Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business and serves as the Digital Strategist and Creative Director at Petal.
As my legacy, I would like for both of them to rise when defeated, embrace optimism, strive tenaciously, love fully, and serve the public good. My hope is that they will pass on these attributes to their own children and that subsequent generations will follow suit.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
Through our company, Petal, my wife Christie and I are already on a mission to eliminate the need for single-use plastic liners in waste bins. Plastic bags and other plastic disposables have become a nightmare for the health of our planet. Through Petal, we also hope to increase participation in public composting programs by decreasing nuisance barriers like fruit flies, odors, and pet tampering.
On a totally separate front, I would start a movement to improve individual and geopolitical decision making. I marvel at our individual and collective inability to separate fact from fiction, to respect science as a truth that you don’t need to “believe” in, to avoid politicizing problems that have objective foundations; and to avoid cognitive biases and logical fallacies.
First, I would make Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman required reading by all high school seniors worldwide. By illuminating the thought process, identifying cognitive biases, and demystifying risk, Kahneman calmly defuses the reader’s over-reliance on emotions and intuition and equips the reader with science-infused decision-making tools that will improve the reader’s awareness and judgments.
Second, I would work with software engineers and AI professionals to distill the lessons and methods of the book into a virtual decision-making platform for civic leaders, executives, politicians, and diplomats.
I envision a world where “stinking thinking” isn’t tolerated and intelligent decision making is celebrated. This world could live harmoniously while working towards sustainability.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I am most active on LinkedIn, but my about.me page (about.me/davidtaffet) is the easiest way to view my street photography portfolio and connect with me on your social media platform of choice.