I had the honour of being a judge at the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards recently, a worldwide competition for post-secondary students running real businesses while going to school. The candidates were the winners of their respective countries’ competitions – all very impressive young people. The judges, too, were from all over the world. On the judging panel with me were successful entrepreneurs and leaders from India, Colombia, Germany, the United States, and Canada.
Our job was to listen to the “pitches”, to ask hard questions, and to determine which of these impressive young people would take home $25,000 and give their business a boost. So, naturally, the questions were tough. Many of the students rose marvellously to the challenge and answered the questions strongly. In one particular case, the contestant – a young woman from Africa – was doing well. At the fourth question, though, she fell silent and then began to cry. She wept quietly and avoided eye contact with us. A few of the judges said supportive things to encourage her. She got her composure partly back and answered the question between light sobs. The following question went much the same way. Then something interesting happened. One judge went way off script and asked: “What brings you the most joy from your business?” The relief on the candidate’s face was evident and she answered from the heart as she wiped away her tears. The next questions followed the same pattern of trying to draw her out, without causing her any more angst. One judge tried to gently steer the conversation back to questions that would test her business and give her an opportunity to meet the judging criteria. This did not go well. By unspoken agreement, the rest of the questions were ad-libbed by the judges and all aimed at having her complete her time with grace and leave having had a good experience.
When her time was over, and she had left with a smile on her face, the six of us simply looked around at each other with subtle nods. The matter was not discussed any further. I felt as if I was in the company of giants. I was reminded what leadership is all about: the well-being of others. Caring for others was obviously baked into the DNA of the successful entrepreneurs on the panel, and I think it is no coincidence that we all knew how to handle the situation in a very compassionate and un-shark like way. It is no coincidence because it is the source of success for each of us on that panel and for all true leaders around the world.