Derick Dreher | Crain's Philadelphia

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Derick Dreher


The Rosenbach is one of the finest rare book libraries and museums in the nation, counting among its collections the only surviving copy of Benjamin Franklin’s first "Poor Richard Almanac" and the manuscript of James Joyce’s "Ulysses." Founded in 1954, the Rosenbach is formally affiliated with the Free Library of Philadelphia.

The Mistake:

I've had several teachable moments over the course of my career, but there's one that I'll never forget. I began my time as a director at the Rosenbach at a fairly young age. I was only 32. And one day I convened a meeting with my team, during which I explained to them that I had fired a person.

It was, in my mind, an entirely logical decision. I had two people doing the same work, and one was very good at their job, while the other was just good. So I decided to let one of them go. At our meeting I explained my decision to the staff, along with all of the logic I applied behind it. I fully expected nods of agreement and smiling faces. But as it turns out, people were horrified. They could care less about my logic. Because what I had done was taken a person away from them—somebody they valued as a person. They didn't want to hear anything about logic.

And I probably made it worse by trying to talk my way out of it. That's never a good way to solve problems. As my wife likes to point out, I am always certain and often wrong. So when you do that, you're really not helping things.

Your job is not to convert them to your way of thinking, but rather to understand where it is they are coming from.

The Lesson:

I think I learned several lessons from that. One is that you don't want to blurt out the answer first and assume that you're right. The second is that you need to think about the impact that your leadership style and your personality can have on every meeting. Self-knowledge is such a powerful tool. If you know your personal tends toward the pragmatic and logical—and that's me—you need to be that much more mindful about the fact that not everyone on your team is going to have that kind of personality or wants to have that kind of personality. Your job is not to convert them to your way of thinking, but rather to understand where it is they are coming from, and how they can help you build a more diverse team for your organization.

The initial correction came from somebody who was working under me and was also willing to speak up. After the meeting, he came to me and said, "Don't you see what you just did?" But it also came from a series of seminars I attended over the years where I engaged in self-evaluation and self-learning. I came to realize, "Well, you've got this personality type, so you need to find ways to listen better to your employees. You need to manage by walking around. You need to go and talk to people, listen to them." Because when you ask what their children are doing, or what they did over the weekend, you will ultimately learn things that go far beyond just that.

I've also done a lot of thinking over the years about pivoting between leading from behind and leading from the front. I always thought both were important leading styles, but now my leadership style tends to be more about leading from behind. I spend a good deal of time listening to other people's ideas, concerns and questions, and then moving them to the front.

Follow the Rosenbach on Twitter at @RosenbachMuseum.

Photo courtesy of the Rosenbach.