It’s a moment of crisis that most business owners know all too well—that morning when one wakes up and realizes that something isn’t working, and that something needs to change. It’s a critical juncture—one in which doubt threatens the otherwise indefatigable conviction that is a critical component in starting a business and leading it to success. At first glance, it might look like the beginning of the end. But, for those with the willingness to change their frame of mind, the faith to stay committed, and the strength to accept that their biggest obstacle is none other than themselves, it marks the beginning of a timeless adventure: the hero’s journey.
The phrase was first coined by Joseph Campbell, a philosopher who examined some of the greatest stories in human history and realized that, while differing in detail, they each possessed similar tenets celebrating the evolution and resilience of the human spirit. “The hero’s journey begins when someone heeds the call to ‘adventure,’” explains Peter Schwartz, a Chair for Vistage International, who has built his career around guiding business leaders through the experience. “To make it through to the other side, the leaders I coach have to transform themselves somehow. They have to identify and wrestle with that part of themselves and their thinking that needs to change, and a stage of disillusionment inevitably follows. If you can rise from that dark place through strength and faith, you come out on the other side a very different person. It’s an enduring, resonant process that dates back to the earliest religious and mythological stories, able to stand the test of time because it resonates with us today on such a fundamental level.”
It’s not every line of work that takes the ingredients of the world’s oldest stories and applies them in innovative ways to the current business climate, yet Peter feels as though he’s been preparing for this professional role his entire life. Indeed, not every fifteen-year-old reads unabridged editions of Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, but Peter did. He had been fascinated with mythology ever since he was first introduced to the timeless stories in grammar school, recognizing them as epic tales of exploration—not only of geographic terrain, but of the terrain of the mind and soul. Now, as a Vistage Chair, he specializes in navigating the latter.
At once a think tank, coaching, and peer advisory program for some of the world’s most innovative and successful CEOs, Vistage was founded in 1957 and has since amassed nearly 15,000 members worldwide. It is headquartered in San Diego, where around fifty employees design and support the Vistage experience that is then dispatched through 500 international chairs. Each chair oversees one or more regional groups, running them according to the program’s time-tested structure for success. As one such chair, Peter facilitates three local area groups of noncompeting business owners and company presidents throughout the DC metropolitan area. Two of his groups deal with chief executives of companies in the $10 to $500 million range, while his third is a key executive group wherein CEOs can enlist their second-in-commands so that they might benefit from peer advice as well. “These groups offer an environment where leaders can come each month to interact with peers without holding anything back,” he points out. “I focus on bringing together a diverse group of individuals who are truly committed to running their businesses better. And in this context, amazing things happen.”
Born in the boroughs of New York City to parents of very modest means who had both been raised in challenging environments themselves, Peter is the oldest of four. He watched his father work his way up from an entry-level position at a wood preserving firm to become president of the company, learning the value of a strong work ethic and the importance of seeing a journey through to the end. Peter’s first job was a paper route. After that, he proudly served as an altar boy at the Catholic Church his family attended. After close observation, young Peter noticed that the altar boys who worked weddings and funerals made tips, and that the captain of the altar boys determined the schedule and made assignments to those gigs. “Wanting to be top dog has always been innate in me,” he laughs today. He quickly attained his goal, making a few extra bucks while also learning important management skills that would help him down the road.
Most would say that Peter was a golden child, readily excelling both academically and athletically. Although success came easily to him, however, it was not attained without its obstacles and drawbacks. He suffered a sudden deterioration of his eyesight at an early age, and after falling in love with the sport of baseball and advancing his skills considerably, he suddenly found himself unable to play. “Looking back now, I realize that, for a long time after I lost my skill in that sport, I was resolved not to let myself care about anything that much again,” Peter concedes. “I was going to play it safe from then on. I got into swimming, but that was only a quest for medals. There was no joy in it.”
For Peter, achievement had become the name of the game, and this pattern held into adult life as he continued to succeed, but never with joy or passion. He attended one year of college at Temple University but then had to transfer after the Philadelphia plant where his father worked shut down and he could no longer receive in-state tuition. Peter was putting himself through school and had no choice but to transfer to Old Dominion University in Virginia, where he earned his degree in Psychology. Upon graduating from college, he accepted his first job with Rider Truck Rental facilitating truck leasing. He then accepted a sales position with a company selling telephone systems against the newly deregulated AT&T—a role he found exceptionally daunting at first.
“To my great fortune, however, my manager helped me see that it wasn’t my sales ability, my knowledge, the product, or a disinterest in success that was holding me back,” Peter explains. “Rather, it was my thought process. He taught me that, if I could unwrap my conceptualization of the job and reframe my thinking, I could change the way I performed, and that’s exactly what happened.” Indeed, Peter quickly became rookie of the year at a Fortune 500 company, all thanks to a change of thinking.
With that, Peter’s journey—both personally and professionally—took off. As he rose from sales, to sales manager, to VP of sales, and ultimately came to run his own company, he immersed himself in studies of how the mind works. “As I then went out and joined other startups at the senior management level, I felt this inclination to really examine my purpose and my experience in each role so I could be as effective as possible in each capacity,” Peter affirms. “You see, our thought processes are like operating software that run in the background of our daily lives. We aren’t aware of them until we bring them to the surface and really examine them, which allows us to make a decision about whether they’re working or not. By striving to bring these patterns to the surface in each new experience I transitioned through, I learned a lot about leadership and recognized that my assumptions about it needed to be challenged and changed.”
The last startup Peter had a hand in guiding was a dotcom venture. With his assistance, the company rocketed from four employees to 430 and raised $75 million in venture capital within five years. When that success then suddenly dissolved with the dotcom collapse, a light bulb went off just as suddenly for Peter when he started to learn more about coaching, which had just made an entrance into the professional scene. “I noticed that young people I had hired were coming into my office at the end of the day wanting to talk about things that were external to their jobs,” he remembers. “They were seeking me out for advice, so I started to take note of what made me so approachable.”
Continuing the self-study that had always been a hallmark of his character, he began to see his nuanced perspective of the business world in a new light, and with a new purpose. He graduated from Georgetown University’s leadership coaching program and earned two certifications in neuro-linguistic and neuro-semantics, a discipline that examines how habits of thought and patterns of behavior can be examined and modified to achieve greater success personally and professionally. He is certified in several of the leading leadership development instruments. With this wealth of knowledge under his belt, Peter realized that, even as he had pursued certain short-term horizons through his startup ventures, his life had always been oriented toward one long-term culmination, and that was coaching. “I recognized that there was another path for me, and that I had taken business startups as far as I wanted to take them,” he avows. “I didn’t want to run another company, as I had already climbed that mountain. I wanted to do something else entirely—I wanted to work with small businesses and help leaders take them to the next level.”
After the tech bubble burst and his dotcom went under, Peter accepted a position as a principle in a consulting firm that assisted manufacturers in contracting with the federal government. He was running that company when Vistage first asked if he was interested in becoming a member. When they learned about his array of coaching credentials and his self-powered passion for the art, they immediately offered him a position as a chair, and he knew he had arrived at the right place. “I had always done what golden boys were expected to do—achieve, achieve, achieve,” Peter remarks. “I was a successful CEO, but it felt more like something I had to do, not something I wanted to do. I never wanted to be king because you’re restricted to your own kingdom. I wanted to be the guy who traveled from kingdom to kingdom, learning and advising the king with that knowledge and experience.” Today, having experienced the business world from so many vantage points both external and internal, and having completed a hero’s journey of his own, he is exceptionally equipped to help others as they hazard the most treacherous—yet most rewarding—roads.
In advising young entrepreneurs entering the business world today, Peter stresses the importance of trusting one’s instincts. “If you find yourself drawn to something, pay attention to that,” he urges. “Forget the money, because it will follow as long as you’re doing what you love. Be willing to work hard and to pay the price. Find great mentors, and be willing to work as hard for yourself as they’re willing to work for you.”
Beyond those concepts, Peter reminds us that, while the hero’s journey was first told in myth and fable, it remains alive and well today. “Leadership is the continual focus of attention and commitment on a desired future amidst the mayhem of day-to-day life,” he affirms. “It’s taking the necessary steps to bring those visions into reality over time. Whether you’re leading your life, raising a family, or building a business, anything with an element of creation is an opportunity to put this into practice.” As we stop to remember what matters most to us, and what ideas we’d like to bring into reality, we remind ourselves that a change of lifestyle, fortune, or circumstance is really only a change of mind away.