The Founder of the ‘World’s Best’ Whiskey on Being a Real Leader
By Nicklas Balboa
The long and winding road to success is filled with challenges and stumbling blocks. There’s so little room at the top — and the climb to get there can change people. A once powerful visionary bends to the will of his or her investors, losing sight of his or her narrative and purpose in the name of profitability. It’s a common story.
But Fawn Weaver, CEO of Grant Sidney Inc. and Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.
The whiskey chronicles
History begins with a story, but sometimes the most important chapters of the narrative get lost in time. For Weaver, this hidden genesis in the rich history of Tennessee whiskey would help propel her success in the world of spirits.
As it turns out, the distillation process behind the iconic Tennessee whiskey we all know today as Jack Daniel’s was actually handed down to the young boy Jack by the first known African-American master distiller: Nearest Green.
When Weaver learned of this remarkable history the world never knew, she saw an opportunity. The story was one for the ages: Generations to come could revel in the whiskey chronicles. Weaver also thought that people would want a taste of Green’s water of life, so she founded the award-winning Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey brand in 2017, and the rest is history.
On her road less traveled to the top, Weaver learned a few things about entrepreneurship. I had the opportunity to speak with Weaver, who was gracious enough to share these leadership tips for aspiring entrepreneurs.
The power of no
A lot of people say yes to things they’d rather not do because they want to avoid immediate consequences of discomfort. But saying yes only brings temporary relief — in the long run, it wastes time and stymies real progress.
“You have to learn how to say no,” Weaver says. “There will be countless situations and decisions that you are going to come across where it’s going to give you heartburn, make your back tight, your neck pinch, and your shoulders hurt in order to say no. You can deal with discomfort on the front end or the back end, but the difference is that you will make strides toward your goals with a no. You will not get to them with a yes.”
Adding no to your conversational toolkit can serve as a form of self-preservation, safeguarding your energy. “You will drown in too many unnecessary yeses,” Weaver says. “Don’t waste time doing things you really don’t want to do with people you really don’t want to be with. We have the power to say no to these things, and that gives us the space and bandwidth within our minds to be able to actually progress towards what we are purposed to do.”
Yes, saying no can feel unpleasant, but sometimes it’s an absolute necessity.
Take the right money
Is the investor’s relationship to you or your profits? Weaver’s culture of saying no took center stage during Uncle Nearest’s Series A, when she decided that the company would be built without a board. Weaver grew the Uncle Nearest brand with a dedication to saying no to the wrong money.
“Where so many people get in a bind is that they are so focused on what they don’t have and what they need, that they are willing to take money from anyone,” Weaver says. “It inevitably goes bad. Choose your partners and your investors like you would choose your romantic partners, because you are in fact in a marriage for as long as they are invested in your company. You wouldn’t marry just anybody, so why would you take money from just anybody? It’s why I’ve never taken money from venture capital or private equity.”
By taking the right money, Weaver ensured that Uncle Nearest would remain aligned with her vision.
Be your honest, authentic self
People who say yes all the time are not being honest with themselves. And honesty is the first step towards self-actualization and genuine achievement.
It’s a misconception that saying no creates conflict. In reality, conflict comes from saying yes. “I am creating a culture of people who are honest with what it is they want in life,” Weaver says. “When people are saying yes to things that they really don’t want to do, it eventually comes out.”
Being inauthentic with yourself and taking on tasks that don’t align with your goals can result in a bad attitude, burnout or missed deadlines — all of which get in the way of true growth.
Learning to say no is not the end game: Leaders also need to walk the walk when it comes to what they say yes to.
“If you say you are going to do something and you do something else, that impacts the trust, it impacts your authority,” Weaver says. “People are only going to listen, truly, to those that they trust. Trust is not given to any leader, you have to work hard to earn it.”
At Uncle Nearest, Weaver promises to open lines of communication for all employees. “My door is open for anyone in the company, even if they just want to shoot the breeze,” she says. “Pick up the phone and call me, or text. [My team members and I] DM on instagram all the time. I think that having that open line of communication builds trust.”
Saying no is more than a negotiation skill; it’s a style of leadership. And although it might sound like tough love, saying no creates a foundation of respect for yourself and others that fosters strong, trusting relationships. The lesson is simple: Get comfortable saying no so that you can create the yeses that you need.