3 Little-Known Dos and Don'ts That Will Make You A Great Startup Leader (Part 1/2)
Updated: Feb 11
Great Leadership isn’t a nice to have for startups: it’s necessary for survival. It’s the only thing that will allow you to hire right, ship product, win clients, avoid bankruptcy and fulfill your mission!
I’d say it’s worth investing the time in, no?
And yet, most of the leadership “lessons” out there are empty platitudes. I know because 7 years ago when I was trying to learn how to be a better leader, it was hard to find real, specific and actionable techniques. Ahhh if I had a penny for every time I’ve read a fluffy, useless definition of leadership…
Inspirational quotes might provide instant gratification but they won’t help you when you’re experiencing the harrowing uncertainty of one of the pits of the “Emotional Rollercoaster” that is the startup leadership journey. You Startup Leaders deserve better than vacuous soundbites: you deserve proven instructions that WORK.
“It is not who I am underneath. It’s what I do that defines me” -Batman
Bruce Wayne is a man of action. Instead of pontificating about how we should reform justice in Gotham City, he takes matters in his own hands. Great leaders don’t just talk, they do - in fact, they know what to do and what not to do.
Let’s begin our deep dive with the DO’s.
DO: Tell People What Good Work Looks Like
I want you to picture this in your head, remember to visualise every detail:
You see a horse, beautiful and strong, running along the shore on a sunny, breezy morning. It’s playing, one moment it sprints on the sand, then jumps around the shallow water, then walks back onto the sand slowly, and finally resumes its run and disappears in the distance.
Alright have you done it? Did you see the horse splashing around? Did you notice every detail?
Perfect. Now tell me:
What was the colour of the horse?
When I do this exercise in a live training session with 5+ people, I’ll invariably get 4-5 different answers. That is the problem with most “leadership”: the unsaid detail. Because every human automatically fills the gaps with his or her own interpretations. In organisations big and small, this phenomenon results in misaligned efforts, late product delivery, lost clients, employee churn, failure.
Can you think of a time when you thought you had clearly stated your expectations to someone, then later realised that they misunderstood what was important to you? If that’s happened to you, it means that the colour of the horse either wasn’t stated or wasn’t understood.
Great Leaders communicate strategy beyond all reasonable doubt. Strategy is “the way we do things around here”, the adage goes. Your strategy should define what good work looks like for your company. Great Leaders don’t assume that everyone has the same idea: they deliberately and explicitly state the colour of the horse. Then Great Leaders leave their teams free to tackle their work however they see fit, because all know what good work looks like.
DO: Repeat Yourself All The Time
My old CEO used to repeat that “90% of leadership is repeating yourself”. He’s a man who made himself into a multi-millionaire and still retained an exceptional humility and a profound caring for others. So naturally when he spoke, I listened attentively.
It’s not enough to tell people the “colour of the horse”, Great Leaders also ensure that their people don’t forget it. So they repeat it - what good work looks like - often.
But you’re human like the rest of us, so you know that consistency is REALLY hard. Especially in the ever-changing world of startups. I know...
How do you stay positive and predictable in the context of the startup “Emotional Rollercoaster”, where certainties are ephemeral and triumphs short-lived, quick to be replaced by unexpected problems that seem disastrous? You can read my previous post on that.
Also how do you set a strategy that you know you will stick with, even if every day brings new information and unforeseen challenges? And how do you ensure that your people actually buy into the strategy and execute it enthusiastically? These questions are answered in this other post, if you're interested!
For now suffice to say that Great Leaders make consistency a priority and practice it deliberately and relentlessly, because they know it’s key to successful leadership. I’ve seen too many leaders flip-flop. These leaders said they were pursuing one objective one week, then didn’t follow up and switched to chasing another shiny goal the following week, secretly hoping that their employees wouldn’t notice. But they did notice, and lost faith in their leaders. Cue the next and final “DO”...
DO: Lead By Example
You’re always on stage: people listen to what their leaders say ONLY IF it’s congruent with what the leaders do.
No pressure :)
So if you expect people to be on time, be on time. If you want others to respect you, show respect regardless of rank. If you yearn for a team that makes data-driven decisions, don’t make yours based on your feelings. Think back of how many of the leaders you’ve encountered (managers, teachers, etc) had this kind of congruence - if you mostly met incongruent leaders, you’re not alone…
That’s no surprise: Great Leaders are rare as diamonds. But you want to be one of them, so let’s get working on this!
When you hold yourself to the highest standard, you can and should hold others to the same standards, too. I know many leaders that are too lenient with the people they lead. In psychology this is associated with the “Rescuer” personality type. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, and “Rescuers” are in fact wonderfully nurturing human beings. So if you’re like that, please don’t change who you are!
But rescuing is counterproductive at work, for 2 main reasons:
The Rescuer spreads him or herself too thin and risks burnout
The Rescuer denies others the opportunity to learn
So you see that rescuing is bad both for the leaders and for their teams. Instead of rescuing, you should coach your people, i.e. guide them in solving their own problems. Coaching is, you guessed it, the topic of another future article :)
Now you know what great leaders DO. Next week, I’ll dive deeper into what they DON’T do, which can sometimes be even more important!