Startup founders: ask yourself, ‘why should anyone be led by you?’

Why should anyone be led by you?

This is a great rhetorical question for any startup founder, focusing on your leadership values and approach. It’s also the title of a important book by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, research I use when working with startup founders to help shape and articulate their leadership style and focus.

I like their terminology that a leader has ‘followers’, implying a conscious decision choice made on clear criteria to trust someone. The research concluded that leaders need to capture the hearts, and minds of their followers, with clear vision, energy, authority and strategic direction. However, this alone wasn’t enough. They included four additional qualities:

·      Show that you’re human, selectively revealing weaknesses and your true self

·      Be a sensor, be alert to ‘people data’ that lets you rely on intuition and hunches

·      Manage with tough empathy, guide them so that they achieve their best

·      Dare to be different; capitalise on your uniqueness

I’ll explore more of this later in the blog, but I’ll first set the context of why it’s the title of my blog this week.

The phrase struck me reading the Sunday paper, shining a light on the vacuum we have in our current political leadership. What an oxymoron the phrase ‘political leadership’ is. The schism and stark contrast in values, self-awareness, humility and judgement between that needed to be an inspiring leader of a startup venture and what we see in our Prime Minister couldn’t be more bluntly clear.

Without wishing to sound like an episode of Vera, I remember what I was doing on 20 May 2020, when a hundred people were invited to a BYOB in the prime minister’s garden. Like those with their bottles in Downing Street, I had also broken the government guidelines to mitigate the spread of Covid. It was a glorious evening, and I took my dog out for an illicit third walk of the day as I had done previous days. We remained physically, if not emotionally, distanced from each other. 

That evening as I walked, the path was eerily quiet, and yet what consolation there was in the absence of people, a silence that spoke of shared commitment to rules designed to keep our wider society safe. I walked past my neighbours and friends houses, all numbed by screen time, unsure how long this separation and isolation would last, no access to family and society beyond their phones and zoom. I couldn’t help but feel grateful that my community spoke of a wholehearted, unified effort. They knew that we were all in it together. Well, not all of us, it turns out. Not them.

To me, the revelations of the deliberate and repeated failures of Johnson’s leadership to understand, empathise and show solidarity with what the people of this country experienced during that time have released a stench of toxic leadership. I can’t see how he will be able to put it back in the bottle, no matter how desperately he tries. He can’t point the finger anywhere else, and after all, he brought the bottle.

At which point when reading the Sunday paper – as at any moment in this saga of intergalactic leadership farce and idiocy – it was blatantly apparent that Johnson is a pub league level prime minister, the depths of his inadequacy apparent to all. He hasn’t, and can’t, do anything to justify why we should be led by him.

So, that’s my starting point, the nadir of Johnson’s leadership compared to some of the inspiring entrepreneurial leaders I admire – Simon Squibb (@simonsquibb), Michael Arrington (@arrington), Anne Boden (@AnneBoden), Hiten Shah (@Ahnshah), Brian Balfour (@bbalfour). Let’s step back into the Goffee and Jones research, and look at the four attributes they identified for an effective leader and dig in a little deeper as to how they apply to a startup founder.

1. Reveal your vulnerabilities and true self Emotional Intelligence is about being human, showing kindness, compassion to others and your true self – including flaws and frustrations. Showing you are vulnerable, to a degree, creates engagement. The reality is that we’re more transparent than you may appreciate too.  The key is to release one’s inner self and to talk and act in an emotionally connected way. Startups need emotionally intelligent, authentic leaders, building transparent relationships founded on trust.

In showing your true self, you are able to sense and respond in a natural way. Former US President Obama captured this well: Keep exploring. Keep dreaming. If you’re walking down the right path and you’re willing to keep walking, eventually you’ll make progress. Just be yourself on this journey.

Also, in describing China’s transition toward a socialist market economy, former Chinese Communist Party leader Deng Xiaoping used an evocative image of discovering, rather than planning everything before starting: We are crossing the river by feeling for stones. This is a lovely analogy of thinking about progress, so maybe take a step back and refocus more on yours and people’s emotions than simply ‘getting stuff done’.

Your startup team want to believe in their leader. Think of the sailors who travelled with Columbus to explore uncharted territory. His passion inspired them to take on new and dangerous challenges. Engage and represent your people to light the fire in their hearts, to get them to feel passion about your startup venture, and connect to your vision. Your emotion and passion is infectious.

2. Be a sensor To be aware is a nice way to summarise this. Aware of things you see and signals that exist all around you and that you can observe in people interacting with each other, simply going about their day. Using your intuition will give you foresight into any potential issues that could arise. A leader with a good situational sensor can sniff out signals and have a conscious sense of what is going on around them.

Ignorance is not bliss in leadership. If anything, ignorance is the sign of very poor leadership. Open your eyes and ears up to the wider goings-on in your venture. Be present, engage with everyone across the business and don’t limit your exposure only to the senior team. Play an active role in leading by setting an example and walking the walk not just talking the talk because that’s too easy. Timely decision-making is intrinsic to good leadership, read the signals above the noise.

3. Practise tough empathy This isn’t about returning from the latest interpersonal skills book you’ve read with ‘concern for others’, tough empathy means giving people what they need, not what they want. Whist startup leaders need to distinguish themselves through qualities like imagination and expertise, they must show that they are genuine. You must use your sensors, and offer empathy when it is needed, in order to steer the ship back on course. As Goffee and Jones explain:

Those more apt to use tough empathy are people who really care about something. And when people care deeply about something they’re more likely to show their true selves. They will not only communicate authenticity, which is the precondition for leadership, but they will show that they are doing more than just playing a role.

Progress comes in fits and starts. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not always a smooth path. A startup leader must own the ups and the downs – the errors and failures shape you – but also ensure responsibility and accountability are clear throughout the organisation. Alas most political leaders are epically far better at blaming or stepping back from mistakes than they are at owning a failure or misstep.

In a startup there is a high degree of flux at any moment in time. There is no paradigm, no precedent, there is nothing. You have to carve it with a sensitive hands-on connection, with the particular reality in front of you. Don’t lead the metaphorical charge, lead the thinking, let responsibility rest at the right level and with the right people in the organisation.

4. Dare to be different It’s very easy nowadays to be safe. Be quiet. Let your work stand for itself and do the talking. But if you can think of a more ‘out of the box’, dynamic solution to a situation, do it. Dare to lead. Dare to be different. Think of all the most memorable people you’ve met in your life. What made them memorable?

Inspirational leaders use separateness to motivate others to perform better. It is not that they are being Machiavellian but that they recognise instinctively that followers will push themselves if their leader is just a little aloof. Leadership, after all, is not a popularity contest. Think of your work as a craft, not an assembly line. Leadership means candour with yourself and others, both emotionally and intellectually, being willing to ask for and hear honesty from others.

Leadership is the art and science of influencing others. Often in a startup the leader is a dealer in hope, keeping your own head above water in the midst of an on-going maelstrom of turbulence. But no matter what tumult is thrown into your path, your response as a leader is to take responsibility. It can feel like the whole world rests on your shoulders, but ensuring the problem is fixed and wrestled to the ground, owning and addressing the issue, is the primary role of a leader in a crisis.

Being aware of these four key qualities identified by Goffee and Jones is the first step towards developing true startup leadership. The need for authenticity and trust has never been greater. Revealing yourself, showing selective vulnerability, listening to people, working on your sensory perception, delivering tough empathy as it’s needed (not wanted), and daring to differentiate yourself are all key drivers of how you’re perceived, and in turn, how effectively you’re followed. 

On Johnson’s desk stands a bust of the Athenian leader Pericles – his ‘hero and inspiration’. Pericles built the Parthenon. Not sure what Johnson has built, he’s deconstructed most things he’s touched. But the differences between Johnson and Pericles are not trivial. It is not simply that Pericles had more self-control, allowing him to act more prudently. It was Pericles’ understanding of when to speak and when to be silent, when to lead and when to step out of the way – this resonates with startup leaders for sure.

In contrast, Johnson operates in a dislocated dance, like a frantic startup leader who acts and speaks seemingly in the moment, lacking a coherent strategy, focused more on the apparent celebrity status of being a startup founder than being a genuine leader. I see some of these, alas, and like Johnson, they want to grab the tail of the galloping horse, when everyone else is still wondering where it might be stabled.

Being a startup leader can be harrowing, the weight of leadership can land heavy, and I wonder about Johnson’s self-reflection. This quote from Shakespeare sums it up: Now does he feel his title, Hang loose about him, Like a giant’s robe, Upon a dwarfish thief… Macbeth, Act V, Scene II. Mustering the courage to keep going and doing the right thing, not cutting corners, is gruelling. You need to be both tough-minded and tender-hearted with people, looking outward and take responsibility, leaning into tough situations.

The four attributes identified by Goffee and Jones enable you to ‘feel the pulse’, being in touch with everyone and yourself, to have a sense for the hidden and silent things. Good leadership creates a good culture. A test of a good culture is how people behave when you aren’t looking, whether they are at work or at a party.

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