Startup founders: ditch the hustle, lead with empathy & kindness

You don’t have to be ruthless to get ahead. Kindness will get you there faster. My inspiration for this blog come from reading Sam Jacobs, Kind Folks Finish First which weaves practical business lessons with fresh perspectives on how you can achieve success. The ideas in this book are backed by the author’s personal experience building a $200m business rooted in kindness, reciprocity, and values.

In business, we’ve been told to never leave money on the table. Don’t split the difference. You need to be ruthless to make it to the top. Kind Folks Finish First shows you that isn’t the only path. Being an empathetic person, being generous with your people and earning money aren’t mutually exclusive.

So startup founders, it’s time to drop the hustle and adopt a leadership style based on empathy and kindness. The stereotypical view of a successful start-up leader as drive and pushing the team relentlessly is done. Press pause on the ideology that more hours worked means greater achievement. This has passed its sell by date.

I would go so far as to suggest that the idea of hustling is now a redundant myth. It’s an easy claim – ‘push harder than everyone else and you’ll succeed’ – but I’m afraid that it isn’t the way a startup works. What if you have a family? Do you truly want to abandon them for sixteen hours every day, feed yourself for two of them, and then sleep for the other six? Do you want your team facing burnout because of your mantra? I would hope not.

What I’ve had confirmed in the early weeks of 2023 is that what previously represented start-up leadership – the hustle – is bad for everyone in the venture, including the founder. Yes, we need leaders to get into a high gear of movement and motivation to take people forward, but it’s now people centric, not task and time driven.

The popular perception of effective leadership is defined by confidence and assertiveness. This is a narrow view of what leadership entails as it diminishes the complexity of the obligations leaders have and is an outdated view of what people want. Applying greater force to a problem doesn’t always result in a breakthrough. When all you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.

Sales and marketing tactics have changed from always be closing to always be connecting, so take this pivot into more sensitive leadership. Empathetic leadership also focuses on connectivity, identifying with others and understanding their point of view, the ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.

Live in their shoes. Take a genuine interest in the people around you, understand what makes them tick, what inspires them and the way they feel. Leadership shouldn’t be simply directed to whether goals are achieved or not. This narrow focus can create a blind spot regarding how certain factors have an impact on your team. Rather, this needs to be nuanced to a focus that is also on fulfilling the collective purpose of creating something meaningful.

Startup leaders need to reset and make time to become familiar with the day-to-day issues their team face. We all know demonstrating empathy is positive, but new research demonstrates its importance for everything from innovation to retention. Great leadership requires a mix of skills to create the conditions for engagement, happiness and performance, and empathy tops the list of what leaders must get right.

The reason empathy is necessary today is that we are all are experiencing multiple kinds of change affected by the pandemic, and the ways our lives and our work have been turned upside down. Perhaps no leader better exemplified this impact during the pandemic than Jacinda Ardern. Under unprecedented circumstances that confounded or overwhelmed other, more experienced world leaders, Ardern’s leadership guided New Zealand through the worst with success.

How did she do it? For starters, she was resolute in the measures that needed to be taken, and convinced others to follow in her example with a considerate, compassionate tone of voice. But embedded throughout all the ‘trust me, follow me’ are her qualities of empathy and kindness. Even before the pandemic, kindness was the word most associated with Ardern’s brand of leadership.

In the aftermath of the 2019 Christchurch shooting, Ardern displayed depths of kindness in the wake of tragedy. Visiting the affected communities, tearfully embracing family members and telling them that New Zealand was united in grief with the community, she’s never hesitated to display authentic emotions in service of a greater good.

In the pandemic, she held Facebook Live ‘fireside’ chats from her home that were casual, intimate and yet authoritative, taking the opportunity to relate her personal experience as a parent with her audience, but she never sugar-coated the reality of the situation and was always frank about what was needed.

Her announcement of New Zealand’s Four-Level Alert System, which categorised the severity of the virus transmission and restrictions that would follow, Ardern informed an anxious public about what to expect concisely and confidently without compromising her sense of personal concern. She was authoritative, inclusive and confident, not commanding or asserting her audience to obey, but rallying them together. Compare her emotional intelligence and engagement with our Downing Street briefings.

Next slide please, masses of complex charts delivered in a blustering style that left you none the wiser nor reassured. You never sensed Johnson was seeking a personal connection with the British people, rather it felt he was positively evasive responding to questions. Ardern’s effectiveness showed she understood the value of humanising her communication. While not perfect, Ardern’s leadership showed that strength and effectiveness can go hand in hand with kindness and compassion.

The multitude of challenges facing startups demand this more subtle, personal approach to handle than brute force hustling can solve. So how can you effect a founder leadership style fused with empathy and kindness in the maelstrom of a frantic startup, and what are the benefits to the individuals and the wider organisation?

1. Know thyself The greatest tragedy for a founder is believing the only perspective that matters is their own. An empathetic leader has self-awareness, understanding that their thoughts, beliefs, decisions, and opinions aren’t gospel. They have an empathetic mindset that causes them to seek and gain a better perspective by listening to everyone at all levels. Doing so helps them grow their leadership skills to be the best for their team and customers.

2. Show interest in your employees’ lives Trust is earned not through highly visible actions, but through paying attention, listening, and gestures of care. Treat one-on-ones as an opportunity to show interest in your folk’s lives. Getting to know your team on a more personal level helps you find opportunities to connect and support them. As a result, you’ll build stronger personal and working relationships. 

Sharing a person’s feelings when they tell you about something emotionally difficult for them is showing genuine concern. Being willing to show up during tough non-work related moments. Don’t act avoidant and leave someone struggling. Get the team together to embrace employees who are going through hard times. 

3. Have empathy-led conversations Founders can demonstrate empathy in two ways. First, they can consider someone else’s thoughts: If I were in your position, what would I be thinking right now? Founders can also focus on a person’s feelings: Being in this position would make me feel the same. But founders will be most successful not just when they personally consider others, but when they express their concerns and inquire about challenges directly, and then seek to understand the responses.

4. Create a community, not an organisation Empathetic founders communicate and connect, leverage the traditional organisation into an energised community. This creates a belief that everyone has a voice which allows them to influence the future. These founders understand how to fulfil others’ needs in a way that benefits everyone. When founders lack empathy, they can make poor decisions that negatively impact their team.

5. Walk in their shoes Sawubona! is a Zulu greeting which means We see you! It’s their way of recognising that what they see around them is a reflection of their perception. Empathy reminds us that the story we tell in our minds is different from the story playing in the minds of others. It’s only through listening intently to others that we can begin to understand these differences.

6. Lead with empathy, not the argument Ardern’s approach was to use public briefings to clearly frame the questions and issues requiring attention. Her transparent framework for decision-making enabled people to make sense of what was happening and why. She also made herself accountable via this framework. Much of her communication was dedicated to persuading the collective to take responsibility for collective problems. Whilst our leaders were breaking the rules at parties, Ardern was sitting alongside her people

7. Be open minded Empathetic founders must be positive thinkers, even when things go wrong. Instead of jumping to negative conclusions, get to the heart of why mistakes happened so they can help the person work through these issues and avoid them in the future. For example, this might look like saying things like:

Can you walk me through what went wrong? I’d like to get more insight so we can prevent this problem from happening again. I know you feel disappointed. I don’t want you to feel like you have to experience these feelings alone. Let’s talk about it. Mistakes happen. With that said, we should discuss a few ways to improve next time.

8. Practice active listening The goal of active listening is understanding and relating to the person you’re talking to. As a result, people feel like their leaders care about their thoughts, feelings, and emotions. To do this:

  • Ask follow-up questions to what the speaker says. 
  • Reiterate what you’re hearing. 
  • Be present. You want to show you’re giving someone your undivided attention. 

9. Solidarity Ardern’s messaging was scripted to inspire a collective sense of compassion in the community to ensure that more protected citizens understood the urgency of staying at home to keep the more vulnerable safe from infection. National unity in the face of a common enemy was ultimately her goal. Togetherness in your startup is the same. Striving to ensure this sense of cohesion and alignment is something founders should emulate.

Create trust by showing your team that your role as leader is to create the conditions for their success. Be helpful, be compassionate, be a guide. Set clear boundaries that benefit everyone, such as letting people know how many hours a day they’re supposed to work or that sending late-night emails is inappropriate.

When everyone has clarity on work boundaries, including rules and expectations, there is tremendous safety and freedom. Boundaries create a guardrail and promote autonomy. People want an environment that nourishes them in a profound way. Walk alongside your team.

10. Set empathy as a cultural value The behaviours that create psychological safety are part of the human bonds that matter as much at work as anywhere else. In the best teams, members listen to one another and show sensitivity to feelings and needs. As leaders, we have a duty of care for the people we lead. Founders willing to lay their ego aside, show their own vulnerability and be authentic, humble and sincere can grow as leaders and become better versions of ourselves at work and in life.

Empathy and kindness create a healthy foundation for startup growth. You have an opportunity to create a meaningful, positive and thriving environment which will create increased social connection and inclusion. Work is a big part of our lives, being happy and whole at work means I am truly living. If you can spread kindness and joy at work, then do it. The evidence tells us that performance improves too.

Being an empathetic leader starts with the simple truth that leadership is about people. If you’re going to lead effectively, you must be attuned to your people’s thoughts, feelings, and beliefs. When you demonstrate these behaviours, your people will be engaged. They’ll give their best effort. They’ll be more innovative.

Create a more egalitarian and kinder startup environment helmed by a more thoughtful leader, one who considers more than just the bottom line. Measure your impact on the lives you touch, creating human experiences to achieve something together, not an unending drive that means you get there, but leave people behind, mentally and physically worn out by the lack of emotional engagement from the founder and a binary focus on financial success.

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