The qualities of great startup leaders & the oxymoron of political leadership

After just six chaotic weeks, Liz Truss dramatically resigned as PM – a quitter not a fighter after all. Truss was a zealot, a disastrous dalliance who served only to remind what real leadership looks like. Her robotic resignation speech showed Trumpian levels of dysfunction and denial. Not with a tear in her eye, a tremble of her lip, nor any semblance or sorrow or regret, no thanks to her colleagues or family, but with the same baffling arrogance that characterised her catastrophic reign.

She was smiling and still blowing her own trumpet, having ‘delivered’ an energy price guarantee and reduction in National Insurance, it was as if the mayhem from the mini budget was just some mildly irritating mishap. She seemed to ignore turning Britain into an international laughing-stock and triggering a financial crisis that will mean long-term pain for millions. It was all just a harmless misunderstanding. At least I got to be PM she is alleged to have said.

Besides the charge sheet of incompetence, we had a leader who showed no warmth, personality, or depth. Her rabid ideology resulted in abject dystopia, overturned and forced to U-turn spectacularly. Truss’ ‘leadership’ has been an oxymoron by any measure. When a political commentator joked that she had roughly the shelf-life of a lettuce, a British newspaper responded by testing the theory on a live web-cam feed. Thousands watched ‘lettuce-cam’ – a 60p Tesco lettuce in a blond wig next to a framed photo of prime minister. As the vegetable slowly wilted before their eyes, so did Truss’s grip on authority.

The wholesale dumping of a budget and removal of her Chancellor lead to the complete collapse in Truss’s credibility. This was followed by the resignation of the Home Secretary and MPs cursing colleagues and others sobbing at a vote on Fracking. In the crisis-ridden psychodrama that British politics has become, Truss’s devastating demise showcases the dizzying ebb and flow of failed leadership. She will rapidly become a footnote in Britain’s political history, a pub quiz question as to who was the PM with the shortest term in office.

Like a good leader, a politician should be a good storyteller, telling the people about what kind of country they should aspire to live in. But Truss fatally confused the elderly and affluent paid-up members of the Tory Party with the British people. Politics is a competition between partial truths which is why pragmatism and balance is needed. Truss was an ideologue with conviction, which can be admirable, but instead her legacy is the worst unforced economics policy error of my lifetime.

The fall of Truss came so fast that even twenty-four hours before her robotic resignation statement, many thought she had a couple of weeks to ensure succession could be sorted out. At PMQs she bizarrely quoted Peter Mandelson by saying she was a fighter not a quitter. Truss’s status as the least powerful figure in her own government had made the whole enterprise of governing unsustainable.

The peak of the chaos is hard to fathom. She was not under a desk simply became a chorus line of ridicule in the pantomime of the unfathomable absurdity of failed leadership. Now we are faced with an egg and spoon race for her successor. None are capable of running a bath, let alone the country.

I work with many inspirational startup leaders. The contrast to Truss is overwhelming and stark. A hallmark of great startup leaders is that their vision includes big ideas, they paint a vivid picture of the future. Big ideas get people excited. Nobody wants to do something small. They make it look easy and credible because they have worked hard to develop and articulate their thoughts into a plan. But Truss’ vision was hallucination, there was no balanced financial plan for execution, she could see a unicorn, all I could see was a horse with a pointy hat on its head.

So I’ve boiled my thinking down from the chaos of the last forty-four days into ten essential traits and behaviours of great startup leadership – compared to how not to run a country – which I hope identifies what working startup leadership looks like when practiced skilfully, in contrast to the calamity of political leadership.

Trait 1: Be a visionary You must stand for something, and communicate your vision to the people you want to follow you. Learn to paint a picture with words, speak it, write it, let people touch it – make it ambitious, make it exciting, but make it real. Your vision should be in your mind every day, and you should re-evaluate it occasionally so that it stays fresh.

Imagine a startup leader pulled everything they stood for off the table, having announced it, and made great U-turns – game over. The message is: I don’t believe in my vision any more, as the feedback is no one will follow me. I can’t make it happen – there is nowhere to go. Be clear and decisive but also realistic, and take your team with you.

Trait 2: Have passion People want passion, in fact, they’ll go to the ends of earth because of it – think of the sailors who travelled with Columbus to explore uncharted territory, they followed him despite the unknowns because his passion inspired them to take on new and dangerous challenges.

Engage and represent your people to light the fire in their bellies. Passion is infectious. Don’t be a limp lettuce.

Trait 3: Be a great decision maker How you make decisions and then execute them is vital in giving confidence to people. What is your process for making decisions, and assessing the potential different outcomes? Truss seemed to fly by the seat of her pants and not think through the options or consequences fully. Equally you don’t want to be one of those leaders who consults no one before making a decision, announces the change the next day and then gets frustrated when no one supports it.

October 3: In a dramatic U-turn, Truss abandoned her plan to abolish the 45p rate of income tax. We get it, and we have listened was her response, in language echoed in a tweet from the PM less than 24 hours after she said she remained absolutely committed to the cut. Somewhat embarrassingly, Truss was still defending the 45p tax rate in an interview filmed just hours before the U-turn. There was no robust foundation or robust defence – just a collapse which left her open to ridicule.

Trait 4: Be a team builder To become a great leader, you must develop a great team. Don’t breathe down their necks and micromanage, enable your team to find their voice, give them the freedom to work through their own decisions. However, when projects aren’t on track or your team is falling behind on deadline, it serves no one if you start pointing fingers.

This is when you need to support and inspire confidence. When a crisis hits, your team will look to you to be a tower of strength and leadership. Again Truss confessed that she didn’t share the mini budget with the Cabinet. Not sure this needs any comment about Truss attitude to building a team.

Trait 5: You must have character Without character, all the other traits are for naught, because your innate character plays a critical role in your leadership style. Take time to learn about your individual personality and what part it plays in your leadership style. Truss’s nervy performances at press conferences showed she lacked confidence, her self-esteem was shattered and as a result, her credibility quickly unwound. October 19: The PM declares she is a fighter, not a quitter at PMQs. 24 hours later she resigned.

Trait 6: Collaborate Leadership means working together, toward a common goal. When egos get in the way, people rather than ideas, take centre stage in distorted ways. Leaders collaborate through rigorous debate of ideas, not by demonising people. Truss faced accusations of throwing her Chancellor under the bus, and the fractured nature and decline of her Cabinet support showed she had little rapport and respect with her colleagues.

If you can’t create followership through transparent and empowering collaboration, you can’t be a credible leader. Truss also failed to take key stakeholders outside of her government with her. The pound fell to a 37-year low. She had taken a huge gamble, traders refused to endorse her financial strategy. She was now isolated and operating in a vacuum, with no mandate for leading.

Trait 7: Be accountable Leadership means owning the ups and the downs – the errors and failures shape you more. Don’t distance yourself from them. Aside from being good moral leadership, an error-owning leader tends to result in great achievements in the long run due to their determination to bounce back. Alas Truss was epically better at blaming or stepping back from her mistakes than owning them.

October 14: Truss dismisses calls for her resignation at a hastily arranged eight-minute press conference in Downing Street, during which she took just four questions from journalists. She announced she was abandoning Kwarteng’s commitment to drop the planned rise in corporation tax from 19% to 25% – even though it was a central plank of her leadership campaign. Where was the accountability?

Trait 8: Innovate Leadership means innovation. True innovation isn’t in a method, process or workshop, it’s in the heart of our curiosity and thinking, and culture. Intrinsic to the survival instinct of politicians is avoiding what takes courage to change. The key to change our political leaders for the better is to remind them that innovation is about creating a better and shared future. Truss was about ideology for the few, not a bright future for the many.

Trait 9: Be honest Leadership means candour with yourself and others, both emotionally and intellectually, being willing to ask for and hear honesty from others. Honesty brings the humility needed for leaders when things are going well, and the necessary fuel for critical change when things are in trouble.

With the prevalence of distrust among political leaders, candour is greatly lacking, and therefore little or no great leadership can happen. October 17: New Chancellor Hunt ditches the bulk of Trussonomics in an emergency statement designed to calm the markets. He scales back the energy support package and scraps almost all of the tax cuts announced by his predecessor. Truss sits silently in the Commons for thirty minutes, staring straight ahead as he bins her plan. She was a leader no more, and lost all trust and respect.

Trait 10: Listen Startup leadership means asking and listening, rather than doing the talking all the time. It’s trusting the people in your team who know better. Your job is to quieten the noise of your own point of view to hear those with genuine knowledge and trust their judgement. The lack of an OBR forecast to sense check her mini budget showed arrogance and foolishness. 

A startup leader is the glue that holds the venture together, their core values and core purpose shaping the raison d’être, it’s about leading the charge and stoking the fires of ambition, not just not just strategy. A startup leader looks inside themselves, and connects with sincerity, humility, emotion and authenticity. You can’t fake it. But it’s not just brave and bold words, it’s about having validation in a plan, an empowered team and the right culture, such that when people see the vision, there is almost an audible gasp, creating an emotional connection to sharing the vision and everyone working together.

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