On Leadership – In a start-up environment

02-leadershipThe subject of “leadership” is an interesting one and many people have offered their opinions.

My overriding belief is that not everyone is a “born leader.” You can attend classes on leadership and maybe learn the principles, but that doesn’t mean that you can become an effective leader. Or, perhaps more on point, just because a person assumes the mantle of leadership (like the title of president of a start-up), it does not defacto make that individual a leader. Only by actions and not words can someone be considered a leader.

In my opinion, a leader has:

  • Such extraordinary confidence in his/her abilities, that subordinating his ego for the benefit of the company isn’t a thought;
  • The vision of the future and is able to communicate that vision in all of the others on the team and motivate them to accomplish great things;
  • The ability to make sure that important things get done, even if he doesn’t do them directly
  • Is driven to see the venture to succeed
  • Embraces the team mentality — “we” and “us” and never the “me” or “I” For now, I’ll contrast the traits seen as important to strong leadership with those seen as “fatal flaws” that doom a person as a leader.

In an article, “Decoding leadership: What really matters,” McKinsey & Company highlighted four key attributes that account “for 89% of the variance between strong and weak organizations.”

These are:

  • Being an effective problem solver — problem solving is the precursor of decision making. A leader gathers information, analyzes it and then makes a considered decision. Along the way, in my opinion, a leader, especially a self-confident leader, will draw upon the opinions of others and reach a composite decision.
  • Operating with a strong results orientation — setting objectives or having a vision on the horizon isn’t enough. A strong leader actually accomplishes milestones that move the organization toward the longer term goal.
  • Seeking different perspectives — it is important to enlist the opinions of others. Drawing conclusions based on a composite is not a sign of weakness. Rather is shows confidence and involves others in the decision process. This engenders a strong team orientation and has people “buy-into” the directions being taken.
  • Being supportive — leaders consider how others feel. Ignoring those around you diminishes your effectiveness as a leader.

In some ways, it might actually be easier to understand the true characteristics of leadership by highlighting those of a bad leader. A good reference for this is a Forbe’s article from 2012 titled “15 Ways to Identify Bad Leaders.”

  1. Leaders who can’t see it probably won’t find it: Leaders without vision will fail. Leaders who lack vision cannot inspire teams, motivate performance, or create sustainable value.
  2. When leaders fail to lead themselves: A leader who lacks character or integrity will not endure the test of time. It doesn’t matter how intelligent, affable, persuasive, or savvy a person is, if they are prone to rationalizing unethical behavior based upon current or future needs, they will eventually fall prey to their own undoing.
  3. Put-up or shut-up: Nothing smacks of poor leadership like a lack of performance. Nobody is perfect, but leaders who consistently fail are not leaders, no matter how much you wish they were.
  4. Beware the know-it-all: The best leaders are acutely aware of how much they don’t know.
  5. When there’s a failure to communicate: When leaders are constantly flummoxed by those who don’t seem to get it, there exists both a leadership and communications problem. Show me a leader with poor communication skills and I’ll show you someone who will be short-lived in their position.
  6. It’s all about them: If a leader doesn’t understand the concept of “service above self” they will not engender the trust, confidence, and loyalty of those they lead. Any leader is only as good as his or her team’s desire to be led by them. An over abundance of ego, pride, and arrogance are not positive leadership traits. Real leaders take the blame and give the credit – not the other way around. Long story short – if a leader receives a vote of no-confidence from their subordinates…game over.
  7. Sing a little Kumbaya: While love and leadership are certainly two words you don’t often hear in the same sentence, I can assure you that rarely does great leadership exist without love being present and practiced.
  8. One size fits all leadership style: The best leaders are fluid and flexible in their approach. They understand the power of, and necessity for contextual leadership. “My way or the highway” leadership styles don’t play well in today’s world, will result in a fractured culture, and ultimately a non-productive organization.
  9. Lack of focus: Leadership is less about balance and more about priority. The best leaders are ruthless in their pursuit of focus. Those leaders who lack the focus and attention to detail needed to apply leverage and resources in an aggressive and committed fashion will perish.
  10. Death by comfort zone: The best organizations beat their competition to the future, and the best leaders understand how to pull the future forward.
  11. Not paying attention to the consumer: Leaders not attuned to the needs of the market will fail. As the old saying goes, if you’re not taking care of your customers, someone else will be more than happy to. Successful leaders focus on the consumer experience, which in turn leads to satisfaction and loyalty.
  12. Get Invested: Leaders not fully committed to investing in those they lead will fail. The best leaders support their team, build into their team, mentor and coach their team, and they truly care for their team.
  13. The “A” word: Real leaders are accountable. They don’t blame others, don’t claim credit for the success of their team, but always accept responsibility for failures that occur on their watch.
  14. It’s the culture stupid: The lesson here is that culture matters – forget this and all other efforts with regard to talent initiatives will be dysfunctional, if not altogether lost.
  15. Show some chutzpa: Leadership absent courage is a farce. I’m not referring to arrogance or bravado, but real courage. It takes courage to break from the norm, challenge the status quo, seek new opportunities, cut your losses, make the tough decision, listen rather than speak, admit your faults, forgive the faults of others, not allow failure to dampen your spirit, stand for those not capable of standing for themselves, and to remain true to your core values.

That’s 15 characteristics of “faux leadership” which often translate to “toxic” leadership, especially in a start-up environment. I’ve recently disengaged from a situation in which the anointed leader was a habitual “me and I” person and who was incapable of making progress on even the simplest milestones. Truly, leadership means getting stuff done and motivating the team to do it.