Are All Startup Founders Leaders?

It takes a special sort of person to start their own business. But are these founders necessarily good leaders or is that a skill entrepreneurs need to develop as they grow their startup?

Starting a new business venture takes a certain amount of boldness. It’s a risky move to put all of your effort and savings into starting a business based on a brand new idea. When people think of the greatest startup founders in the world, they automatically assume they were born with leadership gifts. This is often not the case, however. Startup founders struggle with leadership just like the rest of us. The only difference is, they’re trying to run a company while figuring out what it takes to be a strong leader. So what leadership strategies can we learn from entrepreneurs in this position and how can it help founders be more effective in their roles?

The uniqueness of leading in a startup business

A startup is a particularly challenging environment in which to find oneself leading others. First, the founder may have little to no background in leading others. He or she may have a quirky personality or poor interpersonal skills. This can lead to awkward situations and managing mistakes. It is not surprising, then, that around half of all startups fail within the first five years. You need more than just a great idea to succeed in business and much of that support comes from the startup’s team members who work together to bring a vision to life. Successful startups know the strength of those interpersonal relationships is what powers the company and good leaders provide opportunities for it to develop. But leadership is not an innate trait for most of us and just because a founder has a great idea doesn’t mean they’ll succeed at it. 

The second challenge beyond the founder’s personal abilities is the state of the company when it starts. Usually, there is little in the way of a foundation of the business. Startups don’t have more than a few employees or contractors, who may be working remotely or in a rented workspace. The brand and culture is just being developed, and there may not be any standard operating procedures, human resources, or corporate processes. Things generally develop as a company progresses but often at the start, a founder is generally focused on growth and gathering investors while trying to get ahead of the competition. While a founder is invested in growth, leadership might falter which can lead to unrest amongst new employees. While growing the business is a necessary function of a founder, they can’t afford to drop the ball when it comes to talent management  

The smartest of startup leaders recognize early in the game that they need to bring the best talent onboard and lean on their skills. According to Niraj Ranjan Rout founder of the Hiver app and who writes for 15Five, “Being a leader requires having a vision for your company, finding employees who are aligned with that vision, and maintaining alignment over time.” In startups, this means being laser-focused on every individual hired and their role in the success of the company. But that also means you can’t go on autopilot once these great people are hired. They need a leader to inspire them to buy into the company’s vision and most often, that first introduction needs to come from the founder who’s likely making the hiring decisions. 

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When happens to a startup with bad leadership?

As we’ve established, there are startup founders who are not very good leaders and some who naturally are. Most often, the trouble comes when founders either don’t care about being better leaders or use their position to take advantage of others. And when this happens, things can go very wrong. For example, if a founder is in the midst of building a new product and in his state of creativity shouts orders at his staffers there’s going to be some fallout. This is clearly not a good way of leading others and won’t help a company reach the next level.    

It’s a trend we’ve seen again and again in Silicon Valley where there are a lot of startups with founders who struggle in leadership skills. Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Apple computers was notorious for expressing his anger in front of others to the point where employees reported being afraid of him. Leadership was not a strong trait for him and it led to a number of business problems because of it. Companies are only as strong as their leaders and when small businesses drop the ball, the impact on their workforce or even their ongoing existence can be incredibly destructive. 

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Strategies for better leadership as a founder of a startup

What can the heads of startups do become better leaders and inspire others? Here are a few strategies for leadership development

#1 – Learn to Delegate

The founders of startups are so used to doing everything themselves that they forget to assign tasks to others. When you can recognize the talent that is available to delegate tasks to, it becomes easier to put energy into other tasks. 

#2 – Get Better at Communication

Communication, both verbal and body-language, says a lot about a person as a leader. Startup founders can learn how to be more efficient communicators, being clear about goals, changes, and requests can make a huge difference in a startup environment. 

#3 – Be Decisive 

If you want the team to look up to you as a leader, it is critical that you become good at making accurate decisions. If you waiver on things, this will not create the kind of confidence your team needs. 

#4 – Lead by Example

If you want to be viewed as a leader in your startup, then you must walk the talk. Live your life in a balanced way and prioritizing people over profits. Be ethical in your business-doings. Treat others with respect. A little common courtesy can go a long way.

#5 – Be Approachable

The best leaders are not stuck in corner offices locked behind closed doors. Instead, be approachable and personable. Have an open mind to the ideas of others. Learn to listen to others and find ways to integrate these ideas into the culture of the startup. 

While it may seem unnatural at times, it is possible for any startup founder to become a better leader along with being a great innovator. No matter the size of your business, the basic tenants of leadership remain the same. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking working on your leadership skills can wait till after your startup is running successfully. Focusing on both growth and leadership simultaneously is the best path for founders to both succeed and cultivate a strong team.


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