Who First? Lead Yourself First, Then Others.

By Bob Acton and Steve Adam

This is the second blog post in our series "Mental Fitness for Start-Ups"

One of the most exciting aspects of a start-up is the lack of complexity in the whole thing. It's typically you, maybe a few friends, and some good ideas. The lean start-up requires very little in the way of infrastructure. In fact, the less the better. So is leadership even a topic or consideration? The answer is yes, it's fundamentally necessary. The reason for this sits firmly in the foundation of any understanding of leadership, leading yourself first.


Read MoreBy its very nature, the word leader implies followers. And, for the most part, that is what leaders focus on; those whom they direct, manage or influence. This makes perfect sense for without the team there is nothing. But a big mistake many people make is thinking that leading begins with directing others. What any aspiring leader must do is to first look within themselves.

Leading yourself means ensuring that you are exhibiting the qualities that cause people to want to work with you. It is a leader's qualities (i.e., their attitudes, expectations, and actions) that create a strong collaborative and open team. While a weak followership can be created with raw power or the dream of financial rewards, it is often at risk without the positive qualities that cement the relationships so important to successfully navigate the dynamic stresses and strains of operating a start-up.

This is not about encouraging people to focus on themselves to build their ego, self-importance, to manipulate others, or to build themselves up at the expense of others. It is to encourage a quiet, powerful focus that allows them to be mindful of their experience, seek feedback and ideas, manage their emotions in a powerful and healthy manner, support the teams' strengths and their developmental opportunities, and to nurture gratitude towards the people and situations that make success possible.

In a start-up, it's all about producing a testable product. This requires agility, focus, and feedback that are best achieved without the interference of ego's and self-interest. Is it any wonder start-ups run by 'kids' do remarkably well. They haven't been exposed to legacy management methods like command-control, matrix organizations, bureaucracy, and other 'bad boss' environments that kill productivity and creativity.

Five Key Start-Up Leadership Qualities

1. Mindfulness is a new term to the business world with characteristics that are powerful in the context of leadership. Essentially, mindfulness means keeping your awareness in the present moment without judgment. It is essentially being able to focus on one thing in a powerful manner without getting distracted by the mind's continually activity that draws us to think about the past (e.g., what went wrong in that pitch I made to a VC yesterday or the tension developed with your spouse on the weekend) or the future (e.g., worries about upcoming financial pressure points for the start-up) which often create stress and put the mind into a defensive posture.

Being mindful would be spending time focused on consideration of a past pitch that was not successful to learn from it and plan to apply that learning in the next conversation and then to move the focus of the mind to the task at hand today, right now. It is essentially learning to keep your focus on what is occurring right now, since it is the only thing you have any control over.

The value in this rather simple idea (yet hard to put into practice) is increased ability to focus, to stick to the vision, less stress, and more creativity. It allows people to increase their self-awareness, focus on what is important, right now, and then to use the intellect and problem-solving ability to address the most important concern right now. Instead of trying to multitask...doing many things at the same time, it is about doing one thing at a time, sequentially, one thing after another.

"...mindful leadership will help you achieve clarity about what is important to you and a deeper understanding of the world around you. Mindfulness will help you clear away the trivia and needless worries about unimportant things, nurture passion for your work and compassion for others, and develop the ability to empower the people in your organization." - Bill George, is a professor at Harvard Business School and former chair and CEO of Medtronic

2. Seeking Feedback is another critically important skill to acquire and display in a leadership mindset. People who lead start-ups are very smart people with full of ideas for the direction of the venture. While those strengths are important for venture success, it is important to recognize that often the leader's strengths can be also turn into a weakness if used too much or in the wrong situation. Knowing when to use the right skill at the right time is the sign of a successful, versatile leader.

Feedback is also a cornerstone of agile/lean product development. Without feedback from the user community, how do you know what you are making is even needed? And a hallmark of a versatile leader is being willing to encourage feedback and accept different ideas about their ideas or their leadership itself. This allows the leader to understand where they need to adjust and how to make that adjustment.

Seeking feedback does not mean accepting every bit of feedback whenever somebody wants to deliver it (that would lead to some chaos) but to create structured ways to encourage and seek the value in both receiving and giving feedback in a non-defensive manner. The notion of creating a work culture that facilitates healthy, open feedback is a powerful (and necessary) tool that works to both the benefit of a venture and the leader's ability to create a healthy performing team.

"Get 5 or 6 of your smartest friends in a room and ask them to rate your idea" - Mark Pincus ZYNGA

3. Using powerful emotional intelligence skills is the third essential skillset each start-up leader needs. Emotions and social relationships are simply part of being human and are a powerful part of any business, start-up or enterprise, because humans are at the center of all our work. So yes, intellectual ideas and good problem-solving or technical skills are key but so is the way a leader responds emotionally to others. Angry outbursts, taking things personally, and being critical are often reactions that crush team functioning.

Leadership emotional intelligence is being aware of and in charge of their own emotions and being able to accurately understand others as well as effectively manage working relationships. This allows the someone to take a positive yet decisive approach to work being undertaken. With the many uncertainties associated with start-ups, there are many opportunities to sink into negativity and stress. A positive, optimistic approach is infectious for the entire team.

"Your job as the founder and leader is to maintain the emotional health of the team" - Vargas Wrigley, CEO and Co-Founder of Give Forward.

4. Developing and Supporting Others is our fourth mark of a good start-up leader. Of course, while being able to select and build an effective team is important, it is very important to take the position of developing team members through mentoring, coaching, and supporting them after they join the team. This is true even if your group structure is relatively flat, as is true in most start-ups.

Mentoring is helping another person on the team to learn and develop specific industry knowledge. It involves having conversations and teaching specific skills pertinent to the job. For example, enhancing understanding of the target market may help a technical expert develop a better product.

Coaching, on the other hand, is asking the right questions and providing the right guidance to colleagues to help them be better in their role, generate creative ideas, and stay responsible and accountable for their specific tasks. It increases focus and capacity, reduces stress and dependency, and drives both engagement, impact, and positive customer service.

"Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others." - Jack Welch, Past CEO of General Electric

5. Gratitude (being thankful) is our final important quality. There is considerable scientific evidence of the positive impact of gratitude on life satisfaction, happiness, optimism, hope, more positive emotions and less negative emotions which are all good building blocks of an effective team. But probably more important is the power of being grateful and expressing your appreciation of your team, your customers, and user-base. If you move gratefulness into your day to day activities it helps inoculate the team from negative emotions and keeps everyone outwardly focused, on getting feedback. Gratitude moves the focus from our own wants and creates vulnerability. The same vulnerability experienced when putting a product out there to be tested, the cornerstone to any lean approach.

And this can't be any simpler! Pay attention to what you notice people are doing well and giving to you and say "Thanks." It is as easy as that.

"Feeling grateful or appreciative of someone or something in your life, actually attracts more of the things that you appreciate and value in your life". - Dr. Christiane Northrup


So do these qualities help a start-up? Consider the need for start-ups to 'pivot' from time-to-time. This essential quality of reacting to customers' sense of value requires all the values and qualities listed above. Other fundamentals such as sharing (not hoarding), collaboration (not competition), customer service (not self service), agility (not bureaucracy) will not operate properly if you do not establish the proper habits of leading yourself. Always remember...nobody wants to be a start-up forever. At some point a company has to emerge and it can only do so with strong leaders working together.


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