Undoubtedly, there are those among us who inherited certain traits that naturally lead them to leadership roles. But any individual with the right character, willpower and discipline can become a great leader.
Leadership is important in all areas of life, but given the array of challenges faced by start-ups, including the need to marshal and sustain a team’s enthusiasm and drive in the face of set-backs, the calibre of leadership is one of the most significant determinants of success or failure.
For the most part, companies large and small are overmanaged but under-led, so it is important to distinguish between leadership and management. Management is concerned with planning and organisation (the ‘how’). Leadership, on the other hand, is about direction (the ‘why’).
Regardless of the arena, the essence of leadership lies in articulating a vision, defining a clear path for achieving that vision, and then creating an environment in which your team’s strengths and skills can be best leveraged in pursuit of that vision.
In a start-up environment, a majority of the leader’s time and efforts should be focused on addressing a handful of key issues that galvanise employees’ actions around the ‘why’:
A leader must provide a vivid, unambiguous and achievable statement of where the company intends to be at a certain future point.
The vision must be accompanied by an equally clear and unambiguous plan for how that future state will be achieved, both with respect to the actions that must be taken and the objectives that must be achieved along the way.
The culture, resources and skill sets within the company must be aligned with the vision. For instance, if the vision calls for dramatic and dynamic change, but the company’s decision making process is measured and protracted, failure isn’t too far away.
The manner in which the vision is communicated must create a sense of urgency within the company. It is human nature to prefer the status quo. Failing to anticipate and combat inertia will bring undone even the most astute vision.
This operates at three levels. First, leaders must ensure that each employee understands the company’s overall business objectives. Second, each employee should understand their role in contributing to those objectives. Finally, the leader must ensure that the internal environment is as ‘frictionless’ as possible, so that employees can go about their work unhindered.
Leaders must define and clearly communicate the measures by which employees’ efforts will be assessed (e.g. targets, KPIs, etc.). The process by which these measures are monitored must be applied consistently and with discipline, with appropriate steps taken to identify and correct unacceptable performance.
Often the biggest challenge for leaders (yet, ironically, the least difficult path to effective leadership) is to be the change they want to inspire – to act as a role model for the behaviour that they want to see in others. For example, if you want to inspire your team to be creative and take risks, then demonstrate creativity and risk-taking in your daily interactions and decision making. If you want your team to approach tasks with more rigour and analysis, demonstrate rigour and analysis in your conduct.
It goes without saying that individuals will only follow (that is, allow themselves to be led) those whom they trust implicitly and in whom they have full confidence. Leaders, then, must demonstrate sincerity, integrity and candour in all of their interactions, both within the business and with external partners.
Mark Neely is a lawyer, technology commercialisation consultant and author of 10 books, including The Business Internet Companion.