Are leaders born or made? Since days of yore, what makes a great leader has been endlessly discussed and debated. From Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Ghandi to Henry Ford, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Oprah Winfrey; qualities of leaders have inspired us to pursue our dreams and achieve greatness.
But times and leadership styles have changed. The democratisation of technology and growing startup culture has seen it evolve from autocratic and instructional to participatory and engaged. Harvard Business Review recently noted that even Pope Francis understands that, in a hyper-kinetic world, inward-looking and self-obsessed leaders are a liability.
Through the years and the debates of what makes great leaders, the premise of leadership has never changed – the ability to innovate, showcase visionary thinking, manage and be a role model for staff was relevant for Napoleon Bonaparte and still is for Mark Zuckerberg.
In all my interactions with entrepreneurial leaders, I’ve noticed that they are innovators, renegades, risk takers, workaholics, futurists and believers. Driven by an impatience or dissatisfaction with the way things are in current state, they want to bring about change. But strong visionary thinking and a personal drive to accomplish great things could lead to organisational over-dependence on the leader.
While entrepreneurs are driven by a strong sense of purposefulness, employees sometimes get treated as pillars to help their vision. Instead, employees should be treated as evangelists for the organisation – to inculcate a sense of belonging and pride and willingness to promote the company to attract more business, investment and great people.
The great Winston Churchill once said, “The key to a leader’s impact is sincerity. Before he can inspire with emotion he must sway himself. Before he can move their tears his own must flow. To convince them he must himself believe.”
Leadership is as much about enabling employees to achieve greatness as it is about leading. Every employee is an individual with dreams, goals, ideas and apprehensions. As startups get successful, busy and weighed down in trying to keep up with business demands, employee individuality often gets lost.
Staff enablement is more than perfunctory activities in the social calendar and performance reviews.
Australian startup success story Atlassian is a great example of an organisation that hires people to add to the culture rather than just the bottom-line. You want people not just for their ability to achieve the tasks, but also for their opinions and perspectives. You want them to question, be curious and explore because that’s what builds the company’s combined knowledge pool.
Encouraging people to have an opinion has to dovetail with a sense of honesty, authenticity and self-criticism by the leader. Where previously, questioning leaders was inconceivable, now heated discussions take place in boardrooms. Adopting a “my way or the highway” attitude will be detrimental to employee empowerment and a free flow of ideas.
One of the best leaders of our generation, the late Steve Jobs, was well known for his fiery temper and strong fixation on finessing the product above all else. In spite of this, he still inspired his staff by making no excuses for who he was, what he believed in and by encouraging independent thinking. The company’s current position is testament to the values instilled by him from the outset.
A good leader is one who gets into fierce debates, but listens to the other side. The moment you stop asking for feedback and learning, you stop growing. As the owner of the business, you might be indispensable to a certain degree. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking of yourself as above everyone else. Investors are also attuned to this and often back people who are open to feedback.
Many brilliant minds have good ideas and great business plans that could change the world, but not everyone can lead well enough to scale the ideas to greatness. In a democratised and competitive market where new startups are formed on a daily basis, good leadership be the key to powering individual and group success.
About the Author:
Renata Cooper, CEO of Forming Circles and angel investor, is committed to empowering people and ideas. Through Forming Circles, Renata has invested in over 100 local and national businesses, individuals and organisations since its inception in 2011.