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Leaders Can’t Always Save The Day—Themselves

There’s a special sort of person who gravitates towards running startups. The go for it, get the job done, save the day kind of people who have undoubtedly helped create the greatest innovations of our time (and one could even say innovations throughout time). These are the kind of people who get a thrill from achieving the impossible and pulling off the last-minute effort that prevents disaster. These are take charge people, and that’s essential for a startup to succeed at first, but in the long run it could hurt them. Inc magazine drew a bead on this very problem with their recent articleThe Dark Side of Heroic Leadership and here’s what you can take away from it.

Who will lead when it’s not you?

Leaders who always grab the reins, take charge, and save the day might get a huge thrill, but they aren’t letting the other members of the team learn how to lead either. What about when that leader isn’t available to save the day? Who is going to step up and take charge? Businesses have myriad crises across all segments, the boss can’t be there for all them and there needs to be leaders who can step up and handle the crisis. This can be a scary thing for people used to taking charge and fixing everything, it means relinquishing control to other people. If you’re leading a startup or company, you probably hired those people, so you should know if they have the chops to lead. If you didn’t hire for excellence, why did you hire them in the first place? Good leaders give people a chance to lead—and sometimes fail—themselves.

It’s okay if it’s not perfect, the boss will get it

The save-the-day leader is actually telling the rest of the company “don’t worry if isn’t ready, the boss will swoop in and fix it.” This isn’t a good mentality to have. If the company figures that “good enough” is actually not very good because the leader of the team will pick up the pieces and fix everything, everything the company does will suffer. Everything. Leaders who just clean up the mess themselves aren’t helping anyone.

Addicted to crisis?

Lots of leaders, especially in startups, can get addicted to fixing crises when they come up. The thrill of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Working all night to finish the beta to meet the deadline. Getting a last-minute chance to present to an angel or VC who is interested in what you’re building. Those are thrilling things. It’s a huge rush when you pull them off. The problem comes when everything becomes an artificial crisis. Are unrealistic development deadlines being set only to force the panicked rush at the deadline? Was the meeting booked with the VC a week ago and the work on the presentation only started a day before the meeting? These aren’t sustainable activities. A leader might enjoy the thrill of the crisis, and many of the employees might too for a little while, but a lot of people—and some of the best people—won’t put up with it for long. Artificial crises are the bane of project planning. When you have to constantly have to drop everything to work on something else because (in reality) it should have been a priority sooner, all work suffers. All deadlines slip. And the people getting the work done will start to resent the interruptions.

Preparing for the long-term

The point of the Inc. article is really about planning for the long term. Yes, in the early days of a startup there is a ton of hard work. Lots of late nights trying to get everything done with too few people. That’s how startups start out, but that’s not how startups become successful companies. Successful companies have more than one leader. Successful companies have solid product and work planning so work gets done without insane rushes to the finish. Successful companies instill an ethic of always producing the best. Crises will still happen. Deadlines will hit and people have to work hard to meet them. Mistakes will slip through. But in a mature company, a startup that has become successful, these are the exceptions, not the rules.

Leaders in successful companies don’t swoop in to save the day; they don’t have to, the day has already been saved by another person.

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Inscape Consulting Group
Greg Nichvalodoff, BSc. BM (Honors), MBA, PCC, CMC
Office: 604.943.0800
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