Startup general interest

Five characteristics of successful leaders/entrepreneurs

By August 31, 2011 September 1st, 2011 3 Comments

The characteristics listed below are adapted from a blog post by Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter title Five Powers that Get Ideas off the Ground (thanks to Judith Clegg for the pointer).  Lists of characteristics like this are useful as reminders of how we should behave and to provide frameworks for self analysis and coaching of others, but they are not exhaustive or prescriptive.  There is no shortage of advice floating around these days, including on this blog, and as I’ve been assimilating and dispensing it all over my eleven years in this industry I’ve come to the conclusion that the best approach is to develop a framework for pretty much everything that is important to your line of work and then use that as the basis against which to analyse new advice.  Some of it should be rejected, and some of it should cause subtle adjustments to your framework and then occasionally there may be a radical adjustment to the framework, but beware of those.  A lot of this process will be subliminal and the more experienced and successful you get the less you should be expecting to adjust your framework.

  1. Showing up – Rosabeth quotes Woody Allen’s famous saying that 90% of success in life comes from just showing up, and I agree.  In the context of leaders and entrepreneurs that means getting started on things and being visible, and that includes when things are difficult/might not work.  In fact, not putting off the difficult things is what separates effective people from the rest.
  2. Speaking up – we all know that great leaders make great speeches, and often those speeches come to define the period of leadership – think about Martin Luther King and you quickly think about his famous “I have a dream” speech.  It is still inspiring nearly 50 years later (if you haven’t heard it recently listen here – 9mins in is a good place to start).  More prosaically CEOs and founders are most effective when they are vocal within their companies shaping the debate and articulating the conclusions at team meetings.  I recently asked a former employee of successful UK SEO/SEM agency The Search Works why the company had prevailed over its competitors and his answer was that Nick Hynes, the CEO, had a special talent for articulating the vision and direction of the business and getting everyone at the company believing and pulling in the same direction.  Think about that for a moment.
  3. Teaming up – great companies aren’t built by individuals, they are built by teams.  Usually that is a team of co-founders and in just about every case there is a team of executives who have real power and operate as a team.  Delegation is a pre-requisite for success.
  4. Looking up – I’m going to quote directly from Rosabeth’s post here, as she nails it “Looking up: the power of values. Higher principles help people transcend the conflicts and concerns of the moment. Standing for something larger than mere self-interest gives leaders moral grounding and provides a basis for inspiring and motivating the work. Those who are honored as great leaders are not merely good at getting results efficiently, they are able to find grander goals that help people look up to see the big picture and set their sights higher.”
  5. Not giving up – much has been written about the importance of persistence, and for good reason.  It is something that is easy to forget when the going gets tough and reminders are useful.  As Rosabeth says “everything can look like failure in the middle”.

As I said earlier – this list is not exhaustive guide, and in particular it is important not to do these things well, rather than just do them.  It is following the spirit of the advice not the letter that makes the difference.  Authenticity is critical.

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