Start-up Tip: Lead By Example, Not By Title

Mike and I stated working on crowdSPRING in the summer of 2006. We incorporated the company in May 2007 and launched the crowdSPRING marketplace in May 2008. We’ve learned many important lessons along the way. In some ways, our experience is typical of other start-ups. In other ways, it is not. I want to share some of our adventures (and mis-adventures) in the hope that it’ll help others looking to start a company or those who’ve already launched a start-up. So, once or twice every week for the next few months, I’ll post a new tip, based on our experience with crowdSPRING  over the past two years (and my experience advising technology start-ups over my 13 year career as an attorney).

Start-up Tip 2: Lead By Example, Not By Title

Several days ago, I had a long talk with a good friend about leadership. She felt that she was not doing a good job leading the people working for her. She wondered whether she was really cut out to be a leader. She wondered whether she could truly lead if it meant having to coerce others into doing things, to manipulate her employees into working hard, and forcing people to listen to her.

Coerce? Manipulate? Force? For a minute, I thought my friend had taken lessons from a character is a Scott Adams comic strip.

Too many people are obsessed with titles, labels, and org charts. I’ve worked for such people. I’ve known and represented (as an attorney) such people – including many C-level executives at large corporations.

When Mike and I founded crowdSPRING, we committed to lead by example, not by title. We committed to apply the very best qualities we had seen in great leaders and to work hard in avoiding the very worst. We make plenty of mistakes and we’ll continue to do so. But we try our very best to show our team that true leadership is not about coercion, manipulation or force.

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I recently read an outstanding book about organizational behavior and leadership – Tribal Leadership. The authors, management consultants from CultureSync, a management consulting firm specializing in cultural change, strategy and negotiation, studied 24,000 people at several dozen companies over a ten year period. They found that every organization is a tribe of 20 to 150 people, or a network of tribes, if the organization is large enough. They found that tribes are more powerful than teams, companies, or even CEOs. And they found a common theme: “the success of a company depends on its tribes, the strength of its tribes is determined by the tribal culture, and a thriving corporate culture can be established by an effective tribal leader.”

Immediately after I finished reading Tribal Leadership, I ordered multiple additional copies so that others at crowdSPRING could read it too. No non-fiction book has ever had such a profound impact on me.

Let me repeat: true leadership is not about coercion, manipulation or force. For far too long, people have followed management practices and principles defined decades ago. If you’ve seen the movie Office Space, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.

Good leaders inspire people to work hard. Great leaders inspire people to do their absolute best. And in a start-up with very limited funds and small teams, it’s critical that people do their absolute best. Anything less is often economic suicide.

These are the thoughts I shared with my friend and some of the principles (there are many more) that guide us at crowdSPRING:

  • Lead by example at all times. You’re not a true leader merely because of your title
  • Never stop learning – do whatever it takes to become a better leader
  • Use the right words. What you say as a leader always matters
  • Appreciate differences. Use people’s differences as a source of strength for the entire team
  • Motivate yourself. You cannot motivate others unless you motivate yourself
  • Collaborate with your team to innovate instead of pushing ideas on them
  • Empower people around you to succeed – give them responsibility and authority
  • Treat others with compassion and respect. Don’t just tell them they are important. Show them.
  • Promote a collaborative culture where everyone is a leader

Let me offer a few practical examples too – from our own experience at crowdSPRING. Many months ago, during a team meeting, I was frustrated, and took out my frustration on the person leading the meeting. My reaction was stupid. It was anything but leadership by example, much less good leadership. I ignored every principle I listed above. I talked to that person and apologized. And promised to myself not to do that again. Ever. What you say as a leader always matters.

So how do you avoid confrontations and especially situations when someone on the team is being confrontational or stubborn? Here’s what we’ve done. First – we try very hard to channel the confrontational and stubborn attitude of that person in a team discussion into a productive, constructive discussion about their own ideas or resistance to the ideas offered by others. Second – we talk privately to that person after the team discussion to tell them that we love their passion, their ideas and participation, and greatly value their input. And we also explain that how THEY react during a team discussion reflects on everyone. What THEY say always matters. What they do either fosters or detracts from a collaborative culture. We ask them to look at themselves as a leader and to appreciate the impact they could have on the entire team – both negative and positive.

We do our best to use every situation to help others succeed. We do our best to use every situation to help others become a better leader. And we ask only that those people in turn, follow these same principles. Help others to succeed. Help others to become a better leader. There is no magic to building great teams and organizations. It’s hard work and it takes the efforts of everyone.

The above principles apply to every person in an organization because true leaders are not necessarily CEOs – they can be anyone and everyone. And I firmly agree with the authors of Tribal Leadership that the ultimate goal is to build a tribe of tribal leaders. Companies like Apple and Google show how powerful such tribes can be. One day, we want to be such a tribe (not necessarily in size or revenue – solely in attitude) – and this is a goal that should be shared by all start-ups.

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