Becoming an entrepreneur does not necessarily make you a leader. Many entrepreneurs think that they inherit leadership abilities after they have started a company or raised funds. They leave leadership in the background and focus on the next shiny object, insane perks, breakneck expansion or when to launch an IPO. Just because you have a disruptive idea or can sell ice cream in Antarctica doesn’t mean you have inherent leadership skills. The lack of leadership vision and direction can cause a company to implode as evidenced by the latest high profile ousted founders, unethical company tactics, and abuse of power. There’s an unprecedented lack of strong leadership exhibited in our space.
I was invited to sit in on the kick-off of the John C. Maxwell Executive Circle program. The program, created by best-selling author John C. Maxwell, one of the few people to have sold 25 million business books, dives deeply into the leadership arena. The Executive Circle is a one-year leadership program that combines individual coaching, peer group sessions, and a roster of high profile speakers, like former Ford CEO Alan Mulally and former Hewlett-Packard CEO and past presidential candidate, Carly Fiorina.
Maxwell encourages entrepreneurship with the caveat that dedicating time to improve as a leader is vital from day one. “A big misconception that can strike young entrepreneurs is that their success earns them leadership. Influence and leadership must be earned over time, and that comes from improving both yourself and empowering employees to optimize their values. Everybody makes mistakes along the way, and a building block to leadership is evaluating what went wrong, learning from that experience and improving because of it.”
Business headlines in the media frequently underscore that it is all too easy for entrepreneurs to make ill-informed decisions that result in poor financial results, high turnover, and litigation. As entrepreneurs, we attempt to learn from those who have walked the path that we want to take, but ultimately, most of us learn from the school of hard knocks. Entrepreneurs with an idea and successful enough to hire a few team members can instantly bill themselves as a CEO, and if that idea takes off, they can become the next Zuckerberg, Oprah, Musk, or whoever is their inspiration. Sometimes, when entrepreneurs start to receive accolades or PR, it’s always good to have a mentor or someone who will tell you like it is, and help you stay focused. I’ve learned over the years to have mentors who have been where I want to go and to have mentors outside of my industry.
In the era of the “startup,” founders are being coached to fail fast, iterate, then scale. Racing to scale or world domination can create a toxic culture of fear and anxiety if the proper leadership is absent. Companies like Uber have been under fire for the past two years for their culture, leadership, and tactics. For an entrepreneur, it is never too late to think about leadership and culture. It is a great feeling after you raise your first round of funding or get that first customer in a company that you and your friends started, but eventually, you will need systems, human resources, hierarchy, and leaders for growth.
After talking to John Maxwell, I walked away with a few takeaways.
– John Maxwell continuously instilled his methodology into the leaders again and again throughout the day, and these leaders grasped it like a mantra. One of my favorite quotes from Maxwell was; “The true measure of leadership is not how much you achieve; it is how much you inspire others to achieve.”
– Maxwell said, “Most people accept what happens to them as fact without realizing that they can influence almost everything through their own intentionality. It starts with knowing what you want and being consistent in taking steps to achieve. This results in adding value to everything you have set your intent upon, and that value organically spills over to the people around you.” I’ve met several entrepreneurs who gave up on their dream because they couldn’t raise the money that they needed. But when I ask them, how many people did you pitch, most of them told me that they pitched less than 20 investors. Twenty people shouldn’t deter you from your dream. Throughout the years I’ve learned that consistency is one of the leading ingredients to being successful no matter how you define it.
– The only way to be genuinely exceptional is by adding value that is unexpected. Maxwell calls this “wow factor” the law of addition. Bringing this unexpected value also makes things better for other people, which is the goal of any good leader. When you’re running a startup, being the leader of your team is more than what happens at work. Having an in-house chef is a good perk, but having a CEO that listens is a great value.
– Another law of leadership that resonated with this crowd was Maxwell’s law of consistency. It states that while motivation gets you going, discipline keeps you growing. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy that says if you are disciplined long enough, good things will happen – and those things create anticipation.
– Maxwell also says, “A person must be big enough to admit his mistakes, smart enough to profit from them, and strong enough to correct them.” In other words, own it – no excuses.
It is difficult to discuss aspects of something as intangible as leadership without sounding cliché. John Maxwell’s authenticity cuts through the hokiness of it all with his infectious curiosity to learn about others and calm delivery of wisdom that feels more like getting advice from your favorite grandfather than a professional coach. I completely understand that you have to ship a product and that you need to scale, but while you are moving at the speed of light, try to implement small bits of structure to set yourself and your company up for the future. If you want to set your company and employees on a successful path for the future, then you have to figure out your values early on.