What kind of leader are you?

I’m a first-time CEO (although it’s certainly not the first time I’ve managed a team). I know I still have a lot to learn, especially as my team is small and I’ve only been at this a few years. The challenges I’ll no doubt face will get bigger and harder, but I’ve already learned a lot about what it means to be a good leader, manager and CEO. I’m far from perfect, but what I do know is exactly what sort of CEO I want to be. If you’re a founder looking for startup advice, this is probably the last thing on your mind, but it is the one thing that will absolutely shape your business forever.

The first time I really started to think about what sort of leader I wanted to be was after reading this blog post by Sash Catanzarite back in 2011 (Thanks to @vbrendel for helping me find it again!). We’d only been in business for about 5 weeks, and the post really resonated with me. The story is well worth a read, but if you’re short on time, Sash sums it up best himself:
“Being the CEO of the company isn’t about power, authority, or glamour, it’s about washing the dishes when nobody else will.”

When I look at the sort of people I’ve admired throughout my life, the common thread among them is that none of them have been the type to seek power or to abuse it once they had it. Without exception, these people have been kind, compassionate and hard-working. They don’t choose to lead, people have chosen to follow. Sure, you can lead through strength or fear, but those are not traits that inspire others. In short, you can get people to wash dishes by threatening them, or you can get them to do it by doing it yourself first.

But I found an ever better example of leadership many years before I’d ever dreamed of starting a business, and much closer to home. I was in Indonesia visiting my parents, where my father was working as the General Manager of a pulp mill. It was Saturday, so my father was off for the day and we were getting taken on a tour of the surrounding countryside. About two hours into our trip we happened across a truck about 20 metres off the side of the road, in a paddock, stuck in mud up to its axles. The truck was being driven by a local villager, but given there was a company vehicle parked along side it, my father figured it must have been one of theirs.

We pulled over and Dad got out and had a quick chat to the men. They were about to call in another truck to tow them out. Given that we were more than two hours away from the mill, and the weather wasn’t looking great, my father suggested having another go at getting the truck out. He went to the back of the company 4×4, grabbed 2 lengths of rope and proceeded wrapping the mud-caked rear tyres of the truck. He looped the rope over the tyre, and through the holes in the rim, all the way around the tire. The workers stood there as their GM lay in the mud to wrap the truck tire. He then collected a bunch of rocks and branches and filled the hole around the wheel. By this time the workers had began doing the same on the other side of the truck. A couple of minutes later, while my dad was getting cleaned up. They restarted the truck, and slowly crept the truck out of the mud pit. Accepting no thanks, he got back in the car and we left the workers amazed and somewhat bewildered.

I was proud of my dad’s problem solving skills (he grew up on a farm which no doubt helped), but I was equally impressed at him as a leader. He could’ve gotten on the phone and made it someone else’s problem, but he knew that having 4 people standing around for hours, plus the time and effort of another vehicle coming to help was far worse than just rolling up his sleeves and helping himself. On top of that, before he got out to help, he explicitly told us not to take photos, because he didn’t want the workers to feel that they were being judged. The takeaway for me was that it was clear that his one and only concern was for his employees.

Ever since then I’ve understood that a good manager never considers themselves more important than their team. A good leader serves their team, never the other way round.

So before you start growing your team, stop and have a think about what sort of leader you want to be and then focus on being that person. I firmly believe there are some fundamentals that any good leader should aspire to. It takes work, commitment and a lot of patience to be a good leader, but I do believe the rewards are worth it. And if you’re not yet a leader, make sure you pay attention to the people you’re working for, make sure they measure up.

Firstly, a good leader always leads from the front. They will always be the first one to lend a hand, the first one to stop what they’re doing to help out. They set the benchmark, and strive to be a visible demonstration of culture, ethics and commitment to the company. If your boss is the last to arrive and the first to leave, you have a problem. If they bark orders before rolling up their sleeves, you better find a new job. A good leader can always be found on the front line with their troops, not up the back sipping brandy.

A good leader hires people who are better them him or herself. Rather than fear being undermined by people more intelligent, a good leader thrives on finding talented staff and nurturing them to be the greatest success they can be, even if it means they eventually outgrow their role. A bad leader hires people they can boss around to make themselves feel important. Employees aren’t ever “resources”, they’re the heart of the company, and a smart leader wants the strongest heart they can muster.

A good leader is humble, selfless and kind. They’d never ask their team to do something they wouldn’t do themselves. They never take credit for someone else’s work. They care when their team is under pressure, or when personal lives go off the rails. A strong leader carries the load when their team can’t carry any more. They’ll always put in the over-time before they ask anyone else to the same.

A good leader has clarity of thought and knows exactly where they’re headed. That clarity gives the team confidence that they’re working towards a worthwhile goal. A team can only focus on their individual tasks when they know someone else is looking after the surrounding issues. If you empower your team and allow them to focus on their task, they’ll do a better job of it.

A good leader is an effective communicator. That doesn’t mean talking, it means listening. By taking the time to hear what your team have to say, you’re able to make decisions more effectively. If you’re always talking, you’re never listening. It’s critical to know when to shut up, and when to speak. A meeting of your most important team members should need very little input from the CEO. If you’ve guided them well, your team already know what’s best, you don’t need to decide it for them.

Finally, a good leader never takes the credit for work done by their team. Every success is because of the team, and every failure is because of the leader. It’s easy to say that, but it’s much harder to put it into practice. I’ve often said that a failure of any employee to thrive, is a failure of the person who managed them. If you’ve had to let someone go from your team, or if someone has quit, you can often look towards their manager for the reason.

I’m not the perfect CEO by a long shot. I’m too grumpy and too busy, and occasionally disorganised and forgetful. My vision for the company at times isn’t as strong as I’d like it be, and my ability to plan a path to that vision is sometimes lacking. I know there are many things I can do better. The first step towards any goal is understanding what the goal is, and that’s often the hardest part.

About Alan - Alan Downie has been working in web for over 15 years. He headed up development of the award winning Intranet DASHBOARD before starting his own software company, Angry Monkeys, which produced the successful UsabilityHub and Fivesecondtest products. As co-founder and CEO of BugHerd he participated in Startmate (Australia) and 500 Startups (US). He still programs occasionally, although not as much as he'd like, and far more than his team wants.

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