Leadership and innovation in your start-up

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English: Weather Report performing in 1980
Weather Report performing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s okay if you are a solopreneur and only need to lead one person – yourself. Whether you like it or not, when you take on even one employee you will need to be deliberate about your leadership style or approach because it will affect the climate in your start-up as well as its performance.

What exactly is leadership? Management is about managing people and resources – maintaining the status quo. Leadership is different because a leader brings about change. Almost by definition the start-up needs to be innovative so it’s not going to succeed on management alone.

Leadership is really about choosing the right style for the situation. Some of the common leadership styles include autocratic leadership, bureaucratic leadership, charismatic leadership, laissez–faire leadership, servant leadership, task-orientated leadership transactional leadership, people-orientated leadership and transformational leadership.

In a recent article in Bloomberg Business Week, “The Secrets of Bezos”, the leadership qualities of the founder and CEO of Amazon was covered. It showed how Bezos is fanatical about customer service, innovation, and frugality. Amazon has 14 leadership principles, one of which is:

“Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit

Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.”

In this confrontational culture, drive and boldness trump other leadership ideals such as consensus building and promoting civility.

To be at the top of its game, being consumed with improving the company’s performance and customer service, people issues almost seem to be secondary. It’s difficult to categorise Bezos’ leadership style as it has elements of being autocratic and transactional but is also in some ways transformational.

Amazon veterans have been stung by his openness and devastating rebukes which include:

“Are you lazy or just incompetent?”

“Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I am CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”

“If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself.”

Yet often his criticisms are on target and for employees who thrive in this cooker pressure environment the rewards are high. But employee retension or churn is extremely low – the medium employee tenure is about one year.

A start-up needs ideas not only for new products and services but also for marketing, distribution, business models and customer service. If the owner or founder of the business is going to dismiss the brilliant ideas and thoughts of his or her employees, this wears down and erodes self-esteem and trust and cohesion of the team. Employees need to think and act independently at times and allow their originality, imagination, resourcefullness and self-reliance to develop and shine through.

This is why transformational leadership is often held up as the best form of leadership style to use in business situations because it helps to inspire the best from everyone and builds high productivity and engagement.

In thinking about leadership styles, you may want to consider the parallels between leadership and jazz.

Jazz allows for players to be playing in harmony but at the same time is accommodating of solo performances and flourishes as long as they don’t get in the way of the general direction of the music.

But jazz and its legendary reliance on improvisation also suggests that leaders improvise their leadership styles when necessary, depending on the people, the maturity or phase of the business and the performance that is required to delight the customer.

Whatever your style, creativity, heart and humour will inspire people much more than ruling by fear or with an iron fist.

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