At Beermat, we’re pretty skeptical about some models of leadership. Mike says leaders do need to be visionary, communicative and energetic. But they don’t have to be gung-ho and unwavering: we prefer something more collaborative – the right metaphor is sport, not war.
Leadership is always a hot topic. However we feel that a lot of writing on the subject, while interesting, is of little relevance to the smaller business. Great Leaders may inspire us individually, which has to be a good thing, but is the kind of leadership they provide really what is needed in a start-up or SME?
Great Leaders (note the capitals) clearly have a vision, and this is important in the start-up. Great Leaders paint a positive picture of the future, and keep painting it for all to see, even when things get bad. Ordinary leaders should do the same.
By definition, most of us are not Great Leaders, and never will be. Actually, we find this something of a relief. It might be inspiring to think of ourselves in Churchillian mode some of the time – and why not, if that gets tough stuff done? – but the rest of the time, are we not in danger of setting ourselves the wrong targets? Great Leader models aren’t relevant, either to the challenges we face or to the kind of people we are.
To take the second point first… Many Great Leaders turn out to have been not particularly pleasant individuals. A streak of ruthlessness is important to business success, but Great Leaders often have major personality flaws. There’s nowhere to hide these in a smaller business: ironically it’s easier to hide major flaws when your interaction with your followers is indirect, through speeches, TV appearances or the occasional walkabout, speech to the troops (or whatever). The Great Leader can get away with being a consummate actor or actress; the start-up leader does not have this protection.
Then there’s the issue of the task in hand. Great Leaders deal with huge military and political forces. They are masters of strategy. This is why books on strategy often resort to war as a metaphor, charismatic CEOs admit to sleeping with copies of Clausewitz under their pillows and Sun Tzu’s ‘Art of War’ is trumpeted as the perfect MBA textbook.
A much better metaphor for start-ups is sport.
This is not because start-up business is somehow non-serious. If anything, it is corporate life that has room for slack and coasting. But a start-up is not an army or a major political party, it is a tiny group of people. So is starting up like guerrilla war, then? In a way, but still not when you look at it closely. Guerrillas have to have iron discipline – ‘obey orders in all your actions’ was Mao Tse-Tung’s command to his fighters. They also need to be fanatics.
Your team must clearly have discipline, but not ‘in all their actions’. They need to improvise, too, and act on instinct and the moment, like sports people.
Should they be fanatics? There’s something scary about that – we would rather work with enthusiasts.
Most of all, your ‘Dream Team’ employees should have fun. Yes, it’s hard work, but it’s also exciting and enjoyable. War, despite the glamour bestowed on it by some movies, is not fun. (It may sometimes be necessary, but that’s another debate.) General Sherman had it right: ‘War is hell’. Business may get tough, but it should not be hell.
And you really need a ‘strategy’ anyway? A vision, yes. A business model, yes. But if you can differentiate your products and communicate that difference to enough of the right people, you have no need for the great rumbling manoeuvres of big corporates.
The two mainstays of Great Leadership, the ability to move millions through media and mastery of grand strategy, turn out to be largely irrelevant to start-ups. So what qualities should you have to lead a real-life smaller enterprise?
Being positive, sometimes irrationally positive, is probably the key one. The leader in any organization sets the tone, and in a small organization you are totally visible. In moments of crisis, when other people are panicking, you must hang on to your belief and optimism. It’s not easy sometimes, but it is essential.
Linked to this is ‘keeping the vision’. We’ve already discussed the huge value of this.
Personal skills matter, too. You must be able to build and motivate teams. Many entrepreneurs are charismatic. Lucky them. But if you are not charismatic, don’t feel that you cannot lead. This is an illusion created by the Great Leader mythology. Be firm, determined, polite, straightforward and fair. It will get you a long way.
Small business leaders need to be assiduous. One of Mike’s hugely successful mentors used to say ‘Watch the cash, laddie.’ Hardly Napoleonic sentiments, but a lot more helpful if you start having problems with the bank.
So here’s our ideal ‘Beermat’ leader. Positive and passionate about the vision; firm, polite, honest and fair; assiduous. Was Boadicea like that? Or the Duke of Wellington? Frankly, we don’t think it really matters.