We’ve all heard the statistic about 90% of startups failing. If the odds are so firmly stacked against you, what can you do to mitigate the failure risk?

Startup leadership styles can easily get overlooked, with more focus and attention put on product, funding, go-to-market strategy, and the day-to-day running of the business.

Without the vision of a strong leader who can draw on their experiences and make difficult decisions, failure could be on the horizon.

Ammarah Ahmed, VP Growth & Performance - Snapp

In this article, we’ll cover the elements that contribute to strong leadership in a startup.

Why is leadership in startups so important?

To succeed in a turbulent business environment, strong leadership is critical. Adaptability and openness to change are essential to keep driving the startup forward.

By nature, startups have a lean structure, you don’t have hundreds of team members or employees to delegate to. For this reason, a startup leader needs to wear multiple hats, manage different relationships, empower people and keep up team morale.

Good leadership is important because startup teams must constantly learn and grow quickly.

Decisive leadership inspires teams to give the 200% often required to get things done in a startup.

Ammarah Ahmed, VP Growth & Performance - Snapp

4 Essential startup leadership traits

There isn’t a playbook for startup leadership, the nature of the business and the size of your team will play a massive role in how you make decisions. Becoming an effective leader takes time, practice, and some hard graft.

Many startups have young founders, which is great because they’re creative and enthusiastic and have new perspectives. However, there is something to be said about the wisdom acquired from years of working in different businesses. Those leaders have real-world experience in navigating challenging situations.

A common misconception about leadership is that it should be top-down. In reality, successful leadership comes from the bottom up, the leader is effectively serving the people they are leading.

Great leaders have four main traits:

1. Authenticity

Vulnerability is an important leadership trait. How can you expect your team to show their vulnerabilities if you aren’t vulnerable with them? Showing you are human and owning your mistakes helps build trust and loyalty with your team.

2. Integrity

Your team needs to see you making hard decisions and not constantly taking the easy way out. If you can be a role model, showing that making the right (but more complex) decision is possible, they will respect you and adopt this mindset too. Being able to acknowledge your weaknesses is another vital sign of integrity. Knowing your limitations and working on improving them will inspire those around you to do the same.

3. Empathy

Being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes and helping individuals grow by understanding their dreams and goals is a sign of a true leader. Caring for your team members, building relationships, and not only making it about getting things done will help foster trust and positivity in your team.

4. Self-confidence

Being confident in your abilities is essential if you want to lead effectively. Making decisive decisions in time-sensitive situations shows that you trust your judgement, and those around you can also trust it. People need to be able to look up to you if you want to be an inspiring leader.

Related: How to Deal with Imposter Syndrome as a Startup Founder

Leaders vs. Managers

Leadership in startups is very different from leadership in large corporations or international organizations. When you think about corporations, you probably think about managers, the type of leaders focused on achieving KPIs and targets. They want to hire good people and keep them because a job needs to be done.

In startups, effective leadership goes way beyond the KPIs. Great leaders play a role in the long-term growth of team members. Great leaders aren’t afraid to lose people from their team when they realize they have outgrown them. They can tell people they can do so much more.

Ammarah Ahmed, VP Growth & Performance - Snapp

What makes ineffective startup leaders?

Ineffective leaders are those who aren’t able to reach out for help. They don’t acknowledge that one person can’t be a master of every skill and are unable to recognize their weaknesses.

Ammarah Ahmed, VP Growth & Performance - Snapp

You want to constantly question how you can create a great employee experience and use your team’s skills to drive the business forward. For example, you could be great at product development, but this is the first time you’re leading a team of 200. Instead of thinking, “I’m the leader, I’ve got this”, and hoping for the best, you need to acknowledge your limitations and that you may need help.

How to become a great startup leader

The path to becoming an outstanding startup leader involves a lot of self-reflection. You need to think about your strengths and weaknesses and determine how you will work on improving your weaknesses. Once you’ve identified your weaknesses, you can either develop the skills you lack or hire a specialist to take care of the decisions you don’t feel confident making.

Going with your gut feeling won’t make you a good leader. Instead of following your gut, use your available resources to make decisions.

Ammarah Ahmed, VP Growth & Performance - Snapp

Consistently analyzing the data is an excellent way to become a better leader.

Instead of saying, “we think the customer may be acting a certain way because that’s how humans behave”, go out there and speak to your customers. Assuming things about people and how they behave will lead to incorrect assumptions. Looking at the data on how your users interact with your platform helps you make better-informed decisions.

If you’re starting a business from scratch, you may not have data to substantiate whether you have a good idea. But there’s always part of the problem you can evaluate using the data you can access. Letting the data guide will allow you to test a hypothesis rather than trying something because you have a hunch it’s a good idea.

Harnessing the power of technology

Using all available tools can help ease the gap between good and great leaders. Never underestimate the power of using tools like Trello (even for personal productivity), Google sheets, and Figma to keep all critical info collated in one place. Putting everything in one place can help you manage your time and pass on the right information to the team.

Optimize time so every project stakeholder knows what’s going on and you can get the job done efficiently. Making communication efficient and data easy to glance at will make your life easier and show your team you value their time too.

Influential startup leaders need mentors

We’re only human, and as much as we like to believe we can do it all, we can’t.

Making it to the top doesn’t mean you don’t need support, many top leaders keep growing their leadership skills thanks to the advice of mentors.

Recognizing the areas you need support and asking for help from those with startup leadership experience will help you become a better leader. Improve your leadership skills by starting a conversation with a Growth Mentor.

 

Startup Leadership FAQs

While this question is entirely subjective, a recent survey by the World Economic Forum found that 32% of startup CEOs value vision as the most crucial leadership skill. Leaders with vision drive ideas forward and keep everyone working towards a common goal while overcoming the tough decisions or challenges that will arise along the way.

Patience and tenacity are also crucial qualities that can take your startup to new heights.

 

Effective leaders need to be skilled multitaskers, due to the number of hats they need to wear at the early stages of growing their business.

  • Democratic – taking everyone’s opinion into consideration
  • Pacesetting – setting high standards and leading by example
  • Delegative – empowering employees to make autonomous decisions
  • Strategic – making solid business decisions and ensuring employee satisfaction

The leadership style that works best for you will depend on the type of business you run. If it’s a small bootstrapped company with two employees, the democratic style could suit you best. A fast-growing company with the funding could benefit from the strategic style so the focus stays aligned, and employees can get their work done effectively.

A common mistake is thinking you need to stick to one leadership style. A good leader knows what type of leader a situation requires and is able to adapt their style accordingly. A good leader can adapt their style to the situation. The delegative style tends to fit better when building and empowering your middle management layer, whereas strategic is better in high-impact situations.