“Lead by example.”
This cliché, constantly provided to new entrepreneurs and first-time CEOs, is often terrible advice for the heads of large organizations (or founders of startups that aspire to be large). What entrepreneurs usually gather from this recommendation is that they simply need to work their asses off, and their team will follow them.
This kind of ‘sprint and follow’ leadership works great for short-term objectives and small companies, where the passion and charisma of a leader can will a team to a win. The original ‘sprint and follow’ leaders were Braveheart-style warriors, where the objective was victory in a single battle and the alternative was near-certain death. But on a scale of leadership, these people would be categorized as Level 3 or Level 4 leaders.
‘Sprint and follow’ leaders achieve significant performance standards from their teams, but find their gains unscalable to larger projects or longer durations.
One of the hardest parts of being a product-oriented CEO is learning to lead the team from the sidelines, instead of trying to make every play themselves. Mark Zuckerberg once famously operated in the latter fashion, continuing to work in the bullpen and driving Facebook’s heads-down, developer-centric culture from the front.
In this structure, motivation is often extrinsic and reinforcement is often negative. Bill Gates, the top product CEO of his generation, spent much of the first five years of his Microsoft career directly leading the technical development, often jumping into action to redo work when his employees did not perform up to his standards (and then openly berating them for the errors).
“At various stages of the company I’ve had to learn new things. In the first five years I didn’t let any line of code get out of the company that I hadn’t reviewed, and most people’s code I didn’t like as well as mine, so I’d mostly just rewrite it.”— Bill Gates, October 13, 2005
Confession time: I am not a Level 5 leader. But I come to work at LabDoor every day focusing on the skills and will necessary to earn that title.
In my early days at LabDoor, and at Avomeen before it, I was a ‘sprint and follow’ leader. My key metrics were hours worked and tasks completed. I reviewed every report and sat in every meeting. It was truly painful for me to watch a project get delegated and then completed less-than-perfectly. At Avomeen, if the output on a Scanning Electron Microscope reading looked a little blurry, I’d jump into the seat and spend thirty minutes developing a better image myself. During LabDoor’s time at Rock Health, it was a matter of pride for me to be the last person out the door each night, not just from our company, but amongst the entire accelerator class.
After about 30 straight months of this between the two startups, things started fraying at the seams. I found myself constantly exhausted, permanent bags under my eyes and increasingly losing my battle with the snooze button each morning. My team, which had loyally sprinted with me every step of the way, began to show signs of slowing down as well. We were a powerful force at the edge of our limits. I was building a lean startup in all the wrong ways.
LabDoor has since done a ton of things right. Starting at the top, I’ve trained myself to recognize and highlight my own shortcomings, especially to my own team. It’s given me the courage to ‘quit’ on projects and tasks that weren’t positively impacting our company. My two co-founders owned their departments, and led without being told to lead.
We had fewer team meetings. The press stopped hearing from us. Our perpetual ‘seed round’ quietly closed. And through it all, we had the most productive four months of our company’s existence.
Now, we’re lining up a series of huge milestones ready to launch in rapid fire over the next few months. We’re all working towards the same key metric — the amount of actionable scientific data delivered to our users.
I’m not delegating more or working harder. The real lesson is much, much simpler. I simply acknowledged my numerous weaknesses, eliminated them from my ‘job description’, and focused my one true strength — intense, unbridled passion — towards the stuff that was left. I’m still not a Level 5 leader, but I’m getting closer.