14 Leadership Lessons From Successful Startup Founders
To gain a deeper understanding of effective leadership, we asked startup founders and CEOs to share the most valuable lessons they’ve learned from successful entrepreneurs. From instilling empowerment and autonomy in leadership to learning from failures and setbacks, we’ve gathered fourteen insightful responses that reveal how these lessons have been applied to their own leadership styles.
- Instill Empowerment and Autonomy in Leadership
- Lean In for Team Accountability
- View Success as a Staircase, Not an Elevator
- Follow the People Over Profits Principle
- Foster Engagement and Ownership
- Be a Host, Not Just a Leader
- Embrace Vulnerability in Leadership
- Balance Authority and Inspiration
- Use a Resourceful Problem-Solving Approach
- Hire Experts for Stronger Teams
- Consider Personal Growth as Success
- Implement a Culture of Open Communication
- Embrace Uncertainty in Leadership
- Learn From Failures and Setbacks
Instill Empowerment and Autonomy in Leadership
One invaluable leadership lesson I gleaned from Mr. Gautam Bali, the MD of Vestige, is the power of empowerment. Witnessing how he empowered individuals to lead their lives on their own terms while spreading wealth through wellness deeply resonated with me. The ethos of Vestige, focused on promoting well-being, not only in terms of health but also financial wealth, struck a chord.
This lesson has influenced my leadership style profoundly. I’ve come to realize that true leadership isn’t just about directing and managing, but about enabling and empowering. I’ve actively fostered an environment where team members are encouraged to take ownership of their projects and ideas. By valuing autonomy and granting decision-making authority, I’ve seen increased engagement and creativity among my team.
Furthermore, the notion of “wealth” has transformed my approach to employee satisfaction. I’ve adopted a more holistic perspective, recognizing that financial rewards are essential.
Anuj Mahajan, Co-Founder
Lean In for Team Accountability
I was struggling with keeping certain members of my team accountable, and it was hurting our key metrics. I heard another founder talk about struggling with this same thing, and that his solution was to “lean in.”
The problem wasn’t our systems or employees; it was me. Because I’m prone to having a laissez-faire approach to management, the phrase “lean in” is a helpful reminder that sometimes the best thing for the company is to dive headfirst into the weeds.
View Success as a Staircase, Not an Elevator
Success is a staircase, not an elevator. This was great advice received from the CEO of a multi-million-dollar start-up. He said not to rely on big wins—that’s gambling. You need to be making progress every day toward your goal, and before you know it, you will succeed.
So, when feeling down, or that things are not going the right way, it’s important to do “something”, even if it’s small, in progress towards the start-up’s goals. Oh, and when those big wins/windfall gains do come, they become a nice bonus—but they are not part of the continuous plan. And when looking back over a year, it’s surprising to realize how far one has come.
Follow the People Over Profits Principle
The best leadership lesson I have learned is prioritizing people over profits, a principle emphasized by Tony Hsieh of Zappos. He stressed that focusing on providing the best environment and taking care of employees leads to long-term success.
Applying this principle, I concentrate on my team’s well-being and development, trusting that when they’re content, they’ll excel and drive our business forward.
Foster Engagement and Ownership
If members of your team come up with a good idea and you feel the urge to give critical feedback to improve their idea, resist. Yes, you could potentially enhance their idea, but by doing so, they may feel less like it’s their idea and will be less engaged and take less ownership.
The 10% improvement you could have made will be counteracted by 30% less engagement by the team. If the team stays engaged, they will ultimately improve the idea themselves to even higher levels. Therefore, the best course of action is to encourage these ideas and give them your trust.
Be a Host, Not Just a Leader
One invaluable leadership lesson I gleaned came from Brian Chesky, the co-founder of Airbnb. He underscored the philosophy of “Being a Host, Not Just a Leader.” Chesky believes in embracing empathy, anticipating needs, and fostering an environment where everyone feels they belong.
Inspired by this, I’ve reshaped my leadership style to be more inclusive and attentive. I prioritize active listening and strive to create a workspace where each team member feels valued and heard. Instead of merely managing, I focus on hosting—ensuring everyone has the tools and environment they need to succeed.
By embodying this hospitality-driven approach, I’ve seen improved team morale, increased creativity, and stronger collaborations.
Embrace Vulnerability in Leadership
One invaluable leadership lesson I’ve learned from a successful startup founder is the power of vulnerability and emotional intelligence. I’ve incorporated this into my own leadership style, particularly at Technews, by being upfront about my challenges and really listening to what my team is going through.
I don’t just nod and move on; I empathize with their experiences. When leaders show vulnerability, it becomes a strength that promotes deeper relationships and a more engaged team. If you want to enhance your leadership capabilities, don’t underestimate the impact of emotional intelligence and the courage to be vulnerable.
Balance Authority and Inspiration
Sometimes, the best lessons are on what not to do. Often, startup founders lack the experience of working with other types of teams, where they are lower on the hierarchy. Then, when they start to grow, they lead according to preconceptions that aren’t always true. Some will lead well, but others will do poorly. I’ve worked with many startup founders. Some were clients, others were bosses or strategic partners.
The best lessons I’ve learned were about striking a balance between leading with authority, leading through inspiration, and letting people lead themselves. Great leaders exercise a situational leadership style. Every company, project, and individual will respond differently to different styles.
As a general rule, you want to be a bit more autocratic with inexperienced people, and more laissez-faire with highly experienced or highly motivated people who function best when you leave them alone. Keep in mind that people change and you need to adapt your leadership style accordingly.
Use a Resourceful Problem-Solving Approach
I once had a riveting conversation with a seasoned startup founder, Jane. She told me, “In the gaming world, much like in business, the rules can change overnight.” This struck a chord. One time, our esports tournament faced a last-minute venue cancellation.
Instead of panicking, I recalled Jane’s words and quickly mobilized our team. We transformed a nearby vacant warehouse into an immersive gaming arena within hours.
This experience taught me the importance of adaptability and creative thinking. Now, whenever challenges arise in our business, I approach them not as setbacks, but as puzzles waiting for innovative solutions.
Hire Experts for Stronger Teams
One valuable leadership lesson I learned from a successful startup founder is to always hire people who know more about a specific subject than you do. By hiring these skilled individuals, or “A-players,” your team becomes much stronger, and the business can grow much faster. This advice taught me to not be afraid of bringing in experts, even if they know more than me in certain areas.
I’ve applied this lesson in my own leadership by focusing on quality when hiring. I look for people who are experts in their field and can bring fresh ideas and knowledge to the team. This approach has helped my business become more innovative and effective, and it has created a culture where everyone is encouraged to learn and grow.
Consider Personal Growth as Success
The leadership lesson that I have acquired thus far did not stem from a startup founder, but rather from a Master Teacher. I have comprehended that authentic success is not exclusively gauged by one’s achievements or material possessions, but rather by the individual that one transforms into throughout the expedition.
To me, this is the ultimate priority – the capability to progress into a superior and more proficient version of oneself. I have assimilated this priceless perception into both my personal and professional life.
My utmost apprehension in life is the inability to fulfill my utmost potential as a human being, as this would be a personal disappointment.
Kentrell Parker, CEO, Philanthropist, Poet, Artist, Philosopher, Writer, and Fashion Designer, The Art Within You
Implement a Culture of Open Communication
A valuable leadership lesson I’ve learned from a successful startup founder is the importance of fostering a culture of open communication and feedback. Witnessing how transparent communication channels between the founder and the team contributed to innovation and rapid problem-solving, I’ve applied this lesson to my own leadership style.
I prioritize creating an environment where team members feel empowered to voice their ideas, concerns, and suggestions openly. This has facilitated creative thinking and adaptability and deepened trust and collaboration.
By embracing this approach, I’ve seen improved team cohesion, faster decision-making, and a culture of continuous improvement, ultimately propelling our startup’s success.
Embrace Uncertainty in Leadership
The ability to embrace uncertainty is one of the most important leadership lessons learned from a successful business founder. Their ability to handle uncertainty with poise and smart thinking had a lasting impression on my leadership style.
This lesson reinforced the idea that unexpected obstacles are unavoidable in the dynamic world of business. I’ve created a culture that values adaptation and prudent risk-taking to incorporate this knowledge.
I’ve led my team toward flexible decision-making and proactive problem-solving by realizing that uncertainties can present opportunities for innovation and progress. This change in leadership style has strengthened our resiliency while also enhancing our ability to succeed in the ever-changing corporate environment.
Learn From Failures and Setbacks
One leadership lesson I’ve learned from a successful startup founder is the importance of embracing failure as a learning opportunity. Rather than berating themselves or their team for making mistakes, this founder viewed failures as valuable lessons that could propel them towards success.
Inspired by this approach, I have applied it to my own leadership style by creating an environment where mistakes are not only accepted but encouraged. By fostering a culture that celebrates experimentation and risk-taking, I have seen my team become more innovative and willing to tackle ambitious projects.
The idea that failure is not final but rather a stepping stone toward growth has allowed us to push boundaries and constantly seek improvement. This unconventional example has taught me that failing fast and often can ultimately lead to greater achievements in the long run.