Leading Your Startup – The Command and Control Fallacy

There are a lot of myths about entrepreneurship. One is that startups need a strong authoritative leader who takes charge, sets the agenda, rallies the troops, and almost single-handedly takes responsibility for driving the venture forward. I call this the ‘command and control fallacy’.

Now, there’s no denying that startups need leadership. And vision. And focus. That’s not in question here.

What is being questioned is the ‘hero’ model of leadership. It’s certainly not the only way to lead, and not even the most effective. This isn’t exactly fresh news, but I think there’s often a temptation for people to fall back onto this style in fast-moving, stressful and ambiguous environments where there is a lot at stake … which is what startups often are!

What’s the problem with command and control?

  1. It isn’t effective. An exhaustive analysis by McKinsey & Co. (based on more than 115,000 people over four years) found that "command and control leadership – the still-popular art of telling people what to do and then checking up on them to see that they did it – is among the least effective ways to direct the efforts of an organization’s people"1
  2. It isn’t robust. Relying on one individual is risky – what if they are away, tired, sick or dead? It’s also difficult to scale since one person, not matter how capable or industrious, can only do so much.
  3. It’s based on flawed assumptions. Management doesn’t have all the answers upfront, and employees in a startup are creative, highly committed and more than capable of taking responsibility for their own contribution.

Moving to a better approach:

With a small team, big ambitions, and limited resources, startup ventures need to get the best from their people. Here are a few tips for avoiding the command and control fallacy, and adopting a more collaborative approach to leadership:

  • Only hire people whose character and competence you trust
  • Ensure each person has their own area of responsibility, for which they are (or can become) the expert
  • Mutually agree on goals, and encourage them to develop their own action plans to achieve them
  • Challenge their thinking in a constructive way and stretch their horizons about what is possible
  • Resist the urge to jump in and take over if they do things differently to you
  • Give people room to make their own mistakes and learn from them
  • Review progress as a team – what worked well, what didn’t, what was puzzling, what will we do differently?
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