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Great Startup CEOs Are Servants, Not Kings

Great Startup CEOs Are Servants, Not Kings

Josh Linkner is on a mission to make the world more creative. Named the “Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year” and as a “President Barack Obama Champion of Change” award recipient, Linkner both inspires and entertains: in speeches and workshops alike, he provides powerful and practical techniques to jumpstart creativity, getting people thinking out of the box. He writes about the importance of staying humble as a leader, below:

Over the course of my investing career, the duds in my portfolios have been led by grandiose personalities. The guys at the helm of each of these companies have each acted like kings – putting their own interests first, staying at the center of attention, and talking a big game without a lot of follow-through, heads-down work. On the other hand, the companies that are performing the best are run by servants; it’s become apparent to me that great CEOs are not top-down leaders.  Instead, they are beholden to the overall mission of the company, as well as to each individual team member who works there too. When the company succeeds, so does its leader – likewise, when an employee grows, so too does her leader.

So how do you lead as a servant?

Empower and encourage others to achieve greatness. By allowing team members to reach their fullest potential, you’ve unleashed a power that you alone could never produce. That collective force is one to be reckoned with; this ultimate benefit helps everyone individually and as a unit. In order to do this completely, you’ll also need to remove obstacles that prevent others’ successes. This point is a bit more subtle but equally important – it ensures a clear path toward their own wins; when you’ve been through a pothole, you can help a team member avoid repeating that mistake, simply by dodging it with your own expertise.

Craft a vision, garner buy-in, and put frameworks in place to propel others to achieve the vision. Setting expectations toward an ultimate victory is crucial. Everyone needs a mission to get behind and a goal along their path. Without this, people are just going to be doing “busy work,” or taking one isolated task at a time, rather than as part of a comprehensive plan of attack. At that point, you may as well be paying people to brush their teeth or sort their laundry – they’re not doing anything worthwhile in the long run. To get people on board with one unified vision, even across departments or geographic regions, you’ll need to foster incredible communication. It starts with your ability to clearly articulate the good, bad, and the ugly, but you should also expect the same of your team members.

Lead without title. Great, you won a big, snazzy award – you can accept that trophy on behalf of your team, if you so choose, but only if the opposite applies too. If the toilet floods in your office, you should be willing to help fix that, as well. Your role as a leader should start with a willingness to do whatever it takes to win – whether it’s flashy and forward-facing, or gritty and in the trenches. Sometimes, this involves being a teacher. When your employees learn from you, everyone is advancing the ball. It also means being taught things from your team (and from outsiders, too). Being coachable and open to new ideas, with a bright outlook toward the future, will make you a servant leader.

Demonstrate, through your actions, a very high level of activity. It’s obvious to your team that you’re not passionate about the business if you come in late, leave early, or come up with excuses for dropping the ball. Why should they buy into something when you haven’t? Show your dedication in everything you do – you should never have to explain that you have put in your blood, sweat, and tears into a project. That should be obvious to everyone around you. Working hard isn’t enough though; you’ll need to execute, execute, execute. This is easier to manage (along with the 24-hours-a-day threshold) by creating leverage. When you can pull threads to make your day more efficient, you’d be silly not to do so… especially in a startup, where there’s just so much to get done.

Kings may have had their time in history and are revered (or hated) in the history books of centuries gone by, but in today’s time of ruthless competition and unparalleled speeds, it’s time to stop thinking of yourself in this kind of company. Instead, revere the men and women whose hard work and dedication built pyramids, overcame adversaries in battle, and grew bountiful crops to feed nations. These servants are the types of people who set the best example for you in your leadership. Aim to exemplify their behavior and you’re well on your way toward making the company worthy of a crown.

By Josh Linkner/, 2013