The Selfless Leader


Build a company for your employees, not yourself

Run a company or manage a team? It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that you have people working for you. You have the final say, after all. But, for you and your company to succeed, your mindset should be the opposite: as a leader, you are working for your employees, and not the other way around.

Your primary job is to ensure that your employees can do their best work. This requires building an environment in which they can thrive, taking the time to communicate, and being mindful of their needs and how they want to work. While you can take lessons from your own experiences and preferences, it’s important to put others first. Don’t assume that everyone is like you and wants the same things. In my experience as a startup founder and team leader, I’ve learned these lessons first hand. Here are a few key insights:

Be empathetic

Great leadership is built on a bedrock of deep empathy. The age-old adage of “lead by example” is all about empathy: When a leader does the work himself, they are surely on the same page as their teammates.

The best leaders are almost telepathic. They communicate with their teammates with a bandwidth that is exponentially more effective than what simple language can convey. This skill is not supernatural to develop, although some are certainly naturally much better at this than others. Mind reading might seem like a dark art, but the fundamentals are easy to practice and master. Spend your entire day thinking from the perspective of others. Get inside their head and think about what’s motivating them, and what’s holding them back. Live in their shoes as much as possible. Spend most of your conversations with people talking about them, and as little time as possible talking about yourself. It can be really hard, but with practice it will become natural.

I recommend all startup founders read How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. There is a reason this is one of Y Combinator’s short list of four books recommended to founders. I have re-read this book about eight times, because I find it so useful for reminding myself to flip my view of social interaction on its head, and view everything from another person’s perspective. Once you’ve mastered empathy, all you need to do is add a little drive, direction, and vision, and a great leader is born. You’ll be able to get the most out of your team once you spend most of your day thinking about what they need instead of what you want. Without this kind of perspective, you simply cannot succeed as a leader.

Once you are in tune what your people need to succeed, the next challenge is creating an organization where diverse personalities and work types can thrive.

Be Adaptable

Founders should know not to put round pegs in square holes. Your employees will have varying needs, and a one size fits all approach will never result in a world class team. This is a challenging way to look at the company you founded, but remember: this is as much your employees company as it is your own. Being a founder is not glamorous or always rewarding. It means staying late on a Friday to clean the office because you can’t afford a cleaning person. It means paying your employees salary instead of your own. It’s putting others needs ahead of yours.

Your employees are giving up huge chunks of their life to your startup. Sure, they are compensated with salary and equity, but for those who truly go the extra mile, they are taking a huge risk and a huge gamble on you and your company. As 9/10 startups fail, odds are that their hard work will go down the drain (along with their equity!). Having someone work for you at an early stage startup is the ultimate form of flattery and trust. These people are basically investing in you, against all odds. If someone is going to take that kind of chance on you, the least you can do is set them up for success and put their needs first.

Of course there are times when an employee is simply not a good fit for a company, but I do not believe in building organizations filled by homogenous humans. Different personalities, cultural backgrounds, and perspectives are necessary for a company to reach its full potential.

A great example of a breakdown in leadership is an open office culture. Some employees love, it and some employees hate it. There’s plenty of arguments on the subject, but at the end of the day, different people have differing needs. As a manager, your job is to gather the opinions of your employees, and to some degree, cater to their preferences. Most engineers thrive in quiet, private spaces, while sales people seem to prefer a “buzzing” (read: noisy) open office environment. There is no simple solution to suit everyones different needs.

While it’s difficult to accomplish, it’s vital to find a way to accommodate these different work preferences. Don’t make this decision based on the group you like best, or worse: don’t let the loudest decide. Remember, this is about them, not you.

If you work hard to make the lives of your employees and colleagues better, you will be rewarded with the best that they can offer. They will invest in you, just as you’ve invested in them. Companies and teams are not defined by their leaders, but rather the continued effort and commitment of their employees. Put the people first, and you’ll achieve the best possible outcomes.

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