How to be an innovative leader

Anna King
05 June 2018
4 minute read

When you’re working flat out to get a startup off the ground, developing your own leadership skills can often take a backseat. In the early days, when it’s just you and one or two co-founders, you take it for granted that you’re all bought into a shared vision. But as your team grows, understanding how to inspire and motivate your people, while fostering a collaborative and innovative culture, can increasingly make or break your success.

A search on Google will throw up no end of leadership tips for CEOs of large, established businesses. But heading up a startup team is a whole different ball game. Less defined roles and responsibilities, an ‘all hands-on deck’ mentality, and the rollercoaster of extreme highs and lows, can make focusing on ‘leading’ all the more daunting. So, if you want to become a more inspiring startup leader, where do you start?

Know thyself


Despite the old adage that ‘leaders are born not made’, there is no one-size-fits all approach to good leadership – particularly in a startup. Everybody has the potential to be an inspiring leader, and studies have identified numerous different leadership styles that can be equally successful, in the right situation.

Common leadership styles include:

  • Transformational: Leaders who inspire staff through communication, focusing on team-building, motivation and engagement.
  • Transactional: Focused on having a clear chain of command and a ‘carrot and stick’ approach to reward. Great for productivity but this style can also stifle creativity.
  • Servant: The most altruistic of leaders, with a focus on power-sharing and collective decision-making. Great for morale but can face problems with authority.
  • Laissez-faire: As the name suggests, characterized by their ‘hands-off’ approach, allowing staff to complete their tasks in the way that works best for them.
  • Democratic: If you seek the opinion of the team before big decisions, this is you. It can mean high levels of staff satisfaction and engagement, but also cause delays.
  • Charismatic: Natural charmers, personality is everything with these individuals. A huge asset when they’re around, they can also leave a big vacuum when they’re not.
  • Situational: The most adaptable of leaders, these individuals can flex their style to suit the needs of any given situation.

Each style has its pros and cons, but the key is to recognise early on where you naturally fit and then build a team and culture that complements how you like to work. Understanding your own strengths and weaknesses also enables you to seek training or support in the areas where you feel less comfortable.

Be authentic


In the age of fake news, trusted and authentic leadership is more important than ever, and as the guardian of your own future, this is an area where entrepreneurs can naturally excel.

In her book Yours Truly, Margarita Mayo, defines authentic leadership as being true to yourself and others, to create trusting relationships. She then breaks authentic leadership down into three elements that all founder leaders can learn from:

  • Emotional authenticity: This is all about being confident, feeling good about yourself, living by your own standards and working within an environment that fits your strengths and weaknesses. Cultivate your passion and use it to influence others.
  • Behavioural authenticity: Understand that your leadership style is a work in progress. Focus on continuous improvement, while staying optimistic, fostering mental strength and maintaining control over your own destiny.
  • Social authenticity: Focus on creating a community, looking for ways to create a rapport and unity with your team, helping others to shine and develop. No egos allowed!

Create an innovative culture


Innovation is critical to any startup, particularly in the digital industries. If you don’t keep pushing the boundaries, you can be sure there’s another disruptor behind you who will. It’s a leader’s job to ensure that doesn’t happen by developing an innovative culture and encouraging innovative behaviours within your team. Research has shown that innovative leaders share a number of distinct traits, including:

  • Strategic vision: They display a vivid vision for the future and clear direction on how to get there.
  • Customer focus: Deep, almost obsessive interest in the needs and desires of the customer.
  • Creating a climate of trust: Innovative leaders are accessible and nurture a collaborative environment, where employees don’t fear mistakes or failure.
  • Fearless loyalty: They have unflinching loyalty to what is in the interest of both the customer and the business.
  • Supporting upward communication: They believe that the best ideas don’t come from the top but bubble up from the bottom and create an environment where that can happen.

So if innovation is your top priority, focus on incorporating more of these traits in your leadership style and how your business works on a day-to-day basis.

Look after yourself


Leadership isn’t easy and lots of founders talk about finding it lonely at the top, as nobody really understands what you’re going through.

That’s why, as well as focusing on your team, business and customers, it’s also hugely important to remember your own wellbeing, by staying healthy and giving yourself the time to take a step back and think.

One way of doing this is by working with a mentor, who has been where you are now, and can therefore help you cope during the tough times and support you in making those big decisions.

You can read more about how it works in our blog on why working with a mentor is a no-brainer.

And for founder health tips read our health and well-being hacks for entrepreneurs.

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