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Startup School – The search for gods and generals – Leadership and Greco-Roman tragedies: Lessons learned

John Whitney, the turnaround specialist and management professor at Columbia Business School, did an interesting, inward-looking exercise in his “In Search of a Perfect Prince” course. He asked students to look back at their lives and pick one instance each of when they were a follower, a manager, and a leader. The objective was to teach that more important than being a leader is the ability to recognize that all leaders sometimes have to become followers and managers. Their ability to handle this transformation is a measure of their effectiveness as a professional.

I am not denying that leadership has an impact. If you are destined to fail, bad leadership will get you there quickly. Great leadership will make for an interesting, educational, insightful, entertaining, longer, emotionally moving, and personally rewarding ride, but the final destination remains the same.

The point goes back to competitive advantage. With a great competitive advantage, bad leadership will be a handicap but not necessarily fatal. Without a competitive advantage, great leadership will be ineffective chemo against a tumor caught on tape too late. Leadership is the boogey man, the X-factor that we blame things on when we don’t know what else to blame. If you dig deep enough, you should be able to blame it on competitive disadvantage. Closely related to the concept of marginal leadership is hero worship.

Where do heroes come from? From owners’ and investors’ optimism and insecurity that there must be a clean solution to the problems they are facing that they can’t see – and someone else can. Heroes come in a bewildering combination of makes, models, colors, and upgrades. They can be found in vendors (please take care of my technology issues), employees (you are responsible for this function, right?), board members ( I am really hoping that you could open some of these locked doors for me through your network), personal demons (I  have failed before, I am not going to fail again), lenders (after running so much cash through this account, I am sure you will have no problems extending that line of credit for me), strategic partners (I can see the fit from a mile away, are you blind?), friends (I was counting on that contract), and family (you said that you would bear with me for the next three years until we get this right—what do you mean you can’t take this anymore?).

There is no life after Shakespearean tragedies because there is no silver bullet for success. Heroism is not portable, scalable, sustainable, or profitable. Reality is that if you hire an individual who you think will do a good job, there is an even chance that he will do a reasonable job by his standards but a crappy one by yours. As an owner, founder, and investor, you expect them to deliver on the vision (sometimes articulated, sometimes not) that you have lain before yourself; reality is that they may or may not get it at all.

Why do heroes fail? They don’t know where to begin, they wait too long, they carry too much excess baggage, they do too little, they compromise too much, and they often fail to notice subtle transitions that change the power structure around them. Heroes fail because organizations and institutions succeed only when they grow beyond personalities and individuals; by definition, “hero” implies reliance on a one-man army. If that fits with who you are, you may as well go home now and cut your losses.

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