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Leading with courage, not with answers
In a pivotal moment, when everyone is looking for answers, what the leader must offer is courage.
“Your job is to lead the way, not to have all the answers”, I told a CEO once. “An information point employee at a train station is supposed to have answers. You, as the CEO, are supposed to lead.”
Every startup CEO learns this lesson at some point. At least, if their startup is to survive inevitable challenges and strategy pivots on their way to success. I remember struggling with this question myself years ago as I wondered how to lead the Makers team through a pivot away from making most revenues from our B2C operations and towards enterprise B2B services.
The team was concerned about shifting our focus to the B2B market. What if we sacrifice the quality of our training? What if we won’t put our students’ interests front and centre? What if we turn into a company that exploits students like some of our B2B competitors were doing? What if we lose our culture and our soul? What if we go out of business?
The truth is, in my heart I shared many of the same concerns. I was confident that the pivot to B2B is the right strategic move for the business, but it didn’t mean that I had all the answers or that the road there would be easy.
I also had a clear sense that while a pivot to B2B might be the right thing for the business, it might well lead to me leaving my own job. As I wrote in an essay on taking your seat as a CEO, “I recognised that for the next stage of Makers growth it needed a CEO with a deep understanding of our B2B enterprise clients. This was neither my skill set, nor something I wanted to spend the next decade of my career learning.”
While I had to lead the team, I also had to lead the board. While there was consensus on the necessity of the pivot, the board was divided about how to approach it. As a CEO, I had to lead, and yet I didn’t have all the answers.
Years later, as I was speaking to another founder who was considering a significant pivot away from their original mission, I could sense his concern. He was sure the pivot was necessary, and yet he hesitated. “Look,” I said, “your team cares about the original mission. And yet the reason they joined your startup and stayed for all these years is because they believe in you as the CEO. If you sincerely believe this direction is right and are willing to lead the way, your team will follow you, even if you don’t have all the answers.”
In uncertain times, everyone looks to the leader for answers. Their questions are reasonable, their concerns are valid and need to be addressed. Yet, what they are really looking for is not the answers, but reassurance that this leader is willing and able to lead the organisation into the unknown with courage.
Ben Horowitz writes about these kinds of impossible choices for CEOs:
“[W]hen a CEO faces a particularly difficult decision, she may have only a slight preference for one choice over another—say 54 percent kill a product line, 46 percent keep it. If the really smart people on the board and on her staff take the other side, her courage will be severely tested. How can she kill the product when she is not even sure if she is making the right decision and everyone is against her?“
The temptation in such moments for the CEO is to try to come up with many answers, hoping to get everyone on their side. While some answers may be needed, what’s far more important is to take a courageous stand and show the willingness to own the decision. Rudyard Kipling could have been talking about startup leadership when he wrote his famous “If —”:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too…
As leaders, we need to find our own conviction and clarity when our teams and our boards “are losing theirs and blaming it on you”. This doesn’t mean getting to a 100% conviction that we are absolutely right. After all, we don’t know. However, our job is to make firm decisions and be willing to lead even when we can’t be absolutely certain ourselves.
Ben Horowitz continues:
“Interestingly, as soon as Hamlet [the CEO] made the decision, the entire board and executive team immediately embraced the choice. <…> Luckily for everybody involved, he had the courage to make the right decision.”
The way to lead the team and the board through difficult decision is not by having all the answers, but by being willing to lead with courage and inner conviction. That’s what helps everyone embrace the leader’s decision.
This is what helped me lead the team at Makers through the pivot. While we had plenty of difficult questions to answer, I never doubted that the company’s future lies in serving B2B clients, and today that’s where most of our revenues are coming from.
This is what helped my client to lead his team in a direction that was considered unthinkable for years. It turned out that his team believed in him as a leader more than they believed in the old mission.
This is also the kind of leadership that Winston Churchill demonstrated when he delivered his famous “we shall fight on the beaches” speech.
In that difficult moment for the nation, Churchill wasn’t offering all the answers or even a comprehensive plan. Instead, he was offering clarity of what matters most — “we shall never surrender” — and courage to lead the nation towards victory, however difficult it might be.
This is leadership. When the situation is difficult and even deep inside we don’t know what the right thing to do is, what we must find is courage to take a stand and lead others there.
People don’t follow leaders who have answers. People follow leaders who have courage.
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