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Join our Mental Fitness Program

Negative emotions, including stress, are the result of self-sabotage. Mental fitness allows you to travel the startup journey with a positive mindset and boost performance.

  • Writer's pictureDaniel Kraft

Updated: Jul 8, 2023

Don't Mistake it for a Personality Trait

As your startup grows and you experience the pain of many people working together, somebody will inevitably propose a "test" to understand each team member's personality.

And, what is not to like about that? Understanding how the other person ticks makes it easier to work together.

It gets tricky when we start to define ourselves by that personality. "I am sorry, but that is just me." We excuse our behavior as a fact of life and not a choice.

Leadership by Personality is Destined to Fail

It gets problematic when we mistake personality for leadership. It happens more often than you think and has to do with the nature of our industry.

The founder often IS the company. You're the heart, soul, and engine of your business. Everybody joins YOU on that mission to change the world.

Yet, after some early success, you hit a wall. The business grows, the team expands, and the requirements change. What was once intuitively working is now failing.

Leadership is a Craft, not (just) Talent

Unfortunately, leadership is overloaded with noise. Many books tell the story of a great leader in retrospect and with a happy ending already have taken place. We look at those larger-than-life personalities and believe we must be superheroes to achieve anything close to their success.

And there is something to it. Great leaders are rare. Yet, we can actually learn leadership. It is reasonably simple to understand.

First of all, leadership is a craft, not a personality trait. Think of it like a toolbox. You have a hammer, a screwdriver, and several other tools. Regardless of who you are, if you like to get a nail into a wall, you should take a hammer.

Just like that, your leadership style is not about who you are but the situation. It is about the goal you aim to achieve. Let me briefly share some core leadership styles and how to use them.

The Leadership Styles

Visionary ("Come with me") Style: This is all about providing long-term direction and vision. You state the goals, provide clarity and allow the freedom of how to achieve them. It enables team members to understand why their work matters. Clarity is the key term here. Without it can be vague and hard to internalize.

Affiliative ("People come first") Style: This style creates harmony and a warm and friendly atmosphere. It makes team members feel valued as individuals, not just workers. But its focus on praise can allow poor performance to go uncorrected.

Participative ("What do you think?") Style: It's also called democratic leadership and generates commitment and consensus among the team. It enables them to build a shared vision, create ideas, and share responsibility. But sometimes, the price is endless meetings and a sense of being leaderless.

Coaching ("Try this.”) Style: This works well when employees are aware of their weaknesses and want to improve, but not when they resist changing their ways. Through coaching, you help each team member to be the best they can be. But only if they are willing to be coached.

Pacesetting ("Do as I do, now.”) Style: Leaders who set high-performance standards and exemplify them themselves have a very positive impact on employees who are self-motivated and highly competent. But other employees feel overwhelmed by such demands for excellence and the leader's tendency to take over a situation.

Directive ("Do what I tell you.”) Style: This approach can be very effective in a turnaround situation, a natural disaster, or when working with problem employees. But in most cases, it restricts flexibility and dampens team motivation. It gives clarity on what needs to be done and how. But it doesn't explain why.

As you can see, it has no magic - different tools for different situations. I am not saying it is easy, but at least easy to understand. What often happens is that we lean on the leadership style we're most comfortable with.

For example, who doesn’t like to be called a “visionary”? Making big ideas easy to understand comes naturally to many founders. But what about the teammate that struggles with the fear of making mistakes? They might need coaching from you to see how they can overcome their fears. And what about your co-founder, who believes in the vision, is highly competent, and is willing to go to battle every day? They might need pacesetting from you.

Leadership is knowing your tools. The fact is that with enough force, you can get a screw into a wall with a hammer :-) It is just not very efficient. To scale your business, you need to grow your leadership portfolio. Depending on the context of your business, your leadership style contributes up to 70% to the team climate, directly impacting your company's performance.

What is your comfort zone in leadership style?

Source: The leadership styles are based on "Leadership That Gets Results." by Daniel Goleman.

Many of us are trapped with the idea of our startup success as a yes or no question. Do I make it or not? The reality is that startups that work are the exception, and failure is the norm. We’ve worked with over 250 founders, and those who succeed often fail first. In other words, startups fail, but founders grow.

Hanging on to a failing idea is a mental drain. Accelerated by the never give up BS, our industry carries like a badge of honor. But resilience is not about enduring pain but maintaining mental clarity when shit hits the fan. I am not to glorify startup failures or suggest you give up faster. I am proposing to make peace with reality to increase your mental clarity.

Two Voices in the Founder’s Head

Let me share the two voices our founders mention in our coaching sessions when something doesn’t go their way. One is the inner critic looking for fault and ways to blame, often themself (I failed) or the environment (they don’t get it). The other voice is the inner sage, searching for opportunities (how can I learn from this?).

I really like the picture of the two voices. There is a fine line between the two, and the inner debate can get really loud. It shows that we have options. We can hang on to the past or accept reality as a fact. Switching the mindset from fault-finding to opportunity is such a powerful mental tool. It gives us a chance to focus on our creativity and explore new ideas - the essence of being a founder.

What are the voices in your head talking about?

Updated: Jun 8, 2023

The ongoing funding winter and the SVB collapse have put the spotlight on mental health for startups. It's a tough time out there. Julia, one of our founders we are allowed to work with, gave us an insight into today's reality of founders.

Julia runs a fast-growing platform startup on the US West Coast and we have been working together for several years. She was on the tail end of a fundraising cycle when all hell broke loose. Despite all the drama, she got her company funded.

Victory Week?

What could have been a great victory week pushed her into emptiness and exhaustion. What has happened? When her investors wired the funds, SVB - her bank - collapsed, and she was stranded. She had great news to share, and still no cash in the bank.

In her "get shit done" mentality, she organized new bank accounts and secured temporary cash for her employees. All while helping to sort out some technical platform challenges and closing a series of important deals.

Yet, all that activity added more to her fatigue. In our weekly coaching session, she was unusually quiet, with her eyes staring into the far distance. While her team sees her as the ultimate startup hero, she feels empty.

Mental Health is a critical aspect of (startup) life!

Mental health is not an event that may hit you or not. It is a critical aspect of startup life and requires our attention. Moments like the collapse of a bank or the crash of the funding market are unique in that everybody, even outside the startup community, got a glimpse into the daily reality of founders. While some observers ("I told you so …") focused on the "event", for most founders, it was just another day in the startup world. Or as Brad Feld summarized: "Something New Is Fucked Up In My World Every Day."

Take the Pledge

Brad also introduced me to the Founder Mental Health Pledge for Investors and Startup Leaders. I am supporting it personally, as do the teams of Moinland and several of the accelerators we support.

"We make a commitment to take an active role in encouraging mental healthcare for founders and the greater startup community. We pledge to encourage the founders we partner with to invest in their personal mental health and build a workplace culture that promotes mental health. Ensuring the mental health of founders and their teams is crucial and leads to the highest probability of startup success. We pledge to be supportive of founders treating the direct cost of caring for their mental health as a legitimate, worthwhile, and encouraged business expense – including therapy, coaching, group support, and app-based solutions. Founders should look at their mental health as a business priority."

Get Support

Julia is fortunate to have investors supporting her mental health, investing in coaching, and making mental support part of her development. If this is not the case for you, use the Founder Pledge to raise your investors' awareness and allow them to be part of the solution.

For practical support, we're running a mental fitness program for startups. All of the Moinland founders have taken the program and we believe it is awesome. Over the course of a few weeks, you're gaining practice tools to increase your mental fitness and resilience for a successful startup journey.

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