The style of a leader
When I was a kid, my dad and I would make a weekly pilgrimage to the television and tune into the next episode of Star Trek The Next Generation. We sat glued to the screen as Captain Jean Luc Picard would make heroic sacrifices and grand speeches about the Prime Directive. It was my first taste of what a leader should be, and it made an impression.
Picard showed that a leader should demonstrate no fear, no weakness, and never shed a tear. A leader should command from a place of authority and be fervently obeyed by his crew members. A leader should compartmentalize his work and personal life. And don’t even think about socializing with your subordinates!
As I grew up, my idols only seemed to reinforce this impression of leadership. Steve Jobs was famously autocratic, the lone genius bending Apple to his will. The same goes for Bill Gates, Andy Grove, and a whole host of CEOs that I admired. Surely, this was the way to lead.
So it’s no wonder that when I founded my company I joined the ranks of the many tin-pot dictators you find running around in Silicon Valley. Bark orders, say “make it so,” and show no weakness. That was the name of the game, and for a while it worked.
The early days of a startup feel like exploring deep space, with one false step resulting in catastrophe. However, as time goes on things become a little more certain. You start making real revenue, hiring domain experts, and you can finally consider taking a vacation. You’re not in life or death situations staring down Romulans every-day, but you can take a step back to contemplate the future.
At this point, everyone is bored at your style of leadership anyway. Your team wants autonomy, a real say in decisions, and a seat at the table. You’re finding it exhausting keeping up a brave face all the time. But what is the alternative?
It took me a long while to realize that yes, there is an alternative way of leading: through vulnerability. While there’s no doubt that authoritarianism can work, more often than not your team will end up hating their jobs, and quite frankly so will you!
So these days I try to do things a little differently. I delegate, I get buy-in, I seek feedback, I’m transparent, and I routinely share my worst fears about the company. By no means am I perfect, but I’m working on it. Showing vulnerability builds trust with your team. They’re all adults - they want to hear it as it is, rather than some manicured version of a reality nobody actually believes.
As for Picard, well in his very last scene in the series he sits down and joins a Poker game. Finally breaking his rules and connecting with his crew.