From Visionary To Leader

January 17, 2014

You’ve identified a great opportunity. Crafted a plan. Inspired talented people to join you and persuaded investors to put money into your fantasy. You are officially a visionary. Well done.


Now comes the hard part. Being a visionary is table stakes in building a great company. Vision is the license to play the startup game and the base ingredient for being a leader. The challenge that you face now isn’t easy–you have to lead. Leading is different. We’ve all met visionary thinkers who are terrible leaders. Just because you can paint an exciting picture of the future your company can create doesn’t mean that you’re able to lead the company to that vision.

So how does a founder make the transition from visionary to leader?

1. Build trust with talented people. Everyone says he or she wants to hire talented people, but founders are often intimidated by great talent. They want people who follow their vision, but true talent will challenge that vision. Perhaps you are concerned that people who have more experience and success may actually undermine your role as a leader.

The exact opposite is true. Fear of being undermined by talented people is the sure path to failure. It will either cause you to hire less-talented people or cause talented people to question your judgment. To transition from visionary to leader, you need to demonstrate your ability to attract experienced people who can bring key expertise to the company. If you can get them on board and excited by your leadership, you’re well on your way.

2. Determine what’s important. There are an infinite number of things to do at a startup. One of the hardest challenges is figuring out what’s most important and focusing your scarce resources on that topic. It can be a difficult struggle to transform your grand vision into steps that your team can act on. Nothing frustrates talented people more than working for a founder who fails to offer clear priorities and appears to shift the game plan haphazardly.

Becoming a leader means focusing your team on the key priorities. You need to build consensus on these priorities, set goals, evaluate performance against those goals, and change course when necessary. Great leaders build credibility with their team by making a plan, executing it effectively, and demonstrating that it was the right plan.

3. Be transparent (up to a point). Your team deserves the truth, and being transparent will build trust in you as a leader. Unfortunately, being a visionary means constantly being frustrated at the speed with which your vision becomes reality. This is part of the reason that being a founder is such an emotional roller coaster. Visionaries who show this frustration typically burn out their teams over time. While you are experiencing insane highs and lows, your team members cannot be whiplashed by that same level of volatility. They’re committed, but not nearly as committed as you, which is why they might run for the hills if you expose them to your every emotion.

Instead, dampen the volatility they are feeling while being honest and transparent. Not everyone needs to know every little detail of your recent rejection or of the company’s financial challenges. Don’t hide the truth, but don’t torture your team with details that are out of its control.

Vision is the reason your company was born, but leadership will be the reason it thrives. 

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