The primary role of a founder is an artist, not a CEO

Too many founders see their primary role as that of a company or organisation builder. They focus on learning to be a great leader. They allow themselves and others to view the creative vision of the endeavour as an artefact, an output of the company.

This is a mistake. The primary role of a founder is that of an artist. The company, and any formal roles associated with it are secondary.

The artist CEO

All art starts within an artist. It begins with a yearning, an impulse to create something in the world. The vision of the end result may not be crystal clear, yet there’s enough passion for the artist to invest themselves in the idea and take the first step towards realising it.

Now, imagine an artist with a grand idea to create a huge piece of installation art in the vast Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London.

It’s going to take significant resources — people and materials — to make it happen. They create a company as a legal entity for the project. Using the company they can hire people to help; take donations and other funding; buy materials; and later on sell merchandise.

The artist becomes an accidental CEO. Even if they find a business-savvy colleague or agent to take responsibility for the business side of things, it’s still the responsibility of the artist to appoint that person and make sure that whatever is happening is working towards creating the art and nothing else.

If they don’t take responsibility then sooner or later the art will be compromised.

Like it or not, they are in charge. If the artistic impulse has come from them, it’s impossible for anybody other than them to be responsible.

In this example, it’s clear to see the two separate roles: The purely creative role of the artist; and the CEO role, responsible for leading the company supporting the endeavour.

It would always be clear to the artist that their primary responsibility is to make the art. Imagine how ridiculous it would be to start believing that the art was a product of ‘the company’, or that the company in itself was the thing. Clearly, the art is the thing.

Separate roles

Yet when we usually think about businesses and other endeavours, these two roles can become unhelpfully merged. ‘Holding space for the vision’ is seen as just one part of the role of a CEO, alongside all of the other aspects of leading a company or organisation. And the responsibility is seen as ultimately being in service of the company.

Worse still, an abstraction is made, detaching the founder-artist from their art. People will ask ‘what’s the vision of the company?’

A company is not an artist. It has no needs or impulses. Artists are human.

To create the best art, a founder needs to separate these roles and give priority to the purely creative role of taking responsibility for getting the vision ever clearer, and always taking the next step towards realising it.

Whenever the journey becomes about ‘the company’ the art is already becoming diminished.

Artistry first, leadership second

Founders should make learning about idea realisation their priority. Learning the principles and process that allows an idea to flow, and not get stuck.

Founders need to develop the character not of a hero entrepreneur, but that of a vulnerable visionary. Opening their unmet need and creative impulse up to the world. To deeply listen and to ask for help. To accept full responsibility.

Sure, it can also help a hell of a lot to learn about how to organise and how to lead. There are countless books to read about that. Yet it’s secondary to the artistry.

There will be tough choices to make along the way. Taking the next step to realise the vision might mean doing something that would make you a terrible leader. Are you willing to go there? What’s your commitment to your art? Are you willing to close the company altogether if that’s what’s needed to pursue the artistic impulse?

It’s fine if any of your answers to these questions are ‘no.’ If your art is simply to create a happy working community doing whatever it is they find fulfilling, then that’s what you can do. But if your art is bigger than the company then taking the next step, no matter what, is your duty.

Tom Nixon is the founder of Maptio, an online tool for anyone building progressive, creative, self-managing organisations where the focus is on realising a vision in the world. Get early access to the beta version by registering here. Tom is also available to advise founders on the vital, creative aspect of their role.

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