You Don’t Need to Be an Jerk to Be a Great CEO

Starting a company is hard for many reasons, but lack of experience in leadership can be one of the toughest parts. When I started Looksharp out of college, I had no experience working for other leaders (great or otherwise).

For other first time founders without much experience, there is very real risk of modeling behavior after myths in the media rather than those that actually build great organizations. Leaders often characterized as jerks dominate the headlines: Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Travis Kalanick, the list goes on and on.

Contrary to what legend may tell you, fear-based leadership is a dangerous strategy. Few founders possess sufficient genius that their teams will put up with that crap. Note: if you read the previous sentence and think to yourself, “but I DO have sufficient genius,” that’s a huge red flag. Even when great teams and products are built under this brand of leadership, it’s happening in spite of these conditions. Unlike living under an authoritarian dictatorship, people in startup land can leave for another opportunity in a heartbeat. So whether you’re an inexperienced founder yourself or working for one, it’s worth thinking about the leadership myths that might persist in your organization.

Myth #1: You have to be the smartest person in the room.

You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room. In fact, you shouldn’t be. If you are the smartest person in the room, you might be a brilliant, but you suck at hiring.

Your goals are better achieved and your company better served if you surround yourself with a team of people that can think differently than you do and come up with better solutions together than you could on your own.

Myth #2: You’re above spending time with any given person on your team.

Inexperienced CEOs sometimes think that they need to demonstrate status by ignoring more junior members of the team. This mentality rarely reinforces respect for leadership and can cause real damage.

Spending time with as many team members as possible helps you keep track of the pulse of your company and provides insight into parts of the organization you might not understand well, guiding decision-making.

Myth #3: You should never apologize.

Early on at Looksharp, an advisor/first-time entrepreneur told me never to admit my mistakes to my team. He had adopted a leadership myth. Admitting mistakes can feel like a signal of weakness and inadequacy. Sincere apologies in the event of real mistakes demonstrate that you have the confidence to admit when you’re wrong and that you recognize the impact on the rest of the team.

When you apologize for your mistakes, you foster an environment where your team can admit their mistakes. This recognition drives rapid learning, which leads to winning.

Myth #4: Your opinion is always the most important.

Part 1: Big Decisions

As CEO, you have the final say on big-picture decisions. That said, making the tough calls means considering other opinions. Let’s say you’ve debunked Myth #1 and surrounded yourself with a brilliant executive team, but you can’t convince them of a particular course of action. If you can’t persuade this group, then take the time to really listen with an open mind. Frankly, there’s a good chance you’re either dead wrong or you’re not sharing enough information. Remember, you’re likely not the smartest person in the room. Occasionally and crucially, the CEO’s job is making the tough calls even if you are a minority of one. Equally important is trusting your team, so make sure you deeply consider all sides before making the final call.

Part 2: Micromanagement

We’ve covered the big decisions, what about the hundreds of small decisions that get made every day? You can’t steer your company from 30,000 feet if you succumb to micromanagement. Pushing decision-making down into the organization, especially in people’s respective areas of expertise, provides the type of meaningful ownership that lead people to join startups in the first place. This model also creates opportunity for them to learn from their own mistakes. That’s the kind of the independence and autonomy that make startups such an appealing work environment.

When the above myths are adopted by CEOs they are typically born out of insecurity and exacerbated by the media’s obsessions with polarizing tech leaders. The best leaders seek mentorship, acknowledge their own inexperience, and learn from their teams. If you choose to lead through empowerment rather than fear, not only will you improve your chances of success, but you’ll gain the trust and loyalty of your team for years to come.

For further reading, I highly recommend The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh, a master in leadership who built a dynasty while coaching the San Francisco 49ers.